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Broad Art Museum exhibit comments on legacy of Spartan Statue, representation

October 12, 2023

Masculine, athletic, white, 9.7 ft. tall. These are all traits that define the Spartan Statue. These traits do not, however, define all Spartans. 

This perspective is explored in "Resistance Training: Arts, Sports and Civil Rights," a Broad Art Museum exhibit that features artwork examining the Spartan Statue’s legacy and how the statue represents — or rather, falls short in representing — students at MSU.  

Upon entering the exhibit, the north wall grabs the eye. On it is a piece from the MSU historical archives titled "Three members of the softball team check on Sparty." The piece, which spans the whole wall, is a black and white staged photograph depicting the statue being sculpted by its creator, Leonard Jungwirth. Below Jungwirth and Sparty are three women looking up at the statue, awestruck. 

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Section of "Resistance Training: Arts, Sports, and Civil Rights" at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum. Photo Courtesy of Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum

"There’s a clear kind of hierarchy in the photo,” Senior Curator Steven Bridges said. "That was 1944. There was a very different cultural perspective on the roles of men and women.”  

Despite the role of the women in the photo, Bridges pointed out that in the photo's original caption, the women were identified by name.  

“They didn’t have to do that, but they did,” Bridges said. “Those names of those women kind of continue and persist in relationship to that photo, so they are also preserved in that way too, which I think is also kind of a bold and interesting statement.” 

Bridges said that during the opening of the exhibit on Sept. 8, one attendee coincidentally noticed that his mother was one of the women in the photograph. Because her name was in the caption, the person was able to verify it was their mother. Bridges said this was a powerful moment that spoke "to the preservation of that person’s identity." 

Another piece next to the photo builds on the concept of identity and the role of public monuments in contributing to people’s sense of identity. 

The piece is titled "Spartan Skin," and was made by Los Angeles-based multidisciplinary artist, Young Joon Kwak, who was the artist-in-residence of critical race studies for MSU’s College of Arts and Letters during the 2020-2021 academic year.  

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"Spartan Skin" by Young Joon Kwak at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum. Photo Courtesy of Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum

The piece, which consists of metal sculptures and prints, is based on silicone molds taken of fragments of the statue, according to the College of Arts and Letters website. 

“I was tasked to create an art project and exhibit it on campus that would engage the community around issues of race, identity, gender and sexuality, and stuff like that,” Kwak said. “But, (during the pandemic) when there were so few bodies on campus, I decided to turn to the Spartan Statue, which was this ubiquitous symbol of the campus.”  

Kwak, who is transgender, said although the statue "was this kind of exemplary body for campus pride, it wasn't exemplary for me, and I think for a lot of people.” 

Kwak made the piece at a time when there was a lot of public discourse surrounding public monuments — particularly monuments in the south depicting Confederate leaders — considering instances of police violence against Black Americans and the ongoing conversation about the legacy of white supremacy in the U.S. 

"I didn't think that the Spartan Statue itself was ... wrong, but, I mean, it's definitely a politically fraught symbol," Kwak said. 

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"Spartan Skin" by Young Joon Kwak at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum. Photo Courtesy of Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum

Bridges, who has a master's degree in art history, theory and criticism from The Art Institute of Chicago, said the statue has "strong overtones of social realism," an artistic style that grew out of the time between the world wars that highlighted the hardships of the working class. Bridges said much of the era's state-commissioned work also aimed to build camaraderie and national identity. 

Similarly, Bridges said the statue played a role in "building camaraderie and a sense of identity on campus." But since the unveiling of the statue 1945, the campus identity has changed

Graduate student Megan Manu recounted her experience seeing Spartan Statue for the first time.

“It was nothing different than what I experienced my entire education," Manu said. "I think that me being a woman of color, I obviously am not as represented within MSU, or just higher education in general, so seeing that statue was just very consistent.” 

Kwak’s work, which aims to bring the Spartan Statue to a human level, asks the MSU community to think carefully about the symbol, its historical context and the Spartans it may leave out in representing the community. 

“Artwork is about pushing a larger cultural dialogue forward,” Kwak said. 

Bridges said the fact that the statue has stood the test of time as a symbol of importance for students on campus “speaks to something powerful in itself.”  

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Section of "Resistance Training: Arts, Sports, and Civil Rights" at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum. Photo Courtesy of Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum

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