How does a “recovering” public servant keep busy as she transitions into her next professional re-invention? She attends a community meeting about a project she helped set in motion while in office, puts on her journalist hat, and writes about it. A slightly shorter version of my report on a January 7 community meeting about the public art project commemorating the centennial of women’s suffrage was published in Cambridge Day (Women of Cambridge ascendant in politics, monument to 19th amendment takes shape).
Barely a week in, 2020 is already shaping up to be a banner year for women leaders in Cambridge. With the city council’s selection on Monday of Sumbul Siddiqui and Alanna Mallon as mayor and vice mayor, and with our hometown Senator Elizabeth Warren carrying the standard for women on the presidential campaign trail, young women do not have to look far for role models. And soon a public art installation in Cambridge Common will tell the story of women’s suffrage.
This spring, in honor of the centennial of the 19th Amendment giving (white) women the right to vote, Cambridge will announce the winner of a $300,000 public art commission to commemorate the women’s suffrage movement. Four artist teams are competing to create a permanent installation in a prominent location near the north corner of the Common opposite Harvard Law School.
At a community forum held on the evening of Tuesday, January 7 at the Citywide Senior Center, several members of the Nineteenth Amendment Centennial Committee and staff from the Cambridge Arts Council, the Cambridge Historical Commission, and City Manager’s Office shared a progress report on the public art commission and solicited feedback on the process.
Meeting facilitator Jennifer Mathews, assistant to the city manager, stated that the ten-member, all-female Centennial Committee has been meeting monthly since April 2019. In addition to touring and choosing among several possible sites for the artwork, they developed sixteen evaluation criteria to help shape and inform the creative proposals and to guide the final selection.
A top goal reiterated by many present is for the art to honestly represent and confront the complex and unfinished history of voting rights in America as well as to redress the city’s lack of public monuments recognizing the achievements of women. Several attendees expressed a desire for an installation that would serve as the basis for ongoing, all-ages programming about voting rights and democracy. The Centennial Committee’s youngest member, Sofia Bernstein, a 9th grader at CRLS, talked about her hope that the art would help young people see themselves as connected to history and represented as future heroines. Committee member Marian Darlington-Hope said that “Who?” is the question she hears most often, and that choosing one women to represent the suffrage movement was not the objective of the art. Rather, she expects the installation to speak more broadly to the question of whose voices are heard in a democracy.
The choice of the Cambridge Common was well-received by those present, some of whom noted that location will make the work more accessible to a wide range of visitors as well as to scholars working nearby at Radcliffe’s Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. Jane Kamensky, the Schlesinger’s director, sits on the Centennial Committee along with historian and retired Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court senior attorney Barbara Berenson, author of “Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement: Revolutionary Reformers” (American Heritage, 2018).
Lilian Hsu, director of public art for Cambridge Arts, explained that a jury with deep experience in public art commissions was appointed to select the four finalists from among the hundreds in the Arts Council’s public art registry. The jurors were Cecily Miller of Spark Art, multimedia artist Elissa H. Hamilton whose “Jukebox” work was chosen as the Foundry’s public art, and Stella Aguirre McGregor of Urbano studio.
The four finalists include two Cambridge-based teams: Mags Harries and Lajos Heder, a married couple whose portfolio includes installations at Fresh Pond Reservation and in the Porter Square MBTA station, and Azra Aksamija, an architecture professor at MIT. Also competing are sculptor Nora Valdez of Boston and Claudia Reisenberger and Franka Diehnelt of Merge Conceptual Design in Santa Monica, CA. Ms. Hsu noted that serendipitously all four teams have personal connections to gaining citizenship and the ability to vote in the U.S.
The finalists will attend the next community meeting on Wednesday, February 12 from 6-8 pm at the Citywide Senior Center. They must submit their final proposals by April 13 and present them informally at a community forum on April 29. The proposal materials will be displayed publicly between mid-April and mid-May. A to-be-named selection committee will make the final choice following a formal public presentation by the artists on May 13.
Because Cambridge Common is located in the Old Cambridge Historic District and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the winning proposal will be subject to final approval by the Cambridge Historical Commission. CHC Preservation Planner Sarah Burks, a member of the Centennial Committee, helped develop a history of women’s suffrage in Cambridge that is available as a resource to the artists. There will be a public celebration of the winning proposal in late August to mark the ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920. Fabrication and installation of the art is expected to take about two years.
One of the local finalist teams, Ms. Harries and Mr. Heder, attended the January 7 meeting to listen to the public’s questions and suggestions. Mr. Heder observed dryly that for most of the meeting he was the only man in the room. As the forum wrapped up, he was joined by Marlin Kann, a teacher at CRLS who is co-leading the #HerStory curriculum for high school students in parallel with the centennial events and programming initiative being planned by the “Women Vote 100” Committee. Led by Councillor E. Denise Simmons, the centennial events committee kicked off its series last September with a panel discussion on women’s voting rights called “Claiming Our Seats” (see video).
Three of the four women city councillors who co-sponsored the June 2018 policy order that set in motion the public art commission were present for parts of the forum: Vice Mayor Mallon, Councillor Simmons, and me. The City Council appropriated $300,000 in funding for the commission winner in April 2019. The amount must cover all expenses including design, materials, fabrication, installation and travel. Each of the finalist teams will receive $2,000 in compensation for their conceptual proposal and presentation.
Digging into the gender and racial history of voting rights during a presidential election year when voter suppression threatens democracy in many parts of the nation reminds us that the suffragists’ fight is not over. One bright spot: as of January 1, Massachusetts became the 14th state to make voter registration automatic for residents interacting with the Registry of Motor Vehicles and MassHealth.
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Jan Devereux City Councillor Cambridge, MA