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Northam Proposes Revamp of Monument Avenue

Ralph Northam speaks in front of statue of man on horse
Gov. Ralph Northam speaks in front of "Rumor's of War" on Friday. (Ben Paviour/VPM News)

Richmond’s Monument Avenue could be getting a makeover under a plan proposed on Friday by Gov. Ralph Northam.

The Democrat wants to create a commission and set aside $11 million dollars as an initial investment toward a comprehensive plan to revamp the street’s Confederate iconography.

All but one of the stately avenue’s namesake statues are gone, removed by contractors during the racial justice protests that rocked the city this summer. Northam’s proposed commission would help decide what to do with the spaces they’ve left.

Speaking beneath "Rumors of War," a statue by artist Kehinde Wiley in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Northam vowed to make Monument Avenue “welcoming for everyone.”

“It's one of the most beautiful streets in the country, and we're gonna make it even better,” Northam said.

The governor also wants to set aside $9 million for a slavery heritage site in downtown Richmond. That proposal -- at the Lumpkins Jail site, a former jail for enslaved people -- has already won support from Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and City Council. Northam’s plans call for $5 million to repatriate tombstones from the former Columbian Harmony Cemetery, a historic Black cemetery in Washington, D.C. The headstones were removed to make way for development. Some were sold and used as an anti-erosion tool along the Potomac River. 

Northam’s funding proposals require approval from the General Assembly. 

The governor’s plan calls for the VMFA to lead the Monument Avenue commission. That group would include artists, historians, and preservationists from around the world, according to the museum’s director, Alex Nyerges.

“We’re going to include obviously, voices from the community -- from the communities that have been oppressed by these sculptures for the last 130 years,” Nyerges said.

Nyerges called the $11 million investment a “down payment” on a plan that would likely end up costing “considerably more” than that.

The Northam administration’s attempts to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee -- the lone remaining statue on Monument Avenue -- has been bogged down in lawsuits. Northam’s Chief of Staff Clark Mercer said he expects the Virginia Supreme Court will grant the administration the ability to take down the statue sometime between February and April. 

That timeframe would allow the administration to plan a full event around the statue’s removal that could include performances, according to Mercer.

“We've had a lot of folks out of the circle over the months that have performed,” Mercer said. “We have been in touch with folks to curate a program, for lack of a better word, for the day that this happens.”

The statue’s base, whose graffiti has become an iconic global art symbol, would remain up, Mercer said. The administration would remove the statue’s current time capsule, which includes Civil War memorabilia, and replace it, he said.