What 300 readers said about the MFA ‘Appeal’ statue controversy




Readers Say

We asked readers if they believe the museum is taking enough measures to address the controversy that surrounds the sculpture, as well as how they think museums should address controversial art.

“Appeal to the Great Spirit” by Cyrus Edwin Dallin sits outside the Museum of Fine Arts. Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Outside of the Museum of Fine Arts stands “Appeal to the Great Spirit,” a statue that has stood at the museum’s entrance for over 100 years. Opinions on the statue from museum visitors are divided. Some people see it as a symbol of freedom and strength, and others view it as an inaccurate and stereotypical portrayal of a Native American man.

Last week, the MFA announced a series of annual commissions that will serve as a form of “response” to “Appeal to the Great Spirit.” The first project will be an exhibit called “The Knowledge Keepers” by artist Alan Michelson, a Mohawk member of Six Nations of the Grand River.

“In 2024, I hope my site-specific installation will challenge ingrained stereotypes and racial myths by presenting a story of survival and agency, not defeat or appeal, and I thank the museum for supporting this work,” Michelson said in a statement.

The statue was installed at the museum’s front entrance on Huntington Avenue in 1912 and has assumed that position since. “Appeal” was never meant to be a permanent fixture of the MFA’s lawn, but it eventually became an icon of the museum, according to the statue’s page on the MFA website.

The MFA says that critics praised “Appeal” at the time it was created, but has since said that the statue perpetuates stereotypical portrayals of Native people.

“Today, the MFA’s interpretation recognizes that the ‘Appeal’ is based on an inaccurate accumulation of Native symbols and ultimately capitalized on the degrading myth of the ‘vanishing race,’ which portrayed Indigenous peoples as disappearing in the face of modern civilization,” the museum said in a statement.

Michelson’s project, set to be unveiled November 14, is the first under the Huntington Avenue Entrance Commission, the MFA’s new initiative that will invite artists to commission “site-specific” artworks for the entrance.

We asked readers if they believe the MFA is taking enough measures to address the controversy that surrounds the sculpture, as well as how they think museums should address controversial art. Responses from more than 330 readers were balanced — some believe that the art commissions will serve to bolster the history lesson “Appeal” provides, while others think that the statue should be recontextualized in a different way than the museum is proposing.

Some quotes have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Is the MFA doing enough to address the “Appeal” statue controversy?

The MFA is doing enough.

“The museum is doing a fine job of displaying and explaining art in the context within it’s original timeframe. Conversation around time, preconceived notions during those times, how times have changed, and how to display those changes are all noteworthy achievements.”

Amy F., Albuquerque

“The controversy actually contributed to educating the public. Without it, modern visitors wouldn’t know the inaccuracies. We can only move forward and understand the art was of its time, not now.”

— Paula I., Kittery Point, ME

“I appreciate the opportunity for Native artists to respond to the work. I think we can do more damage trying to erase the past an artwork in response to the statue and its original intention is a way for us to present the truth and help us heal.”

— Theresa, Chicopee

“The Museum is creating dialogue and that is a good way to include and encourage people to examine what’s really going on with the symbols around them. For every person who questions the statue there are just as many who take it in stride.”

Joanne, Granville

“It’s art. Interpret as you see it. If it bothers you, it has done its job. If it makes you feel good, it has done its job. Appeal to peace, appeal to freedom, appeal for food, water, and shelter. As Americans we need to stop erasing our past. This is a beautiful piece of art.”

Pamela J., Minnesota

“I think that by addressing the different perspectives and providing a counterbalance is important. I don’t think the statue was ill-intended, but ill-informed. I think it’s important to preserve the statue in order to give the counter that can educate and inform.”

Shelly, Westport

“The 100-year history of this art work argues for its continued placement in this prestigious spot. I like the idea that the museum will offer artists a chance to respond to it, thereby more powerfully raising visitors’ awareness of how art affects and changes attitudes than would happen by simply removing the offending artwork.”

Thayne R., Fort Worth, TX

The MFA is not doing enough.

“Why not remove the sculpture? Put something in its place that is less offensive and showcases the MFA’s commitment to being reflective and culturally competent.”

Martha G., Brookline

“Remove it from an honored place and put it in a historical exhibit. It’s vital to understand the story of the piece while recognizing that it is not an accurate representation.”

Asma, Waltham

“They should move the statue to another area within the museum with information and additional perspectives and artworks. The pedestals outside should be a rotation of old and new works.”

Kimberly G., Zion, IL

“Response art and the choice of artist is great, but keeping the original sculpture as central and as the symbol of the museum is trying to have it both ways. It’s way past time to move the sculpture indoors in a fully contextualized way and have the welcoming face of the museum not display known harmful (and sloppy) stereotypes. Better yet, have a plan to eventually phase it out altogether. I’ve been to plenty of Native-owned museums and it’s simply not true that this depiction was even honoring in its day, let alone 100 years later. Just cycling through responses while leaving the original in place is a great way to keep making money and good will off the work of, images of, and backs of the same people who are still fighting for land, autonomy and resources while perpetuating the idea that white men make objectively great art and everyone else just makes political statements.

Andrea, Brighton

“I believe the statue should be moved to a more out-of-the-way location and include a message written by a Native American describing the statue’s history, inaccuracies, and impact. I believe a new, more accurate and empowering statue should be commissioned from a Native American artist. Something that will serve to be welcoming to all.”

Lacy

“Education through docent-led tours, etc. should accompany the installments next to the sculpture. The educational materials should be written by Native persons from a Native viewpoint.”

Laurie E., Phoenix, AZ

“Remove the sculpture. Recontextualize it by moving it into the museum and installing it surrounded by the history and changing responses to the sculpture. Lean hard into the social art historical lens — that way the museum still gets to keep their highly objectionable mascot that they’ve made clear they’re going to keep on display no matter what while recasting it in a more enlightened context. If they wish to nod to the original installation out front, commission a Native artist to come up with something iconic to put in its place.”

Elizabeth, Brighton





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