Iconic or Sexist? Palm Springs Mulls a Marilyn Monroe Statue

Iconic or Sexist? Palm Springs Mulls a Marilyn Monroe Statue

Politicians in Palm Springs, Calif., view “Forever Marilyn” — a giant sculpture of Marilyn Monroe, with her white skirt blown up above her waist — as a fun, nostalgic tourist attraction. But local cultural leaders are painting it as sexist and sensationalist, and they are speaking out against the city’s plans to move the sculpture to a site next to the Palm Springs Art Museum.

From 2012 to 2014, the sculpture, by Seward Johnson, presided over downtown Palm Springs. This month, the City Council voted via a Zoom meeting to bring it back, with financing from a local hotel consortium, and place it on Museum Way, the street leading to the museum.

The museum’s director, Louis Grachos, has urged the Council members to reconsider, calling the sculpture “sexually charged and disrespectful” and inappropriate for the roughly 80,000 school-age children served yearly by the museum. “When you exit the museum, you are going to see the exposed backside of a 26-foot-tall Marilyn Monroe, including her underwear,” he explained by phone this week. “That’s not the message we want to give to our community.”

The museum’s previous three directors (Elizabeth Armstrong, Steve Nash and Janice Lyle), the Modernism Week chairman William Kopelk and the designer Trina Turk are among those who have also spoken out against the sculpture’s placement. In a joint op-ed published in The Desert Sun after the Council meeting, they warned that the artwork is “blatantly sexist” and “devalues the architectural brand that has been so successful at drawing tourists to Palm Springs.”

Mr. Johnson, who died in March, is known for making richly detailed and highly interactive sculptural versions of famous paintings by the likes of Monet and van Gogh. He created the Marilyn statue in 2011 after the scene from the 1955 movie “The Seven Year Itch” that shows the actress standing above a subway grate with her pleated white dress flying up. It was first installed in Chicago, where it was widely panned by art critics, with Abraham Ritchie calling it “creepy schlock by a fifth-rate sculptor.”

During its stay in Palm Springs, the sculpture gained more of a fan base as a meeting point and photo destination, with some posing underneath the dress, looking up. And several residents are excited for the return of the artwork, which has since traveled to Bendigo, Australia, and Stamford, Conn.

The Palm Springs residents John Marksbury and Chuck Steinman wrote in a letter to The Desert Sun: “While not a tourism panacea, and no Michelangelo, ‘Forever Marilyn’ is truly an iconic symbol of the city’s brand. She represents the golden age of Hollywood and the era that put Palm Springs on the map as a chic resort, establishing our city as a mid-century architectural mecca.”

Mr. Grachos, who joined the museum in 2019 and has not seen the sculpture in person, said he understands that some people might enjoy it as a “novelty experience.” But he insists that it undercuts the museum’s values: “If city leadership feels it’s a great asset for visitors, I would say find another place for it.”

The next City Council meeting where this could become an agenda item is scheduled for Dec. 10.

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