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New York lets 'Fearless Girl' hold her ground, for now
Officials voted to extend the sculpture’s permit but are requiring stakeholders to return in six months with plans for a permanent location. Hilary Swift/The New York Times.

by Zachary Small

NEW YORK, NY.- The popular “Fearless Girl” sculpture will continue to stand outside the New York Stock Exchange after city officials voted Monday to extend the sculpture’s temporary permit for 11 months. This decision comes with the stipulation that the city, the owner of the sculpture and the artist return in six months with a process for deciding the artwork’s ultimate fate.

Although the vote has resolved worries in the short term, critics continue to question how the bronze sculpture circumvented the city’s normal public art process for five years. Critics also question why its hedge-fund sponsor, State Street Global Advisors, they say, tried to sideline the sculpture’s creator in discussions about the sculpture’s future. (The artist is in an ongoing legal dispute with State Street.)

“To overcome cynicism about growing corporate power, New York City must defend its public spaces,” Todd Fine, a historian who rallied support for the statue, said in an interview. “The decision today was a victory for basic fairness and for artist rights.”

In a statement Monday, State Street said “We are appreciative that the ‘Fearless Girl’ statue will remain at her current location in front of the New York Stock Exchange,” adding that given the outcome of the hearing, it would work “together with the Department of Transportation, PDC [Public Design Commission] and the artist regarding our desire to keep the ‘Fearless Girl’ statue at her current location for an extended period.”

In November, State Street had asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission to keep the work in place for the next 10 years, giving assurances that the company would fund its maintenance and repair. Instead, the panel voted unanimously to keep the sculpture on the historic cobblestones of Broad Street for another three years and deferred the ultimate decision to the PDC, a panel appointed by the mayor to oversee the city’s art collection.

The commission Monday seemed inclined to involve the artist.

“I want to hold people’s feet to the fire and resolve this,” Signe Nielsen, chair of the commission, said at the meeting. “How do we move forward here to enable this piece to remain in the public realm in addition to advancing a process where the artist is able to regain control over her piece?”

When “Fearless Girl” first appeared in the Financial District in 2017, it received a mixed reception. Where some saw the statue as a brazen act of corporate feminism from a company with its own history of gender-discrimination claims, others saw a symbol of economic empowerment. After the statue moved to the steps of the New York Stock Exchange, thousands continued to gather each year for a selfie with the girl holding her ground.

The statue’s popularity certainly weighed on the PDC vote, as did the ongoing legal dispute over the copyright and trademark agreements between State Street and the “Fearless Girl” sculptor, Kristen Visbal. In 2019, the company sued Visbal, claiming breach of those agreements and saying Visbal caused “substantial and irreparable harm” to “Fearless Girl” by selling replicas of the bronze. Visbal filed a counterclaim alleging that State Street has impeded her ability to spread the artwork’s message of gender equality.

“It’s just wrong what happened to me,” Visbal said about her deal with State Street. “I was hoodwinked.”

(State Street did not immediately respond to questions about the ongoing lawsuit.)

In an interview last week, Visbal said she is changing her legal representation after spending $3.2 million on the lawsuit. She said she still plans on releasing a set of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, based on the statue in the coming months to further offset her costs.

And because State Street directly applied for the original city permit for “Fearless Girl,” through the Department of Transportation, Visbal said she was largely excluded from discussions about the fate of her work — unusual in a public-art process that typically prioritizes artist opinions.

State Street has worked hard to ensure the future of “Fearless Girl.” According to state disclosure forms, the company spent $15,000 on the direct lobbying of Nielsen and Sarah Carroll, the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s chair.

Edward Patterson, a spokesperson for the hedge fund, said the company hired a consultant because of the city’s complex process for public art.

Meanwhile, elected officials have complained that their opinions on “Fearless Girl” were not considered before the PDC’s decision. In a letter to the panel, the chairperson of Community Board 1 said the hedge fund had not engaged enough with local residents.

“A major step in the public engagement process is being skipped now that review is underway,” wrote Tammy Melzer, the chair. “There are larger concerns about the precedent this sets for other applicants in sending a message that it is acceptable to sidestep Community Board and public engagement.”

City Council member Christopher Marte, a Democrat for an area that includes the Financial District, also wrote with concerns about the deal while supporting a permanent plan for the sculpture. “It does not seem viable for it to exist as a temporary work owned by a private entity indefinitely,” he wrote.

Public design commissioners seemed to agree with Marte on Monday, making clear in their statements before the vote that a limited timeline would force the artist, the hedge fund and the city to work together on a process for ensuring that “Fearless Girl” finds a permanent home.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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