Public art isn’t what it used to be. As we remove historical monuments associated with racism and ethnic disenfranchisement from the American landscape, we force ourselves to rethink the goals of public art and to reconsider who we are as a people. Donald Lipski is well versed in the social and political controversies that often shadow a public art project from concept to ribbon-cutting. But little in his five-decade-long career prepared him for the challenges of his most recent project—a commission for the new police headquarters in the Philadelphia Public Services Building, housed in the historic Art Deco tower that was once home to the Philadelphia Inquirer. From its initial conception in 2019, Let Love Endure (2020) has undergone a profound transformation, its final form expressing an emotional and artistic evolution that responds to violence and inequality with a message of responsibility and a vision of justice.
Joyce Beckenstein: What made you shift from huge installations of tiny, ephemeral sculptures and large, object-based sculptures to a focus on public art?
Donald Lipski: After my son Jackson was born in 1992, my wife and I decided to try living away from New York City. I gave up my cavernous studio, the old Brooklyn Midway Theater, and all the objects and materials I’d amassed in the decade I’d been there. Around that time, Tom Finkelpearl, who ran the public art program for New York City, asked me to make a sculpture for a new school in Washington Heights. I created The Yearling (1993), a life-size horse standing on a 20-foot-tall, red child’s chair. Ultimately, the work ended up in front of the children’s wing of the Denver Public Library.
JB: How did the move impact your work?
DL: What I gave up was my truckloads of objects. For The Yearling, I bought a couple of toy horses and scoured for the right chair in the second-hand stores of Houston, where we were living that year. Later, as I began to use the computer as a tool, I no longer needed physical objects—or even to build physical models. Instead, I could search the Internet for images and Photoshop them together. My palette became infinite.
JB: Why didn’t The Yearling find a home in Washington Heights?
DL: The Yearling was approved and mostly fabricated when I learned of pushback from the predominantly Dominican community. They associated the horse with the history of conquistadores and oppression. Furthermore, when the school was in its planning stage, a guy from the local yeshiva stood up at a public meeting and said, “Why spend good money to educate animals.” The horse reminded people of that. I eventually understood that—as is often the case—people were voicing their displeasure with something else, not with my sculpture. Ultimately Tom offered to “trade” The Yearling back to me in return for a new work for the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, the “Fame” school behind Lincoln Center. When the Public Art Fund showed The Yearling in Central Park in 1997, Nancy Tieken, the Denver Art Museum curator and benefactor, bought it and donated it to the Denver Library. Sadly, the Washington Heights School got nothing. That was my initiation into public art.
JB: Has this sort of community resistance occurred with other projects?
DL: On occasion it’s been dramatic, even project-killing. But usually, there is nothing but enthusiasm.
JB: You faced unforeseen challenges with Let Love Endure (2020) for the Philadelphia Public Services Building. What happened while you were working on this project, and how did you respond?
DL: This sculpture was a very different, very soul-searching experience for me. In 2019, I was chosen to create an artwork for the lobby of the redesigned Philadelphia Police Department Headquarters in the middle of the city. I designed a giant badge studded with more than 1,000 actual badges to hang in the window, facing police officers and visitors inside, as well as people passing outside the building.
The Philadelphia Police Department describes the badge as a shield, a symbol of “public trust, honor, integrity, truth, justice, and service to the community,” and that became my starting point. Each badge featured an image of the original 18th-century Seal of the City of Philadelphia, which appears on every police car, city flag, and on buildings all over town. I based my design on one that hangs above the entrance to the Municipal Services Building across from City Hall, a beautiful 1966 relief by Philadelphia sculptor Dexter Jones. Then, in May 2020, George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered beneath the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis.
Philly had massive demonstrations following the murder. Though they were mostly peaceful, there was looting, and there were hundreds of arrests. Cop cars were set on fire. It was brutal. I was as outraged and sickened about George Floyd’s death as the rest of America. I delved into Philadelphia’s appalling racist history, feeling remiss that I hadn’t done this research before taking the job. Though I’d lived in Philly and knew it as a tough town for African Americans, I didn’t realize that the racism was so deep and systemic. A bronze statue of one-time police commissioner and mayor Frank Rizzo, a thug who believed in breaking heads, stood in front of the Dexter Jones seal I’d appropriated. During the protests, people tried to tear down the Rizzo statue, and Mayor Kenney removed it in June 2020, saying, “The statue is a deplorable monument to racism, bigotry, and police brutality.” These events made it ever clearer to me that the Black community understandably sees the badge not as a symbol of protection, but as a symbol of intolerance, fear, and exclusion.
Could I really make a sculpture for the police? I spent the whole summer of 2020 thinking about this. I thought of walking away from the project. But eventually I saw it as an opportunity to make something positive, a small gesture that could possibly help build faith and trust between the police and people of color. I wanted to light a candle, not curse the darkness.
JB: How did you do that?
DL: I tried to express the ideal of “equal justice for all” by changing some key elements in the colonial-era seal. I replaced the classical goddesses of Peace and Plenty with two extraordinary women from Philadelphia’s history. I represented Peace with Lucretia Mott (1793–1880), a Quaker abolitionist and suffragist who organized the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They wrote the Declaration of Sentiments, stating, “All men and women are created equal.” Mott holds a scroll with a quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911), an acclaimed abolitionist, suffragist, and poet, replaced the figure of Plenty. One hundred years before Rosa Parks, she refused to give up her seat on a trolley to a white man. Her poem “Bury Me in a Free Land” (1858) is excerpted on the wall at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Harper holds a cornucopia overflowing not with fruit, but with symbols of things that the disadvantaged sorely need—medical care, education, housing. Realist sculptor Christopher Collins modeled the seal; we cast it in fiberglass and gave it a metallic finish.
JB: Did the selection committee object to your changes?
DL: Quite the contrary. Everyone loved it, including the rank and file policemen on the selection panel. I also presented my revised plan to Commissioner Danielle Outlaw. She came to Philadelphia from Portland, Oregon, just before the pandemic and was most supportive of what I was trying to do. She also told me a story: when she arrived in Philadelphia, someone said, “Welcome to the city of Brotherly Love…and Sisterly Affection.” She wasn’t pleased, and that prompted me to reconsider another detail of my project, the city’s motto—Philadelphia Maneto—inscribed on the official city seal. On my redesigned shield, I initially translated the phrase to read “Let Brotherly Love Endure.” I was aware of the male-centricness of this, but I thought that the presence of two strong female figures made it OK. After talking with Commissioner Outlaw, I reconsidered and changed the inscription to “Let Love Endure,” the title of the sculpture.
I also assigned the number 2020 to every individual badge within the shield. This pivotal year in our history also marks the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment granting Black men the right to vote, and the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, when women won the right to vote.
JB: Given the divisive agendas within our country that often play out in confrontations with public art, what advice do you have for would-be public artists?
DL: Go for it. There is so much I love about creating public art. You can be intuitive yet need to be super responsible—these things will be there for generations. And though public artworks invite casual, accidental audiences, they can become beloved, frequently visited landmarks. After creating dozens of public sculptures, I’ve learned that with the help of great fabricators and engineers I can build anything I can dream up. It’s like magic.