By Dominic Fracassa
A controversial sculpture in San Francisco's Civic Center depicting a vaquero and a missionary standing over a fallen and nearly naked American Indian could be coming down as early as next week following a unanimous vote by the city's Board of Appeals Wednesday night.
The vote reverses the board's earlier decision and bookends a decades-long fight to remove what some critics have called a racist emblem of California's past.
"This has been a tough 30-plus years. But this is wonderful," said Dee Dee Ybarra, an Ohlone tribal leader who urged the commissioners to remove the statue.
San Francisco's Arts Commission and Historic Preservation Commission had both signed off on a proposal to remove the "Early Days" statue and put it into storage. But the plan was frozen after an appeal was filed by Frear Stephen Schmid, an attorney in Petaluma. Schmid argued that neither commission had the authority to remove the sculpture and that the decision was inconsistent with the city's standards for removing or altering historic artifacts.
The sculpture is one of five bronze statues that make up the Pioneer Monument, an 800-ton shrine to the settling of California planted between the Main Library and the Asian Art Museum.
The Board of Appeals sided with Schmid in April, largely on the grounds that the Historic Preservation Commission erred in approving the statue's removal because it would change the Pioneer Monument's historic character. But the appeals board granted the city a chance to make its case for removal one more time at Wednesday's rehearing.
The Arts Commission had originally proposed removing the sculpture last year after a demonstration in Charlottesville, Va., at the site of a Confederate statue. That rally, which resulted in the death of a counterprotester, started a national reckoning around removing historical monuments that, to many, glorify racial or cultural oppression.
At Wednesday's meeting, representatives of the Arts and Historic Preservation Commission argued that both bodies were acting well within the rights given to them by the City Charter when it comes to decisions about the city's public art collection. Before their vote, several Board of Appeals commissioners said they were gratified to have received a clearer picture of the city's rules and how they were interpreted.
The sculpture has been the subject of fierce debate for decades. Critics have long castigated it as an offensive celebration of the subjugation of American Indian people by white settlers.
But Schmid and others who have defended the statue argued that eliminating historic relics -- even deeply offensive ones -- deprive the public of an important reminder of the terrible events of the past. Schmid has vowed to press his case in either state or federal court.
Tom DeCaigny, the Arts Commission's director of cultural affairs, said the commission would begin working to take the statue down immediately.
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