Monday, November 12, 2007


For the past several years a foundation has been set up to oversee the fundraising for and design and construction of a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Mall in Washington DC about halfway between the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial.

The foundation is well on its way to its $100 million goal, and it recently announced the selection of the artist who would design, construct and oversee the installation of the centerpiece of the memorial—a 4-to 5-ton monolith made of granite on which would be carved images of the civil rights struggle that was Dr. King’s life work and which ultimately transformed America. So far, so good.

Lei Yixin, a well-respected stone carver, perhaps best known for his numerous larger-than-life statues of Chairman Mao Zedong was announced as the lead artist. And the granite that the monument would be made of? Also from China.

If you’re like me, this doesn’t sit well with your sense of the importance of place, of community, and of paying attention to things like symbolic acts. And if you’re like me, you’ll want to do something about it. Something like writing a letter to John Castaldo of the Barre Granite Association and telling him how much you support his efforts to get an American artist using American granite to create this American monument. Better yet, go to the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation website and where it says “contact us,” and do so. Let them know your thoughts.

The point here is NOT that Lei Yixin is a bad artist. Nor is the point that Chinese granite lacks some essential qualities that can only be found in American—especially Barre—granite. I recall from 9th grade geology that igneous is basically igneous wherever it’s from.

No, the point here is symbolic, which is why it’s become such a cause celebre. Do we believe that Martin Luther King’s monument should be crafted by an artist best known for his representations of one of history’s most repressive dictators? Should five tons of stone be pulled from the ground, carved, and then shipped 10,000 miles because it’s cheaper? What about the carbon footprint of that little task?! What about the insult to all granite quarries and workers throughout the country, of which some of the most notable are literally in our own back yards?

Most important, did anyone think for a moment about what Martin Luther King might have thought of this decision? Or was it purely a “how inexpensively can we get a good looking monument made out of granite” kind of a business decision?

Last week, along with the Governor and many other notables, and as the final act of a two-year “Art in State Buildings” project, we re-dedicated the 133 State Street State Office Building—the big marble one on the west side of the State House Lawn that used to be the headquarters of the National Life Insurance Company. Several people remarked that “they don’t make buildings like this anymore.” There was a time, early in the last century, when we built buildings and erected monuments that mattered simply because of what they represented. National Life was the most important private employer in the State for decades, and their headquarters was built to show off that stature. No expense was spared in building it, and the detail of the ceiling friezes and other decorative touches are matched only by the overwhelmingly solid construction values that allowed the state to occupy the building for more than 40 years with virtually no maintenance. Our 20-year old program added significantly to the interior work spaces with significant works of art commissioned from Elizabeth Billings, Andrea Wasserman, Nick DeFrieze, Emily Mason, and Eric Aho.

Built more than 80 years ago, 133 State Street is a monument to American industry, a monument to the effort of state workers who deliver as best they can on the promise of good government, a monument to the Vermont work ethic, and the visual cornucopia that makes Montpelier a great place to visit. It was built by private industry to last. It will be maintained to serve the public for the foreseeable future.

In a hundred years, what will we say about the Martin Luther King Memorial? That we were too cheap to honor one of the towering Americans of the 20th century with a work created by another American using American materials? I for one, believe that spending a few extra hundred thousand dollars to ensure that its done right, would be a most worthwhile investment.