The Ongoing Saga of the “Fearless Girl” Statue - The New Yorker
On Tuesday, December 14th, the artist Kristen Visbal gathered with a group of activists and local politicians next to her most recognizable work, the “Fearless Girl” statue, which sits opposite the New York Stock Exchange. The statue depicts a little girl standing defiantly, with her hands on her hips, and was initially placed in front of the “Charging Bull” statue, a few blocks away, though it was eventually moved to its current location, on Broad Street. Visbal’s statue was sponsored by the asset-management firm State Street Global Advisors as part of a campaign to promote the company’s commitment to gender equality. The permit allowing the statue to sit on city property had expired two weeks before the event; Visbal was trying to pressure the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which was meeting to discuss the matter that day, to extend the permit. Standing behind a lectern in a long, mustard-colored coat, Visbal argued that her sculpture was about more than a company’s corporate ambitions. She spoke about the importance of equal pay for women, discussed the fight for women’s rights in countries such as Afghanistan and India, and made the pitch that the statue was a symbol of the global women’s movement. “For the good of society,” Visbal said, “she must remain until these principles sink in.”
The statue has been mired in controversy since it was erected, in 2017. The previous year, Visbal was contacted by someone working with the advertising agency McCann, which was interested in commissioning a statue of a little girl. The agency intended to place the statue in front of the “Charging Bull” to call attention to “the glass ceiling regarding pay and promotion of women in the Wall Street community,” Visbal told me when we met in October, and the agency wanted it done in less than a month. Visbal did a series of sketches, and settled on an image of a girl in a dress and high-tops, with a swinging ponytail. She began to sculpt a model out of clay in preparation for casting it in bronze through a process known as lost-wax casting. It was at this point, according to court documents, that Visbal learned that State Street, which was a client of McCann’s, was sponsoring the statue. The sculpture was installed on March 7th, ahead of International Women’s Day. The little girl was hailed as a powerful symbol, and people lined up next to the statue to take pictures. It was also controversial. One local blogger called it an example of “fake corporate feminism.”
State Street, which is based in Boston, is one of the largest asset-management firms in the world, with $3.8 trillion under management. The company employed the “Fearless Girl” statue in part to promote a new index fund that purported to support gender diversity in corporate senior-leadership roles. In May, after the statue was installed, Visbal and State Street signed an agreement outlining their respective rights to the statue. According to court documents, State Street owned the trademark of the “Fearless Girl” name. Both parties committed to using the statue to further an agreed-upon set of “Gender Diversity Goals.” Visbal was permitted to sell copies of the statue, subject to certain restrictions.
In September, several months after the statue went up, State Street agreed to pay five million dollars to settle claims by the U.S. Department of Labor that it had systematically discriminated against female and Black employees through unfair pay practices. State Street issued a statement at the time disagreeing with the government’s findings and analysis, but saying that it was coöperating nonetheless. Yet the settlement raised the possibility that State Street’s motivations in sponsoring the “Fearless Girl” statue were more complicated than the company had suggested. The government had been scrutinizing State Street’s compensation practices for several years; “Fearless Girl” had come along just as the company would have been worrying about the effect of the discrimination charges on its reputation. A headline on CNN read, at the time, “Awkward! Company behind ‘Fearless Girl’ settles gender pay dispute.”
Nevertheless, the statue continued to draw crowds of people who spilled into the street. In April, 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the statue would be moved to its current position, outside the stock exchange. Throughout 2017 and 2018, Visbal sold replicas of “Fearless Girl” in several countries for prices ranging from $250,000 for full-sized copies to $6,650 for miniature, 22.5-inch ones. One went to a private buyer in Oslo, Norway, and another to the Australian law firm Maurice Blackburn. In January, 2019, Visbal attended the Women’s March in Los Angeles and brought a “Fearless Girl” replica with her. The following month, State Street filed a lawsuit against Visbal, alleging that the sales of the replicas weren’t approved by the company and violated their agreement and were causing State Street to “lose control over its reputation.” The company’s complaint notes that Maurice Blackburn had been displaying images of its statue while also referring to it as “Fearless Girl,” the name that State Street had trademarked, and that Visbal participated in marketing events in Australia promoting the replicas, allegedly in violation of their agreement. Visbal filed a counterclaim against State Street, alleging that the company was infringing on her rights. She says that she’s spent a little less than three million dollars fighting the claims in court and has been unable to take on any other commissions during the litigation. Visbal plans to release a non-fungible token tied to the statue, in part to defray her legal expenses. (State Street declined to comment on ongoing litigation, and said that the company “will continue to work diligently with the City of New York and all relevant city agencies to ensure [“Fearless Girl”] is permitted to remain.”)
Todd Fine, a Ph.D. candidate at CUNY Graduate Center who studies public art and who has become an ally of Visbal’s, said that the episode reflected poorly on State Street. “You have this great brand, you have the biggest marketing coup of all time, and then you proceed to beat down this artist to basically bankrupt her until she gives you her copyright,” he said. Fine believes that the city should renew the permit for the statue, but he’d prefer that the city take ownership of it, or replace it with one of Visbal’s replicas. To keep the original, he contends, would only give more space to a piece of corporate advertising masquerading as art.
Michele Bogart, an emeritus professor at Stony Brook University who specializes in the history of public art, told me that there had been conflicts surrounding corporate-sponsored public art works in New York City before. But the State Street example is “a much balder, more cynical, and, to me, revolting case of something that happens with some frequency to artists who work in the public realm,” she said. “In other words, artists get jerked around a lot, and that’s sad.” She went on to say, though, that she thought the “Fearless Girl” sculpture was, from an aesthetic perspective, “awful,” and that Visbal’s credibility was limited. “I don’t doubt that this company has taken her for a ride,” Bogart said. “But the fact that she wants to be reproducing it in different sizes, and travelling with versions across the United States, is also a very commercial thing to do. It’s a self-promotional enterprise—that’s what it boils down to.”
That there is an ongoing dispute over the rights to the figure only strengthens the argument for removing it, Bogart argued. “Why would the City of New York want to have on its property a work that’s contested like that, where the artist is accusing the sponsor of mistreating her?” she said. “I mean, with all of the concerns that the City of New York has, why would they in good conscience want something where one could argue the company is acting in bad faith?”
It’s against this messy backdrop that the city faces a decision about the fate of “Fearless Girl.” On the day of the Landmarks Preservation Commission meeting, Visbal had organized eleven or so speakers, including the New York State Senate candidate Vittoria Fariello; Mary Luke, of U.N. Women; Diane Burrows, the co-president of the League of Women Voters of the City of New York; and representatives of several other gender-equity-related nonprofits, to argue for the statue’s universal value. Later that day, the commission voted to renew the “Fearless Girl” permit for three more years; the discussion moves next to the city’s Public Design Commission, which may vote on the matter during an upcoming meeting. At the event, Cynthia DiBartolo, the founder and C.E.O. of Tigress Financial Partners, said that she had worked in the financial industry for thirty years. “She represents hope and inspiration for all of us,” DiBartolo said, of the statue. “She is no less a symbol than those great American flags flying above the New York Stock Exchange.”