Monumental decision to approve statue refurbish highlights shifting sensitivities

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – Local veterans of wars and armed conflicts faced a more bureaucratic battle in their attempt to refurbish a monument memorializing their service to this country. At a meeting of the town council yesterday, members of the American Legion Post 43 made last-minute concessions to appease electeds in order to get preliminary approval pending a ‘Big Brother’ check of imagery proposed for the new obelisk in the center of Washington Square Park.

Whether to blame fear of offending anyone, or too many cooks in the kitchen, or town government’s new 6-point ‘monument policy, nothing has yet been decided on the Town Square Monument now a year after it was first introduced.

August 6, 2018. One year to the day since members of the American Legion Post 43 came to the council to ask for permission to fix the memorial statue in the middle of the town square. At that time, local veterans were hoping to have the new monument finished for their 100th anniversary this November 11 for Veterans Day. That destroyer has sailed.

At that meeting a year ago, then-councilman Don Frank grew frustrated with the amount of red tape for something he thought looked pretty simple, saying the original statue was built in the 70s “without great handwringing and bureaucracy.”

Since then, members of the American Legion have been busy providing proof they could pay for the refurbish, getting blessing from Parks & Rec who would have to maintain the statue, running the design by a specially-appointed Public Art Task Force, and working with staff to comply with a list of criteria “pursuant to Section VI and VII of the adopted Monument Policy.”

Town leaders last night then heard from Post 43 members that they had successfully run the gauntlet—checking all 10 boxes of listed criteria, and working their way through the town’s new 6-step process that included scrutinization of budget, scope, artist selection, public outreach, and a doozy of a technical review stipulation reading: “The Monument Proposal [shall be] appropriate in scale, mass, design, and context vis-à-vis existing and planned architectural, natural landscape features, and, if applicable, vis-à-vis existing artwork within the proposed site vicinity.”

Statue of limitation legislation

In a climate where statues honoring figures and histories many now see as offensive are being toppled or defaced, the Public Art Task Force saw fit to flag the proposed imagery and quotes that would appear on the redesigned obelisk. They didn’t want anything that looked or sounded like war.

In presenting for the Legion, Commander Greg McCoy took said he didn’t think the images and quotes should offend any patriotic American.

“The Art Task Force recommends images be struck. We are strongly against that. One can find offense today in almost anything, including my uniform,” McCoy told the council. “I am more concerned about these user groups the Task Force is mentioning that may be offended or feel these images are not appropriate. I’m not sure I want these groups on our town square.”

The same sentiment was echoed by several Post 43 representatives and veterans including Joe Albright, who urged to council to get moving with a decision.

“There’s never been a monument built anywhere without controversy. There is bound to be an objection somewhere,” Albright said. “We could spend another 10 years on this to come up with something someone would disagree with. Let’s get on with it.”

How they voted

As a veteran himself and a member of the American Legion, Mayor Pete Muldoon recused himself from the proceedings.

Councilman Jim Stanford first questioned the quote by President Nixon chosen for the Vietnam War, asking how McCoy had come up with that one and whether there could not be a more appropriate quote found.

“No event in American history is more misunderstood than the Vietnam War. It was misreported then, and it is misremembered now,” the quote reads.

McCoy said the quotes were suggested and provided by former mayor Mark Barron and he wasn’t married to them. In fact, McCoy eventually agreed to lose the quotes altogether as electeds expressed concern for their necessity and possible divisiveness.

Stanford said paying homage to sacrifice and valor while maintaining a safe place of visitation and contemplation for tourists on the town square was a difficult decision and very personal to him. He related how his father served in the Vietnam War and the experience for his whole family was not a positive one.

“I’m not sure the imagery and the rhetoric of war have a place [in Jackson],” Stanford said before being interrupted.

“That’s what it was,” interjected a member of the audience.

Vice Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson reminded attendees that public comment period was over and Stanford continued.

“People who come from all over the world to enjoy the town square can relax and have a contemplative moment at this monument. They can remember people and honor people who have served and fought to defend the ideals and freedom of this country,” Stanford said. “They’re also free to contemplate [the notion that] maybe we wouldn’t have to have so many names on that monument if we had made better decisions as a country. And I’m serious about that.”

Morton Levinson started by saying she hoped American Legion members didn’t get the feeling the town was against changing the monument.

McCoy answered “no,” and that he respected all the council members, “even Pete.”

Councilman Jonathan Schechter said, “I guess the thing that has been tripping me up are the quotes. Images without the quotes might work better.”

Councilman Arne Jorgensen also waivered over the use of quotes but said he could live with images if they passed muster with everyone.

“This clearly needs to be updated. It’s past due,” Jorgensen said. “I do have some concern, especially about the quote from Vietnam. That particular quote, to me, could offend someone. I am willing to give the folks who have been working on this the leeway to include the imagery. To me, the names are what’s important here, but I don’t have a problem with the imagery.”

Schechter said he could live with that.

“I’d be comfortable voting for the imagery without the quotes. I would like to get the input of the public art folks to make sure the images…are as appropriate as we can make them to the conflict. I want to make sure it is done as aesthetically appropriate as possible without glorifying it, trying to capture the moment as best as possible without that sense of glorification or inappropriate flag-waving if you will,” he said.

“I came in tonight thinking it should be just the names,” Morton Levinson said. “I am persuaded by public comment to recognize the value of the images. I would be in favor of having imagery. I know you guys have vetted the images and picked the top ones but I would like to have one more go-round to make sure they are appropriate.”

The council voted unanimously to approve a pedestal base replacement and upgrade to the town square monument pending approval of the imagery to be included on the obelisk’s black granite panels.

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