The ‘Fearless Girl’ Statue Is in Limbo
When a bronze statue of a girl with fists on her hips first appeared at Bowling Green, a short distance from Wall Street, in 2017, her defiant expression captured the imagination of women looking for a symbol of economic empowerment. She became known as the “Fearless Girl” and found a new, though also temporary, home at the steps of the New York Stock Exchange in 2018, where thousands of tourists still gather every year for selfies with the four-foot-tall sculpture.
But is the “Fearless Girl” now facing eviction? Public officials have delayed a hearing on making the bronze a more permanent part of the city’s landscape. The sculpture’s fate depends on the Public Design Commission, a panel appointed by the mayor to oversee the city’s art collection. The group will not hold a hearing until December at the earliest. Meanwhile, the artwork’s three-year permit, with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, will expire on Nov. 29.
“We are being left in limbo,” said Kristen Visbal, the artist who created Fearless Girl.
A landmarks commission spokeswoman, Zodet Negrón, said that the agency typically would not issue a violation while a permit application is active.
The 250-pound statue was commissioned by the financial firm State Street Global Advisors to push for more gender diversity in the corporate world, and initially had a one-week permit from the city. It was a hit. Admirers posted thousands of pictures of it on social media, and prominent women like Chelsea Clinton and the actress Jessica Chastain applauded its message. However, detractors called the statue an act of “corporate feminism” and a “marketing coup” for a financial firm that months later agreed to pay $5 million mostly to settle gender discrimination claims.
The statue then moved to the historic cobblestones of Broad Street, overseen by the landmarks commission.
Last month, State Street requested a long-term permit from the commission that would keep “Fearless Girl” in place for the next 10 years. Olivia Offner, a company spokeswoman, said that the financial firm is committed to funding the statue’s ongoing maintenance and repair.
Normally, a statue looking for a permanent place in the city would begin its process with the Public Design Commission, which would help decide its design and location. In this case, though, the commission is weighing in four years after the sculpture hit the streets, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission will issue an advisory report to the design panel, which will decide its fate.
All this comes amid a dispute between the artist and State Street, which owns the statue, over their copyright and trademark licensing agreements. In 2019, State Street sued Visbal, claiming breach of those agreements and saying that Visbal caused “substantial and irreparable harm” to “Fearless Girl” by selling copies of the bronze. The artist filed a counterclaim alleging that State Street has impeded her ability to spread the artwork’s message of gender equality.
In an interview last week, Visbal said she has already spent close to $2.75 million in legal fees — money taken from the proceeds she made on the “Fearless Girl” copies. In December, she plans to release a set of nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, based on the statue to further offset her costs.
The artist has not been involved with the discussion on the fate of “Fearless Girl” in New York City, which is unusual for the city’s public art process.
That “Fearless Girl” remains in legal danger, some art historians note, is because the statue did not go through the traditional public design process in the first place.
“These things happen when the Public Design Commission gets circumvented or overlooked,” said Michele H. Bogart of Stonybrook University in New York, who served on the panel under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Bogart believes it shouldn’t be a matter for the landmarks commission. “There is something fishy to me,” she said, about a corporation like State Street working within that commission’s framework.
Offner, of State Street, said in a statement, “We will continue to work diligently with the City of New York to extend the permit.”
“Fearless Girl,” she continued, “has boldly reminded us of the importance of gender diversity in leadership” since she was first installed in 2017.
The debate has also arisen at the local level. “We don’t think the process was correct,” said Tammy Melzer, chairwoman of Community Board 1, which covers Lower Manhattan, adding, “‘Fearless Girl’ should be no different than any other piece of public art.”
While “Fearless Girl” faces an uncertain future, a permanent monument honoring the investigative journalist Nellie Bly is being erected with relative ease on Roosevelt Island. Because Roosevelt Island is run by a state corporation, installations like this one, “The Girl Puzzle” by Amanda Matthews, which cost $570,000, can circumvent the city’s public art rules.
There was a selection process and a public hearing, in this case, but the Public Design Commission was not involved. The artist has created the work, a sprawling installation that includes two reflective orbs and five giant bronze faces depicting the reporter and four other women based, in part, on Bly’s descriptions of patients inside the island’s asylum. Bly had gone undercover there in 1887 to write “Ten Days in a Mad-House,” an exposé on mental illness treatment.
Former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo made frequent use of a similar state corporation overseeing Battery Park City last year, building two monuments, including one to the Catholic saint Mother Cabrini, after feuding with Mayor Bill de Blasio over the city’s public art program.
But some art historians foresee a bumpy ride for “Fearless Girl” through the Public Design Commission, which next meets Dec. 13. (It would only discuss the statue if the landmarks report is received before that date.)
“This is a new type of public monument that was initiated as an advertising campaign,” said Todd Fine, a historic preservationist in Lower Manhattan. “It sets a precedent where corporate power extends through society and even our public artworks. That says something about how viral imagery has the power to even impact bureaucracy.”
Nevertheless, there is strong support for the sculpture. “We were honored when ‘Fearless Girl’ planted her feet squarely in front of the New York Stock Exchange,” said Josh King, a spokesman for the organization. “She has been a welcome neighbor, State Street has been a great partner, and we certainly want her to stay.”