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Arts Commission votes to consider removing Civic Center statue

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After outcry, part of 19th-century Pioneer Monument could be on the way out

The San Francisco Arts Commission voted unanimously Monday to begin removing part of a 19th century Civic Center statue depicting the Spanish conquest of California at the expense of Native Americans.

[Update: Arts Commission spokesperson Kate Patterson-Murphy notes that technically the commissioners did not vote on removal. Rather, the vote was to initiate the review process described in Section 7 of the Guidelines of the Civic Art Collection of the City and County of San Francisco [...] to consider deaccessioning and/or removal of the “Early Days” sculptural group of the Pioneer Monument,” which may or may not lead to removal later.]

During their August meeting, the commission heard complaints about the 800-ton circa 1894 Pioneer Monument next to the Main Library, spurred by news about the removal of monuments to Confederate figures in other states.

Since it wasn’t on the agenda at the time, the commission couldn’t debate the statue then but said they would take it up again when they next convened.

On Monday, Commissioner Marcus Selby compared the Pioneer Monument to Confederate flags and statues in the deep south, saying, “I'm not going to let this happen here” before casting his vote.

Most of the monument—the parts featuring Gold Rush miners, the Greek goddess Athena, and allegorical figures of commerce and agriculture—garnered no complaints.

But the eastern portion, dubbed “Early Days” and depicting a downtrodden man in anachronistic plains tribe attire, provoked Native American groups for years because of the tribal figure’s defeated posture and the patronizing image of a missionary helping him up while pointing to heaven.

The city responded to a previous removal effort in the 1990s by installing a plaque at the statue’s base criticizing its 19th-century views—a plaque that is now mostly obscured and difficult to read.

A Facebook page dedicated to removing part of the Pioneer Monument called it a “white supremacist statue right here in SF.”

Activist Mari Posa launched an online petition calling for the statue’s removal, saying that she was “tired of seeing Natives depicted as savage, less than, not here anymore or unworthy of being human.”

The monument does have a handful of supporters. A commenter on Reddit complained after the vote, “Completely removing a statue that's been around since the late 1800s seems ridiculous.”

But of the dozens of speakers at Monday’s hearing, only two supported keeping the statue intact.

The commission vote is only the first in a series of steps that may eventually lead to the removal of the “Early Days” figures. The city’s Historic Preservation Commission takes up the matter next.

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