Will Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Bullfight Become a Game of Chicken?

Approaching Tuesday, March 17, as COVID-19 was spreading rapidly around New York, the Mayor’s Office asked that the community board for the financial district (Community Board 1) hold one last scheduled in-person meeting, despite the anxieties of members and staff.

The Department of Transportation wanted to fast track a long-pursued scheme to move the famous “Charging Bull” sculpture from Bowling Green to a spot near the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).

Photo by bantersnaps on Unsplash

The exchange itself has offered to pay for the move. In 2018, the local business improvement district, the Alliance for Downtown New York, published a special report, written by a committee co-chaired by NYSE President Tom Farley, that hinted at moving Charging Bull as the centerpiece of a plan to improve the aesthetics and “identity” of the area around Wall Street. The idea has a powerful lobby.

Ultimately, the Department of Transportation backed down and let CB1 cancel the meeting, but the agency continued to insist that the matter be a priority during the pandemic.

This month, the City asked to return Charging Bull to the committee agenda for Tuesday, May 19. Community board backing is needed to facilitate approval at the Public Design Commission.

Despite the frenzy to advance the project, city agencies refuse to provide any details until they can attempt to compel committee approval on the day the plan is made public.

Yet, no matter the specifics, the scheme has a glaring problem. City government does not own Charging Bull and has no apparent authority to move the artwork permanently. Indeed, it is one of the only artworks in a park that the City doesn’t own.

Charging Bull’s creator, Arturo Di Modica, organized the sculpture’s casting himself and surreptitiously placed it downtown on December 14, 1989. The Police Department then put it in a warehouse, but, after popular appeals, Parks Commissioner Henry Stern agreed to place it in Bowling Green on a temporary basis a week later.

Since then, the bull has remained a guest in the zoo of Lower Manhattan. The work is not listed as city property on any agency websites, it never received approval at the Public Design Commission, and the artist has done repairs and maintenance himself.

Nevertheless, almost immediately after its installation thirty years ago, the sculpture became one of the city’s most popular attractions. Under normal circumstances, thousands of visitors pose for pictures everyday. Standing on the cobblestones of Bowling Green and charging up Broadway, Charging Bull is undeniably one of the most recognized images of New York.

Art experts and cynical locals don’t give the Bull much credit. Some see it as kitschy and artistically inferior. Others distrust its popularity and allusion to capitalism.

However, the artist maintains that Charging Bull primarily symbolizes the strength of New York City and the United States itself. The bull’s deft, muscular stance evokes raw determination and willpower, traits that New Yorkers will need now.

Even as some scoff at the work’s merits and joke about its removal, it is risky to mess with success. Location is critical to the effectiveness of sculpture, and after thirty years, Charging Bull has succeeded at Bowling Green beyond anyone’s imagination.

To defend the project, city officials assert that the artwork’s presence has become a threat to public safety because its many visitors are at risk of a vehicular accident or terrorist attack. But, if the City was truly motivated by such fears, agencies could easily brainstorm solutions to reposition the sculpture or the surrounding streets (instead, the DOT intentionally made lane changes on Broadway that reduce space available to pedestrians). Furthermore, overtly linking Charging Bull to the stock exchange would only increase any dubious attraction as a terrorist target.

So far, city officials haven’t shown desire to dialogue with stakeholders in the Bowling Green Association or with the artist himself (who already felt insulted by the placement of Fearless Girl to satisfy State Street Global Advisors). The New York Stock Exchange and the Downtown Alliance are the only stakeholders who seem to have the privilege of working with city agencies. Arturo Di Modica wrote a letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio in February demanding he halt his plan. No one from the administration has responded.

Photo by Jouwen Wang on Unsplash

A heist would resonate with a Wall Street ethos of short-term deal-making that privileges hype and short-term profits over trust and long-term stability. The New York Stock Exchange’s theft of Charging Bull would be the physical manifestation of a ripoff culture of financial myopia, image obsession, and government capture.

It seems quite fitting that the New York Stock Exchange is now suffering its own scandal, refusing to answer press questions about FBI activity as Senator Kelly Loeffler, the wife of Atlanta-based CEO Jeffrey Sprecher, was accused of insider trading over coronavirus.

Unless Community Board 1 can show the courage to delay the plan and initiate a miracle compromise on May 19, the end result is likely to be an ugly game of chicken as the artist opposes the unilateral move of his life achievement, which he rightfully owns. Still, if the City can alter its approach, Di Modica might contemplate a fair deal that would permanently legalize the work and make it part of New York forever.

Failure to compromise would be an appropriate farcical turn for the de Blasio administration, which can sometimes seem too arrogant to even do its sleaze competently.

If struggling New Yorkers see the Mayor once again focused on an absurd and unnecessary conflict involving a sculpture, who is not a little girl or Mother Cabrini, they may charge Gracie Mansion themselves.

Todd Fine is the President of the Washington Street Advocacy Group, an organization that advocates for historian involvement in New York City’s public art.

President of Washington Street Advocacy Group; PhD Candidate in History at Graduate Center of City University of New York.