On Tuesday, December 14, artist Kristen Visbal gathered with a group of local activists and politicians along with her most famous work, the “Brave Girl” statue, which is located across from the New York Stock Exchange. The statue depicts a young girl standing defiantly, her hands on her hips, and was initially placed in front of the “Charging Bull” statue, several blocks away, although it was eventually moved to its present location, on Broad Street. The Visbal statue was sponsored by asset management firm State Street Global Advisors as part of a campaign to advance the company’s commitment to gender equality. The permit allowing the statue to sit on city property 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 pulpit in a long, mustard coat, Visbal argued that her sculpture was more than just the company’s ambitions. She spoke about the importance of equal pay for women, discussed the struggle for women’s rights in countries like Afghanistan and India, and pitched that the statue is a symbol of global feminism. For the good of society, Visbal said, “it should stay until these principles are firmly established.”
The statue has been mired in controversy since it was erected in 2017. The previous year, Vispal had been approached by someone working with advertising agency McCann, which was interested in commissioning a statue of a young girl. The agency intended to place the statue in front of the “Charging Bull” to draw attention to the “glass ceiling regarding pay and promotion for women in the Wall Street community,” Visbal told me when we met in October, and the agency wanted this to be done in less than a month. Visbal made a series of sketches, and settled on an image of a girl in a dress and high tops, with a swinging ponytail. She began sculpting a clay model in preparation for casting it from bronze through a process known as lost-wax casting. At this point, according to court documents, Visbal learned that State Street, who was a McCann’s client, was sponsoring the statue. The statue was installed on March 7, before 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 described it as an example of “fake corporate feminism”.
State Street, headquartered in Boston, is one of the world’s largest asset managers, managing $3.8 trillion. The company used the “Fearless Girl” statue in part to promote a new index fund that purports to support gender diversity in the company’s top 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, the State Street Corporation owns the trademark for the “Fearless Girl” name. The parties committed to using the statue to further an agreed set of “gender diversity goals”. Visbal was allowed to sell copies of the statue, subject to some restrictions.
In September, several months after the statue was raised, State Street agreed to pay $5 million to settle claims the US Department of Labor had systematically discriminated against black female and male employees through unfair wage practices. State Street issued a statement at the time that did not agree with the government’s findings and analysis, but said it was cooperating nonetheless. However, the settlement raised the possibility that State Street’s motives for sponsoring the “Courageous Girl” statue were more complex than the company suggested. The government has been scrutinizing compensation practices on State Street for several years; “Fearless Girl” has come out just as the company would have worried about the impact the discrimination charges would have on its reputation. A headline on CNN at the time read: “Embarrassing! Company behind ‘Fearless Girl’ settles dispute over gender pay.”
However, the statue continued to attract crowds of people who spilled onto the street. In April 2018, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the statue would be moved to its current, OTC status. During 2017 and 2018, Visbal sold replicas of “Fearless Girl” in several countries for prices ranging from $250,000 for full-size copies to $6,650 for miniature, 22.5-inch versions. One went to a private buyer in Oslo, Norway, and the other to the Australian law firm Maurice Blackburn. In January 2019, Visbal attended the Women’s March in Los Angeles and brought with her a replica of “Fearless Girl”. The following month, State Street sued Visbal, claiming that sales of the replicas had not been approved by the company and in violation of their agreement and caused State Street to lose “control over its reputation.” The company’s complaint states that Maurice Blackburn was displaying images of her statue while also referring to “a scared girl,” the name for which the State Street sign was trademarked, and that Visbal participated in marketing events in Australia to promote replicas, allegedly violating their consent. Visbal filed a counterclaim against State Street, alleging that the company was violating its rights. She says she spent just under $3 million fighting lawsuits in court and was unable to take on any other commissions during the litigation. Visbal plans to release a non-fungible token associated with the statue, in part to meet its legal expenses. (State Street declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit, and said the company “will continue to work diligently with the City of New York and all relevant city agencies to ensure [“Fearless Girl”] He is allowed to stay. “)
Todd Fine, Ph.D. filter in New York City The graduate center that studies public art that has become an ally to Vispal said the episode reflected poorly on State Street. “You have this amazing brand, you have the biggest marketing coup ever, and then you proceed to take this artist out to basically bankrupt them so they give you their copyright,” he said. Fine thinks the city should renew the statue’s permit, but would prefer that the city either acquire it, or exchange it for one of the Visbal replicas. He maintains that keeping the original will only give more space to a piece of corporate advertising masquerading as art.
Michelle Bogart, a professor emeritus at Stony Brook University who specializes in public art history, tells me that there have been struggles over corporate-sponsored public artworks in New York City before. But the State Street example is “a more solid case, a more ironic and, to me, a disgusting case of something that happens with some reluctance to artists working in the public domain,” she said. “In other words, artists move around a lot, which is sad.” She went on to say, however, that she believed the “Courageous Girl” statue was, from an aesthetic perspective, “terrible,” and that Visbal’s credibility was limited. “I have no doubt that this company took it on tour,” said Bogart. “But the fact that they want to reproduce them in different sizes, and travel with versions across the United States, is also a very commercial thing to do. It’s a self-promotional enterprise – and that boils down to it.”
Bogart argued that the existence of an ongoing dispute over the rights to the figure only strengthens the argument for its removal. “Why would New York City want to have on its property such a disputed act, that the artist accuses the patron of abusing it?” She said. “I mean, with all the apprehensions of New York City, why would they conscientiously want something in which one could argue that the company is acting in bad faith?”
Against this chaotic backdrop, the city faces a decision on the fate of the “brave girl”. On the day of the Landmark Preservation Committee meeting, Visbal organized eleven or so speakers, including New York State Senate candidate Vitoria Farello. Marie Locke of UN Women; Diane Burroughs, co-chair of the League of Women Voters for New York City; and representatives of several other non-profit organizations related to gender equality, to advocate for the statue’s universal value. Later that day, the committee voted to renew the “Brave Girl” permit for another three years. The discussion moves to the city’s Public Design Committee, which may vote on the matter at an upcoming meeting. At the event, Cynthia DeBartolo, founder and CEO of Tigress Financial Partners, said she has been in the financial industry for thirty years. “It represents hope and inspiration for all of us,” DeBartolo said of the statue. “It is nothing less than the symbol of those great American flags that fly over the New York Stock Exchange.”