‘Fear­less Girl’ stares down con­tro­versy

‘Charg­ing Bull’ artist says com­pet­ing statue sub­verts sym­bol of pros­per­ity; fans back gen­der mes­sage

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY RE­NAE MERLE

new york — Af­ter the 1987 stock mar­ket crash, sculp­tor Ar­turo Di Mod­ica spent two years and $300,000 se­cretly work­ing on a gift he hoped would lift the spir­its of a de­mor­al­ized city. He de­posited the 11-foot, 3-ton “Charg­ing Bull” statue in front of the New York Stock Ex­change in the mid­dle of a win­try night.

Today, that icon of Wall Street pros­per­ity is star­ing down an­other statue that has be­come a po­tent sym­bol in its own right — a pe­tite girl in high-top sneak­ers. “Fear­less Girl,” fists curled at her sides and face held high in seem­ing de­fi­ance of the gi­ant bull gal­lop­ing be­fore her, has drawn in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion since it was un­veiled last month and tapped into grow­ing frus­tra­tion around the strug­gle fe­male ex­ec­u­tives face ris­ing into lead­er­ship po­si­tions, par­tic­u­larly on Wall Street.

Di Mod­ica sees some­thing else:

“Fear­less Girl,” he ar­gues, has turned his bull into a sym­bol of male chau­vin­ism. His at­tor­neys said he may sue if the statue isn’t re­moved.

But the city isn’t budg­ing, and the stand­off has turned into a high-pro­file de­bate over the role of pub­lic art, in­ter­twined with vis­ceral feel­ings about Wall Street and the role of women.

The ori­gins of the two works of art could not be more dif­fer­ent. “Fear­less Girl” be­longs to one of the largest banks in the world, Bos­ton-based State Street, which com­mis­sioned the work last year as part of an ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign. The statue, the bank says, is part of an ef­fort to use its fi­nan­cial might to en­cour­age com­pa­nies to put women in more prom­i­nent lead­er­ship po­si­tions. (It ini­tially in­cluded a plaque that men­tioned one of the bank’s funds.)

Di Mod­ica says his statue was a work of con­vic­tion.

The 76-year-old gray-bearded sculp­tor has gen­er­ated some sym­pa­thy, par­tic­u­larly from other artists. Gabriel Koren, whose bronze sculp­ture of Fred­er­ick Dou­glass looks into Har­lem from Cen­tral Park, says she would be of­fended by an­other artist plac­ing a com­pet­ing piece of art near her cre­ation with­out per­mis­sion.

“Ev­ery sculp­ture needs space. That is the na­ture of sculp­ture,” she said. “If you put some­thing else there, it changes it.” “Fear­less Girl,” she said, is “cute,” but “you don’t stand up for women’s rights at the ex­pense of the artist’s rights. Each right is equally im­por­tant. I am say­ing this as a woman.”

Yet others say the mean­ing of Di Mod­ica’s bull be­gan to change long be­fore “Fear­less Girl” ar­rived. Dur­ing the height of the Oc­cupy Wall Street protests, New York City po­lice put bar­ri­cades around the statue to pro­tect it from de­mon­stra­tors.

“Let’s be blunt, the ‘ Charg­ing Bull’ is a cel­e­bra­tion of un­fet­tered cap­i­tal­ism,” New York Mayor Bill de Bla­sio said re­cently on WYNC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” “You could say it is about the spirit of optimism, sure — that’s what the artist was think­ing, that’s great. But it is a sym­bol of Wall Street. And Wall Street, to say the least, is a dou­ble-edge sword.”

This comes as the fi­nan­cial in­dus­try strug­gles to shed its rep­u­ta­tion as a boys club where women strug­gle to suc­ceed. None of the coun­try’s mega­banks, such as JPMor­gan, Bank of Amer­ica and Goldman Sachs, are led by women. Even State Street has been forced to ac­knowl­edge its own short­falls — the bank only has three women on its 11-mem­ber board of di­rec­tors and five women on its 28-mem­ber lead­er­ship team.

“We our­selves are be­ing chal­lenged on how do we help ad­dress” the lack of women in lead­er­ship po­si­tions, said Stephen Tis­dalle, chief of mar­ket­ing at State Street Global Ad­vi­sors, a sub­sidiary of the bank. “We’re tak­ing a very hum­ble ap­proach to this.”

“Fear­less Girl,” the bank says, was not meant to change the mean­ing of the bull statue but to cre­ate a po­tent sym­bol to show that women can — and should — be an im­por­tant part of the fi­nan­cial sec­tor.

“A grow­ing mar­ket is ex­actly what we want to have hap­pen,” Tis­dalle said. “The ques­tion is who pro­vides the tal­ent and who pro­vides the lead­er­ship to fuel that grow­ing mar­ket, and we be­lieve that women do.”

‘I am not against women’

The city has re­fused to re­move the statue, which has a per­mit to stay put for an­other year. When asked for com­ment, de Bla­sio’s of­fice pointed to a se­ries of tweets the Demo­crat is­sued af­ter Di Mod­ica com­plained the new statue vi­o­lated his rights. “Men who don’t like women tak­ing up space are ex­actly why we need the Fear­less Girl,” he said in one tweet. In an­other, he said, “We wouldn’t move the Charg­ing Bull statue if it of­fended some­one. The Fear­less Girl is stay­ing put.”

Years be­fore Di Mod­ica do­nated his iconic statue, he had de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for foist­ing gifts on New York that the city didn’t want. In 1977, again in the mid­dle of the night, he re­port­edly dropped sev­eral mar­ble stat­ues in front of Rock­e­feller Cen­ter and in 1986 he sneaked a big bronze horse in front of Lin­coln Cen­ter.

Di Mod­ica, who is from Sicily, cre­ated “Charg­ing Bull” in his Lower Man­hat­tan loft, then had it bronzed in a Brook­lyn fac­tory. Friends helped him put the black­patina bull in a truck and ma­neu­ver it into place with a crane in front of the New York Stock Ex­change.

Unim­pressed city of­fi­cials ini­tially evicted the statue, call­ing it a traf­fic haz­ard and a nui­sance be­fore re­lent­ing un­der pub­lic pres­sure and mov­ing it two blocks away.

“There it stood for 30 years and it be­came a very pop­u­lar icon. It has been said that the bull is the most vis­ited statue in New York next to the Statue of Lib­erty,” said Marc Gor­don, a part­ner at Space­smith, an ar­chi­tec­ture firm two blocks from New York’s Bowl­ing Green Park, where the bat­tle over the du­el­ing stat­ues is tak­ing place.

Di Mod­ica has re­peat­edly fought to pro­tect the statue’s rep­u­ta­tion. He sued Walmart and sev­eral other com­pa­nies for us­ing the bull’s im­age in ad­ver­tise­ments. When Ran­dom House put a pic­ture of “Charg­ing Bull” on the cover of a book about the fall of Lehman Broth­ers, Di Mod­ica com­plained again.

The bull, he has said, is not only among his most mean­ing­ful work, but a sym­bol of pros­per­ity that tran­scends gen­der. “I am not against women,” he said at a news con­fer­ence this month in which he ap­peared frail and was sur­rounded by his at­tor­neys. “I am against this ad­ver­tis­ing trick.”

Di Mod­ica owns the copyright to the statue’s im­age, his at­tor­ney Nor­mal Siegel said. But it un­clear whether he makes money from the re­pro­duc­tion of its images. Di Mod­ica’s at­tor­neys said the artist was not avail­able for com­ment.

“Fear­less Girl,” mean­while, is the byprod­uct of State Street’s ag­gres­sive ef­fort to ad­dress con­cerns raised by one of its big­gest cus­tomers: the Cal­i­for­nia State Teach­ers’ Re­tire­ment Sys­tem, the na­tion’s sec­ond-largest pub­lic pen­sion fund. The fund, known as CalSTRS, had be­come con­cerned that more women were not rep­re­sented on com­pany boards and lead­er­ship teams.

“Wall Street got started un­der Alexan­der Hamil­ton, and it was al­most ex­clu­sively a prov­ince of males and it has just con­tin­ued that way,” said New York Univer­sity fi­nan­cial his­to­rian Richard Sylla.

State Street be­gan look­ing for ways to in­vest in com­pa­nies that had women in prom­i­nent po­si­tions and set­tled on ex­change­traded funds, which are pop­u­lar with mom-and-pop in­vestors. The typ­i­cal fund tracks a bas­ket of stocks, al­low­ing the in­vestor to fol­low their ups and downs with­out buying each stock in­di­vid­u­ally.

State Street’s fund, known as SHE, tracks the stock of more than 100 com­pa­nies that the bank says do the best job in their in­dus­tries of putting women in lead­er­ship po­si­tions. Com­pa­nies with di­verse lead­er­ship teams per­form bet­ter over the long term and make bet­ter in­vest­ments, the bank says.

SHE was launched last year with more than $200 mil­lion in as­sets from CalSTRS, but State Street wanted to broaden its au­di­ence and be­gan work­ing with McCann New York on a way to draw at­ten­tion to the ef­fort. The bank says it con­sid­ered sev­eral op­tions be­fore com­mis­sion­ing Delaware artist Kris­ten Vis­bal to build a sculp­ture that would stand in front of Wall Street’s fa­mous bull in time for In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day on March 8.

“It could have been a woman [in­stead of a girl], but there is some­thing about the fu­ture in young peo­ple. We wanted a sym­bol that could rep­re­sent today and to­mor­row,” Tis­dalle said.

The statue im­me­di­ately de­vel­oped a cult fol­low­ing — and SHE has re­ceived a boost from in­vestors. At the spot where tourists have spent decades rub­bing the nose of “Charg­ing Bull” and climb­ing onto its horns, sud­denly “Fear­less Girl” fans were jock­ey­ing for the best po­si­tion for a selfie.

“Fear­less Girl’s” many fans say Di Mod­ica’s con­cerns are mis­guided. The new statue “does not de­tract from Charg­ing Bull and all that work stands for but, rather, calls for col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween men and women in de­ci­sion making,” Vis­bal said in an email. “There is room for both sculp­tures at Bowl­ing Green Park and to deny Fear­less Girl a pres­ence is to deny women in­creased vis­i­bil­ity in busi­ness.”

JEWEL SAMAD/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

“Fear­less Girl” faces “Charg­ing Bull” as tourists take photos out­side the New York Stock Ex­change. The new statue has ig­nited a de­bate about art, Wall Street and the dearth of fe­male ex­ec­u­tives.

JEWEL SAMAD/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE VIA GETTY IMAGES

Delaware artist Kris­ten Vis­bal’s “Fear­less Girl” statue was in­stalled March 7, the day be­fore In­ter­na­tional Women’s Day.

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