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A new exhibit at the Valentine ponders the Confederate monument problem and possible solutions 

click to enlarge Proposals to adapt the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue line the walls of the Valentine, hoping to spark further discussion and change. Visitors can vote on the proposals they like the best.

Proposals to adapt the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue line the walls of the Valentine, hoping to spark further discussion and change. Visitors can vote on the proposals they like the best.

Plant a hedge around the J.E.B. Stuart monument and eventually the bushes will exceed the height of the structure.

Sink the Robert E. Lee monument underground so that visitors walking down the avenue will be on equal perspective with the stone general — as the proposal's title, "Equality through Perspective," suggests.

While local government spins its wheels deciding how to grapple with the ongoing challenge of the Confederate monuments, a new exhibit at Valentine and the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design hopes to inspire civil dialogue by inviting artists to consider alternatives to the monuments.

These and other works were submitted as part of a Richmond competition, General Demotion/General Devotion, launched by a group of Virginia Commonwealth University students, a nonprofit design studio and two museums. For the national competition, a four-panel jury has selected 20 finalists whose work is now being displayed as storyboards at the Valentine with the remaining submissions digitally displayed at the museum. Ten thousand dollars in prize money will be dispersed to a winner chosen at the end of the exhibition.

The proposals, which are didactic renderings, rely heavily on text with images to provide context. Divided over two rooms, each proposal is printed on a foam-core poster board and hung adjacent to the others. This is one of those exhibitions that requires time and consideration from the visitor. It also demands a certain amount of license: There are no budgets listing cost-benefit analysis, revenue sources or long-term monetary requirements.

Likewise, a team of designers or artists put each proposal together, meaning that no focus groups, descendants or community members were consulted. These are essentially conceptual, hypothetical solutions to a problem. Proposals stretch from "Funeral Progression," which suggests the removal, reconciliation and regeneration of the monuments to "Bound," which allows for museum panels with historical context to be placed alongside the monuments.

"Center for Productive Conversations," which refers to artist Kara Walker's silhouette installations, similarly argues for context as it proposes to surround the Robert E. Lee monument with "artifacts of his story." "Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Memorial," replaces the monument with a nonrepresentational architectural structure that relies on natural light.

The youth competition, which received more than 60 works, was for high-school students in the Richmond metro area and required each submission to be a three-dimensional papier-mâché statue; the student competition will be exhibited in full at the Branch Museum of Architecture and Design. 

In June 2017, Mayor Levar Stoney appointed the Monument Avenue Commission — co-chaired by American Civil War Museum Chief Executive Christy S. Coleman and Library of Virginia Director of Public Services and Outreach Gregg D. Kimball — to grapple with a solution for the Confederate monuments. The scope of the project expanded after the riots in Charlottesville that August. Noting that the statues on Monument Avenue have been a source of "pride and shame" for Richmond's residents, the commission announced 10 solutions in July, including "an examination of the removal and/or relocation of some or all of the monuments."

But "General Demotion/General Devotion" predated the city's findings. The program behind the competition began in the fall of 2015 when the Storefront for Community Design, which operates on the belief that good design makes for a better city, started a new initiative with the Middle of Broad Studio: a three-credit interdisciplinary undergraduate course at Virginia Commonwealth University. The two entities have been working together for seven years so that students gain real-world experience by working with professional clients and clients benefit by receiving low-cost design services.

They secured a $30,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and put out a call in April for a national and youth competition titled Monument Avenue: General Demotion/General Devotion. Professionals from around the United States — mostly from Virginia, New York and the West Coast — and internationally, submitted 70 prototypes. 

Organizers invite visitors to vote for their favorites. However, besides a glib approval rating, it is difficult to determine a favorite based on aesthetic or ethical grounds. There is much more at stake here: the future of a city, the chance for reconciliation of a community and the larger identity for Richmond in the 21st century.

The value of these proposals isn't in final presentation, but in the dialogue that they initiate as they repackage the complex discussion surrounding Confederate monuments from abstraction into a productive reality that can be critiqued, studied and economically evaluated. Ultimately, in this present moment that relies on visual culture to aid literacy, the proposals offer people a beginning point to visualize a way forward.

The Valentine just recently closed its "Monumental: Richmond's Monuments (1607-2018)" which looked at representational and nonfigurative monuments throughout the city. Director Bill Martin says that with this exhibition, they hope to continue the conversation that exhibition began. 

"Museums by their nature document process," Martin explains. "If we can encourage the conversation that the community needs to have, that's the Valentine's role in this. The bigger decisions about who builds the next monuments, what that next monument is, what does Monument Avenue look like, [that] is a decision that's a corporate process that the community has to have together, because it can't be the decision of any person or institution."

"Monument Avenue: General Demotion/General Devotion" runs through Dec. 1 at the Valentine. Tickets cost $10 per person. For information, see monumentavenuegdgd.com.

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