Arts Beat: Proposed SLO monument raises questions about public art

Apr 25, 2019

The nonprofit Arts Obispo and a group of community members propose to install a bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt in San Luis Obispo’s Mitchell Park. But first, the city needs to decide if a formal monument policy is needed.

In January 2017, an estimated crowd of 10,000 people gathered in Mitchell Park at the end of the first Women’s March. Over 100 years ago, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt also spoke to a crowd of about 10,000 people in the same location. There is no sound recording of his 1903 speech, but Roosevelt’s San Luis Obispo speech touched on a number of early environmental principles.

“We wish to hand over our country to our children in better shape—not in worse shape—than we ourselves got it,” Roosevelt told the crowd.

A community project, in cooperation with Arts Obispo, aims to create a monument to commemorate Roosevelt’s visit, which they believe started the environmental movement on the Central Coast.

Today, Mitchell Park is a busy place, with a senior center, playground, large lawn and a gazebo. As project director John Ashbaugh explains, when Roosevelt spoke here…

“It was a sandlot baseball park—no trees, no grass,” Ashbaugh said. “They built a platform and decorated it with bunting. Most of the people in the county showed up to listen to the president speak.”

During President Roosevelt’s 1903 tour of California, he stopped in San Luis Obispo, and then went on a pretty momentous camping trip.

“It was just a week after Roosevelt was here that he was camping out with John Muir in Yosemite,” Ashbaugh said. “Then he set aside Yosemite Valley as a national park, he went on as president to create five national parks, 18 national monuments, he signed the antiquities act into law, set aside 150 national forests and numerous national wildlife refuges all over the country.”

Artist Paula Zima, whose work includes Mission Plaza’s “Bear and Child,” would create the statue, and, Ashbaugh says, it would be privately funded.

“He will be seated on a boulder and there will be other boulders around him that will encourage others to sit around him and have a conversation,” Ashbaugh said.

But since Mitchell Park is public space, the project is subject to review and approval by the city, and the San Luis Obispo City Council may decide to implement a “monuments policy.”

Monuments across the United States are under scrutiny. Some in California have become controversial, like the statue of Christopher Columbus in San Jose and the William McKinley statue in Arcata. Even more highly politicized are Confederate statues like the one in Charlottesville.

Leigh Livick volunteers in San Luis Obispo and spends time downtown. She spoke up about the idea of a Theodore Roosevelt statue.

“I’m not crazy about it,” Livick said. “I believe there are other options for a commemorative statue. I would really love to see a statue of Julia Morgan, I think she has a much greater impact on our county directly than Theodore Roosevelt.”

Livick said she favors diversity in our monuments.

“It’s definitely time for more women, more people of color,” Livick said. “We’re a big melting pot, not all just white men, so let's see a little bit of everybody out there.”

San Luis Obispo’s public art program is overseen by its parks and recreation department, and a monuments policy would start there. Lindsay Stephenson is the city’s recreation manager.

“We’ve begun initial research and a survey of what other communities are doing across the nation,” Stephenson said. “Do these cities have monument policies? Are they included in a public art ordinance, or are they a stand-alone policy? Or do the cities even have a policy at all?”

After the research is completed, Parks and Rec will ask for public input.

“Our next step is a tentatively-scheduled study session with the council on July 16, and at that study session we hope to get some direction on pathways forward.” Stephenson said.

On Sunday, the statue’s proposed site in Mitchell Park was crowded with children hunting for Easter eggs. And for them, a proposed statue of Roosevelt could just be another hiding place. But for others, it would take on a significance beyond that of public art.

To find out more about the proposed Theodore Roosevelt monument, visit artsobispo.org.

The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible with funding from The Coastal Awakening Project, conserving a spirit of creative experimentation among Central Coast inhabitants.