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No one seems to want Louisville's 200-year-old King Louis XVI statue

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Louisville, Ky., is trying to figure out what to do with a statue of its namesake, King Louis XVI of France. The nearly 200-year-old monument was gifted by Louisville's sister city of Montpellier, France, in the 1960s, but it was damaged during racial justice protests in 2020 at a time when cities across the country were rethinking controversial statues. Louisville Public Media's Roberto Roldan reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: They are around the corner. Stay ready.

ROBERTO ROLDAN, BYLINE: In May 2020, a sea of hundreds gathered outside of Louisville Metro Hall to protest the police killing of Breonna Taylor. One man climbed up onto the pedestal of a large statue depicting King Louis XVI.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) No justice, no peace.

ROLDAN: He placed his full weight on the statue, and the man and Louis' marble hand fell into the crowd. The King Louis statue remained on its pedestal throughout the summer, handless and covered in graffiti. The city took it down that September, and more than three years later, it remains in storage.

JESSICA KINCAID: I think that some might assume that we're sort of stalling. We just don't have an obvious solution at this point.

ROLDAN: That's Jessica Kincaid, Louisville's public art administrator. She says part of the reason the statue to Louisville's namesake hasn't been put back on view is a price tag. Repairs were estimated at around $200,000. Conservation firms found damage dating back much further than 2020, to its life in France and its voyage to Kentucky in the 1960s.

KINCAID: The stone material has veining in it, and some of those veins can release over time. The more you move such a heavy object, the more likely it is to have those veins release.

ROLDAN: Once in Louisville, King Louis also suffered from poor caretaking, and Kincaid said the freeze-thaw cycle of the Ohio River Valley hasn't been kind to him.

KINCAID: If something is a porous material, water and moisture can seep into it. And, of course, when it freezes, it expands.

ROLDAN: Like other communities across the country, the city is also grappling with what their public art represents. According to a survey from 2022, 40% of people didn't think the 18th century monarch represents their values. Many zeroed in on Louis' connection to colonialism and resistance to democracy at home. Others, like local Republican metro council member Kevin Kramer, says the statue symbolizes what the city's founders believed - that France's support was instrumental to the American Revolution.

KEVIN KRAMER: If it hadn't been for the French willingness to be involved in this, if it hadn't been for the distraction - I don't know how you overlook the significance and importance of that.

ROLDAN: Kramer says he wants the statue put back on display. Ninety percent of the people who responded to the city survey agreed, but they also differed on what that would look like. Put him back out headless for historical accuracy, one person said. Others said the damage and the graffiti should stay as a symbol of the 2020 protests. Katherine Ridgeway, a conservator at the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, says cities need to work with communities when deciding what to do with controversial monuments. And for some, leaving monuments graffitied and damaged can be the right decision.

KATHERINE RIDGEWAY: The goal with this was to sort of make a definition between vandalism that is for damage's sake and the idea that there is graffiti and vandalism that has to do with social justice movements.

ROLDAN: In Columbus, Ohio, just a three-hour drive from Louisville, residents and city officials have also spent the last three years debating a statue to their own namesake, explorer Christopher Columbus. Like Louisville, Columbus removed the monument from in front of City Hall in 2020, but the city recently received a grant from the Mellon Foundation to explore what contextualizing the statue might look like. Jennifer Fening with the city's department of development says they've hired a Native American-led design firm to tell a more nuanced story about Columbus the figure and Columbus the community.

JENNIFER FENING: We hope to design a space where the statue can be used to tell the stories of people who haven't felt seen and celebrated in our city and to articulate who we are as a community today in light of our namesake.

ROLDAN: Fening says Columbus will hold multiple public meetings in the coming year that will center the communities with the biggest stake in the conversation, Italian American and Native American residents. But back in Louisville, things are at a standstill. Preservationists say King Louis should only be displayed indoors. But Kincaid, the city's public art administrator, says local museums don't have a place to display a nine-ton statue.

KINCAID: It can't just be put into any building. There would have to be structural support, reinforcement of floors, having an access point large enough to get the sculpture through the door.

ROLDAN: For now, city officials say they've exhausted all options. Kincaid says discussions have moved on to what should take King Louis' place outside of City Hall and how permanent it should be.

KINCAID: Most public art programs are a little cautious, you know, to turn around and replace it with something else very permanent while we're still navigating that conversation that precipitated the removal of all of these monuments.

ROLDAN: The hope is to find a new namesake of sorts, something that can represent the community and its values in the present day. For NPR News, I'm Roberto Roldan in Louisville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Roberto Roldan
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