The City Hall portrait collection predictably features mostly staid portraits of old white men, and this doesn’t jive with new mayor Bill de Blasio’s sensibilities. According to the New York Post, de Blasio is seeking to spice up and diversify the walls, and a lot of people are pretty angry about it.
“You do not dismantle a major historical collection or remove it from the walls because it doesn’t appeal to your particular sense of taste or your particular idea of the city now!” seethed art history professor Michele Bogart, former vice president of the Public Design Commission (once called the Art Commission of the City of New York), which is the design review agency for the City and oversees the City Hall portrait collection. “It’s an absolute disgrace to take the efforts of staff of the previous administration and basically spit on them.”
The portraits depict historically significant former presidents, mayors, and military heroes with connections to the city, and the collection features the work of artists such as Charles Wesley Jarvis, John Trumbull, and John Vanderlyn.
Art historians believe that splitting up the works, while perhaps a politically correct move for de Blasio, is one that would destroy an irreplaceable collection.
On December 13, Bogart appealed to Facebook readers via the page of the Historic Districts Council, writing, “The portrait collection is a major repository of New York City history that is on view in City Hall (some are probably off limits, but c’mon). I’m saying major—many many portraits: governors, mayors, city officials, spanning mostly the early to late nineteenth century. Each portrait is notable for one reason or another, embodying the history of the city’s people and politics, and much more. Moreover, the Bloomberg administration made the conservation of these portraits a key initiative. It was huge, and largely unsung. Some of these portraits languished, black, in corridors. The conservator brought the color and vibrancy back, and staff researched as many of the portraits as possible.”
This isn’t the first time city officials have quibbled over the collection—in 2001, then-incoming city councilman Charles Barron wanted to remove a picture of Thomas Jefferson and replace it with one of Malcolm X, calling the third president a “pedophile” in reference to a relationship he had had with a young slave.
While no decisions have been made about specific additions or subtractions to the collection, several portraits have reportedly been taken down and stored as part of recent renovations to the building.
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