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Memphis River Parks commissions world-renowned artist to create new artwork for Tom Lee Park

"A Monument To Listening" is inspired by Tom Lee’s heroism and is designed to spark self-reflection and conversation among park visitors.
Credit: Studio Gang and SCAPE

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Internationally acclaimed artist and social innovator Theaster Gates is creating a new artwork for Tom Lee Park. A Monument to Listening will display in two custom-designed spaces in the new Tom Lee Park. The artwork highlights Tom Lee’s courage and heroism to provoke and encourage conversation, reflection, and a path to community understanding.  

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has selected the commission for a $1.4 million grant as part of the foundation’s Monuments Project. The funding will support the design and construction of the artwork as well as funding a series of community-generated programs and events that will bring the project to life. 

Theaster Gates is an award-winning artist and social innovator based in Chicago. Trained as an urban planner, his work explores space theory, land development, sculpture, and African American history. Gates has exhibits across the world and is the recipient of numerous international honors. Gates’ organization, the Rebuild Foundation, is demonstrating the impact of ambitious cultural initiatives and interventions that transform community narratives and support artists without cultural or physical displacement. 

“A Monument to Listening is my attempt at leveraging the traditional monument to new potentials, while honoring and celebrating the heroic actions of Tom Lee,” said Gates. “I want Tom Lee to be remembered as the human who saw other human lives as equally valuable as – if not more valuable than – his own, and to invite people to visit the site and have the same encounter with their own humanity. This is my small contribution to the possibility of healing.” 

Credit: Memphis River Parks

Located in the lush Community Batture section of the new Tom Lee Park, the installation will comprise of two stone and brick plazas – a Point of Reflection and a Point of Redemption. Nearby, the 2006 figurative sculpture of Lee by David Allan Clark will remain and be connected to Gates’ installation by walking paths surrounded by native vegetation and plantings. 

The installation will be activated with a community-created program to include university professors, trained in partnership with the National Civil Rights Museum, as well as poetry and spoken word competitions at three levels: national, local and student. The competitions will be produced in collaboration with The Poetry Foundation, Shelby County Schools, the Orpheum Theater and local poet and University of Memphis professor Marcus Wicker. 

“This installation is an opportunity to provoke a conversation about Memphis and its future. It calls the tough question of racial equity and reminds us that a hero lives inside each of us, capable of acting boldly and selflessly, just like Tom Lee did in 1925,” said president and CEO of Memphis River Parks Partnership Carol Coletta.  

“Theaster Gates has an innovative and imaginative vision for the commemoration of Tom Lee, and we are excited to play a part in supporting this powerful piece of storytelling along the Memphis riverfront,” said Dr. Elizabeth Alexander, President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “This remarkable new monument will be a powerful example of how we hope our commemorative landscape across the United States will continue to evolve."

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