Lexington Mayor Jim Gray has decided to keep controversial statues of Confederate figures John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge outside the former Fayette County Courthourse, but wants to add historical context to the statues and more diverse public art to the courthouse square.
An arts review board recommended in November that statues be moved and that the space around the former courthouse be reimagined. The board wanted a diverse cross-section of Lexington to give input on the types of art and new statues that should be included.
Chris Corcoran, a senior adviser to Gray, told the Urban County Arts Review Board during its meeting Wednesday that Gray has decided the statues should remain but that more historical context should be added to the statues. Corcoran said Gray also agreed the area around the old courthouse should be reimagined and include more diverse representations of Lexington’s history. Corcoran said that redesign would have to wait until a proposed $30 million renovation of the former courthouse is further along.
“The mayor’s intent is to keep those statutes where they are and provide more context,” Corcoran said. “We are not pursuing moving the statutes.”
The board’s recommendations came after months of discussions and public testimony. But shortly before the board took its November vote, it was told restrictions connected to tax credits might prohibit moving the statues. The city hopes to use the tax credits to help pay for part of the courthouse renovation.
Gray had asked the board to review the placement of the statues after a vandal spray-painted “black lives matter” on Morgan’s statue in June.
The display of Confederate-era symbols — flags or statues of generals — on public property has been debated across the country since a white supremacist was charged in the shooting deaths of nine black people at a Charleston, S.C., church on June 17.
Morgan was a Confederate general. Breckinridge was a U.S. vice president, representative and senator who was expelled from the Senate after joining the Confederate army.
During the Nov. 4 meeting of the Urban County Arts Review Board, Lexington chief administrative officer Sally Hamilton told the board the city was planning to use federal and state historic tax credits for the courthouse overhaul. The credits are used to preserve historic structures. Making alterations to the structures —including moving the statutes — might not be allowed, Hamilton said. The city hopes to begin work on the exterior of the courthouse in the spring.
Corcoran told the board Wednesday that since the city has decided not to move the statues, the tax credit issue is moot.
More information about the courthouse renovation will be announced during a March 1 Urban County Council work session, city officials said Wednesday.
Some on the Arts Review Board said Wednesday they were disappointed that Gray and the city did not follow the board’s recommendations to move the statues temporarily until a new, more inclusive design was completed.
Artist Georgia Henkel, chairwoman of the board, said she was not surprised by the decision. The board had asked if the redesign of the old courthouse was going to affect the fate of the statues. The board was told to make its recommendations independent of the overhaul of the courthouse.
“There have been so many other cities who have been able to address this issue,” Henkel said. “It’s a poor reflection on Lexington. We will watch and wait, and this issue may come up again in the next few years.”
Board member Kurt Gohde, an artist who teaches at Transylvania University, said he had hoped the city would establish a firm time line for when new art would be included in the space and when more accurate historical markers would be added to the Morgan and Breckinridge statues.
“It seems dangerously like something that will just vanish,” Gohde said of the recommendation to reimagine the space.
LexArts president and CEO Nan Plummer, another board member, said the board would watch what happens to the space after the courthouse renovation is completed.
“We got a lot of people involved and informed on this issue,” Plummer said. “We’ll all be following what happens. We will ask some questions and take action when the time comes.”