Public Art, Cultural Battlegrounds or Opportunities for Understanding?

Make Way for Ducklings

Make Way for Ducklings
Hank Willis Thomas’s newest sculpture, The Embrace, a monument honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, debuted in Boston Common this winter.

Hank Willis Thomas’s newest sculpture, The Embrace, a monument honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, debuted in Boston Common this winter. We took a look at some of the controversial and beloved public artworks that once took its place.


Nuclear Energy by Henry Moore

“Like anything that is powerful, it has a power for good and evil”

Henry Moore

Most public monuments are inspired by good intentions. The Embrace a 20-foot-high, 25-foot-wide bronze sculpture by American conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King was a model of good intentions. Unveiled on the Boston Common after five years of careful planning in January 2023 at a well-attended, joyous ceremony that included members of the King family, Boston mayor Michelle Wu, and many other dignitaries, it was followed by an onslaught of jeers and ribald innuendo on social media and late-night TV from people who had only experienced the sculpture in two dimensions online. While some of the displeasure came from one member of the King family, it was overwhelmingly supported by the Black community, particularly those who were involved in the process of the artist’s selection, and the hundreds of BIPOC Bostonians who attended the dedication.

The Boston Common is the nation’s oldest public park, having been established four hundred years ago. Rich in history, the city offers many opportunities to encounter artists’ works that memorialize the past in three-dimensional form. Much of it takes on a traditional figurative style translated into fountains like the 1934 Boy and Bird by the Russian-born Boston artist Bashka Paeff (1889-1979) or the classic white man on a horse, bronze and granite equestrian Statue of General Joseph Hooker (1814–1879) by renown sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) seen on the Massachusetts State House Lawn.

One of the most beloved pieces of public art in Boston is the demure Make Way For Ducklings (1987) by local sculptor Nancy Schön (1928-). She was inspired by the children’s classic book of the same title by Robert McCloskey. At 38 inches tall the biggest mama duck and her caravan of ducklings make up in charm for what they lack in size.

Where a public artwork is situated in space can be intrinsic to its meaning and crucial to its acceptance or rejection by the public. Perhaps the most notorious negative reaction to public art in the 20th century was aimed at minimalist Richard Serra’s 1981 Tilted Arc.

This 12-foot high, 120-foot-long slab of rusted Cor-Ten steel slashed through the wide-open Foley Federal Plaza in Manhattan; a place utilized as a pedestrian corridor. The sculpture blocked the passage and the view of people who used it daily, which was a built-in part of the artist’s intention, to “redefine the space”. Serra elaborated, "It is a site-specific work and as such is not to be relocated. To remove the work is to destroy the work." Months after its installation in 1981 over 1,300 people had signed a petition for Tilted Arc’s removal. Sociologist Nathan Glazer, writing in The Public Interest, declared that Serra was “attacking the awful by increasing the awfulness. To the misery of working in an ugly and poorly designed building, it was Serra’s thought to add additional misery in the form of a sculpture that was ugly to most people… that obstructed the plaza, that offered no space to sit on, that blocked sun and view, and made the plaza unusable even for those moments of freedom when the weather permitted office workers to eat their lunch outside.” Public hearings and court suits and counter suits extended the legal battles for the removal of the sculpture for over eight years until its final demise in 1989 when it was moved in sections to a parking lot in Brooklyn. Later, it was moved to a storage space in Maryland where it remains today. Since Serra claimed the original site was the only place where it can be displayed it will probably never be seen again.

Henry Moore (1898-1986), another giant in the annals of modernism known for his works of public sculpture, was also the subject of controversy, but in his case, the outcome was the opposite of the Tilted Arc fiasco. Commissioned by the forward-thinking campus art program at the University of Chicago, Nuclear Energy a 13-foot-high bronze sculpture by Moore was installed in 1967 on the 25th anniversary of the first controlled nuclear reaction. The reaction was conducted by Italian physicist Enrico Fermi in a nondescript building on campus, near the site of the sculpture. This led to the development of the first nuclear bomb ultimately ending WWII. Initially, there was some public outcry about the sculpture. Moore was more thoughtful in his response than was Serra, stating, “Like anything that is powerful, it has a power for good and evil … the lower part [of the sculpture] is more architectural and in my mind has the kind of interior of a cathedral with sort of a hopefulness for mankind.” The university saw an opportunity to utilize this sculpture as a vehicle to channel the ongoing discussions concerning the pros and cons of nuclear energy today and details of this rich history can be found on their website.


Statue of General Joseph Hooker (1814–1879) by renown sculptor Daniel Chester French.

Back in Boston, The Embrace monument sits on a spot weighted with meaning. It was here, on April 23, 1965, that King addressed more than 20,000 people whom he’d just led on a freedom march from Roxbury to the Common to protest inequities Black people faced in Boston. The surface of Freedom Plaza surrounding The Embrace lists the names of 69 Boston and Massachusetts civil rights leaders who were active between 1950 and 1970, fighting to transform the state during one of the country’s most tumultuous moments in recent history. Like sculptor Henry Moore before him, Hank Willis Thomas has taken a step back from the debate swirling around his work. His tribute was intended to express the love between revered husband and wife civil rights activists Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King. Waxing philosophical in a recent article for TIME Magazine, Thomas reflects, “Well, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. I guess my general point, my belief, is artists learn through critique. The artwork becomes multidimensional through critique, and people’s perspectives of art change over time. There are things that we love that over time we get tired of, and there are things that we’re not quite sure about at the beginning, but over time, we love. And the fact that the sculpture of mine is being discussed alongside the Eiffel Tower, the Vietnam War Memorial, and Statue of Liberty and Washington Monument – those things are timeless works of art. So, I pray that this work will be around in 40 years so that I will finally be able to have a fully resolved perspective of it.”

About the Author

Cynthia Close

Cynthia Close holds a MFA from Boston University, was an instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and former executive director/president of Documentary Educational Resources, a film company. She was the inaugural art editor for the literary and art journal Mud Season Review. She now writes about art and culture for several publications.

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