Mar 12, 2023 - News

Women underrepresented in Chicago public art

Photo of a statue of a woman wearing glasses

Children play around the statue of Gwendolyn Brooks, sculpted by Margot McMahon, in Chicago in 2018. Photo: Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

If you judged Chicago's respect for women by the number of its statues depicting them, you might think females were still second-class citizens.

By the numbers: As recently as 2015, Chicago parks hosted zero figurative statues of women, but 48 of men.

Why it matters: Public monuments often reflect the values of a society and whom it deems worthy of a lasting material legacy.

  • And those worthy people continue to be mostly white men.

The big picture: No comprehensive, up-to-date ledger of American public art installations exists, but researchers agree that women and people of color are deeply underrepresented nationwide, Axios Local's Chelsea Brasted writes.

State of play: Several recent efforts, including a WBEZ Curious City project and a performance by female arts group The Wing, have highlighted the problem in Chicago, and asked residents about which women they think deserve a statue.

Between the lines: Chicago's director of public art Lydia Ross acknowledges the dearth of female figurative statues, but she hopes people can appreciate works that commemorate women in other abstract styles.

  • This includes the "Helping Hands" monument by artist Louise Bourgeois, installed in the Prairie District's Women's Park and Gardens in 2011, to honor social reformer and activist Jane Addams.
  • Rather than offering a likeness of Addams, the sculpture depicts five pedestals holding disembodied hands, which has disappointed some.
The "Helping Hands" statue of six gray slabs of rock with sculpted hands on each.
"Helping Hands" by Louise Bourgeois. Photo courtesy of Chicago Park District

What they're saying: Ross hopes the piece can "challenge assumptions about public art and make people ask why the artist made this choice."

She also shared some of her favorite works commemorating women in Chicago:

Richard Hunt's "Light of Truth" (2021), dedicated to Ida B. Wells at 3729 S Langley Ave.

Kerry James Marshall, "Rushmore" (2017) mural honoring several Chicago female trailblazers at 78 E. Washington St.

Mahalia Jackson Court: "It's not a single object, but a new public gathering, performance, food and educational space in Chatham dedicated to honoring the legacy of Mahalia Jackson," Ross tells Axios.

  • "The space features mural work by the incredible Chicago artist Dorian Sylvain, along with a maquette of the future Mahalia Jackson monument by Gerald Griffin, plus work by Chicago artist Bernard Williams. I'm excited to see how this space evolves and grows as a public art destination."

What's next: The city is supporting five new women-based works as part of the Chicago Monuments Project Advisory Committee plan released last year. They include:

  • A Mahalia Jackson memorial by the Greater Chatham Initiative
  • A monument to "events and people that have shaped the Latina/x experience in Pilsen."
  • A statue created as part of the Mother Jones Heritage Project
  • A monument to Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable and wife Kitihawa of the Potawatamie tribe
  • A work about Black women and girls as part of A Long Walk Home

Tell us: Which Chicago-area women do you want to see honored in public art? Email us your nominations.


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