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How did a Nazi revisionist message make its way into a piece of public art?

The artwork on display near Tacoma, Washington, is being modified before its unveiling

A piece of public art in a Washington city is being modified before its grand unveiling due to a historically inaccurate statement about Nazi Germany included in the design. 

The original design was laid out in the agenda for a November 2021 Lakewood city council meeting. The Gateway Arcs, as the art piece was named, was described in meeting notes as consisting of “two separate arc shapes, resting on a compacted gravel base.” The inside of the arcs would include slats bearing messages submitted by the community.

Among the messages that found their way into the finished piece was a historical mistruth: “Every evil thing the Nazis did was a direct result of their socialist beliefs and socialist policies.”

Among the first actions of the Nazi Party upon gaining power in 1933 was the forced liquidation of both the Socialist Democratic and Communist parties. Prominent business owners were also among the key supporters courted by Nazis before and during their reign. Although the Nazi Party’s official name was the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, its far-right politics had nothing to do with socialism.

The project, built by Seattle-based artist John Fleming, was given a budget of $140,000. 

The offending message was spotted by a Lakewood resident, who informed the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America about it. Zev Cook, a Jewish DSA member, said the message was interpreted as “a form of Holocaust denial.”

Cook tweeted about the message, expecting it to get some attention from other party members, in advance of a planned protest at the scheduled April 1 unveiling. But the tweet went semi-viral, getting retweeted over 2,100 times and accruing almost 20,000 likes. Shortly after the tweet was sent, the city issued a statement on its own social media accounts stating that the panel containing the message would be removed. 

“The piece was commissioned to reflect and celebrate the voices and stories of our diverse community,” the statement read. “We value and celebrate our diverse community. We apologize for any harm that was caused by inclusion of this statement on the art piece.”

Fleming spoke to the Forward as he was getting into his car to remove the offending statement. He said the majority of submissions were inoffensive and contained sentiments such as “I love the sunsets” but that one or two were “somebody’s political view.”

Although Fleming said he does not agree with the statement, he noted that it could be read as opposed to Nazism. He added: “We weren’t trying to filter what people wrote or pass judgment on it. Obviously, this one needed to be filtered out.”

Fleming added that it’s likely the statement on Nazism will be replaced with another, less offensive submission. 

Brynn Grimley, a spokesperson for the city, said it was unclear if the message was vetted by any city representatives before they were sent to Fleming and called the incident a breakdown in communication.

“It sounds like not everything that we received was reviewed by city staff and we did not review anything before the final piece because once we commissioned the artwork, I think that was kind of the end of our involvement in telling him what to put on it,” she said.

Cook said she didn’t believe the Lakewood city council appreciated the gravity of the statement making its way into the artwork. “It seems pretty clear that they don’t really think it’s a big deal and are only removing it because they’re catching a lot of negative PR about it,” she said.

She pointed to a Facebook exchange in which Mayor Jason Whalen defended the project as a whole. The mayor described the message regarding Nazis as “one slat statement by one person out of over a hundred voices from the community … it will be removed and replaced. Don’t toss the baby out with the bath water. Public art should invoke conversation and debate. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be funded or exist.”

But Grimley said that even though the city staff may have been “a little naive” when it came to soliciting the messages from the community, a valuable lesson has been learned that will ensure there is no repeat of the incident in the future.

“I think we understand the severity of it,” she said. “We weren’t aware of it and as soon as we were, we immediately called the artists and said this needs to be removed. I think the intent of this piece is to celebrate our community and not to cause harm to others and we value our diversity, we value the various cultures.”

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