Baltimore suddenly has a surfeit of empty sculptural plinths. Overnight, Mayor Catherine Pugh and a fleet of trucks removed four Confederate monuments with a quickness not seen since the Colts skipped town. While other cities fret over what to do with Lost Cause memorials that are increasingly targets of ire and vandalism, Baltimore appears to have put the issue to rest.
With the statues gone, only opportunity remains. What can the city do with those empty (and now graffiti-covered) pedestal plinths? Baltimore could do worse than to take a page from London’s Trafalgar Square.
Back in the day, statues were planned for each of the four corners of Trafalgar Square, but the money ran dry in the mid-19th century. Pigeons now have their choice of British generals Henry Havelock and Charles James Napier or an equestrian of King George IV for stooping. Missing is a statue of King William IV, which the city never got around to installing. For more than 150 years, the plinth on the northwest corner sat incomplete.
Today it is home to the world’s greatest placeholder. The Fourth Plinth, a program conceived by the Royal Society of Arts in the 1990s, invites contemporary artists to figure out something new to do with the spot every year. It launched in 1999, with Mark Wallinger’s imperious Ecce Homo, a life-sized figure of Christ wearing a crown of barbed wire.
A few iterations later, the city decided to run with the program, which is now operated by the Mayor of London’s culture office. Eight different Fourth Plinth proposals have been realized since 2005, from the comically surreal (Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, a recreation of HMS Victory all corked up under glass) to the conceptually tilted (Antony Gormley’s One & Other, in which members of the public were invited onto the plinth to do or say pretty much whatever they wanted for one hour).
Up since last September: David Shrigley’s Really Good, a big bronze thumbs-up, which appeared just in time to congratulate everybody for the great work on the #Brexit vote.
Now Baltimore’s got four empty plinths, each one of which could serve as an empty stage for the city’s artists. Not that they’re waiting for an invitation: One artist erected a giant papier-mâché sculpture of a pregnant woman made from old copies of the Baltimore City Paper in opposition to the Confederate memorial in Wyman Park Dell well before the rally in Charlottesville.
Four simultaneous contemporary-art programs could be overkill. It might be asking too much of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts to operate a First, Second, Third, and Fourth Plinth. But in the meantime, while the city figures out what’s what with these empty pedestals, giving them over to chance, creativity, and inspiration would be a welcome change of pace.