Curatorial Text

If They Should Ask
Sharon Hayes
Born in 1970 • American • Based in Philadelphia

In a city that boasts hundreds of sculptures to historic figures, there are only two dedicated to women: statues to French heroine Joan of Arc and Bostonian Quaker Mary Dyer. Immersing herself in the voluminous array of monuments around the city, Hayes has recreated 9 pedestals from existing monuments in Philadelphia, scaled them to half-size, and arranged them together as in a singular assemblage. To address the absence of women in public monuments in this city, Sharon Hayes’ sculpture If They Should Ask marks a long line of Philadelphia women, from the mid-1600s to the present day, who could be or could have been recognized with monuments. Hayes convened a group of intergenerational, intersectional, and civically-engaged women to discuss, as Hayes notes, “the persistent and aggressive exclusion of women from this form of public recognition.” Hayes and these advisors initiated an ongoing collection of names of Philadelphia-area women who have contributed to the social, cultural, political and economic life of the city. Hayes has incorporated a selection of these names on the sculpture. Additional information about this work can be found in an accompanying installation at the Art Alliance and on the Monument Lab website.

Artist Statement

If They Should Ask is a temporary monument located in Rittenhouse Square that addresses the absence of monuments to women in the city of Philadelphia. The object is a collection of cast concrete pedestals sourced from existing monuments in Philadelphia and materialized at half-scale. Encircled with the names of women who contributed to civic and public life in Philadelphia from early European contact to the present day, If They Should Ask proposes that the persistent and aggressive exclusion of women from this form of public recognition perpetuates historical misunderstandings and reproduces inequality in the city’s economic, social, political and cultural spheres.

Although the city of Philadelphia is home to over 1,500 public sculptures there are only two that celebrate the life of a real, historic woman–Joan of Arc and Mary Dyer, neither of whom were Philadelphia residents. The common understanding that such an exclusion is a consequence of a patriarchal system that did not value women’s contributions to public life tells only part of the story. This perception ignores the way in which monuments were utilized as part of a large racial and gendered project in which whiteness and maleness are produced as identities of civic and political power. In this sense, material culture did not merely reflect political power but helped constitute it. Indeed, many white women were involved, individually and collectively, in organizing, advocating, fund-raising and commissioning large sculptures. That white women asserted their public power by constructing a material reality that consistently excluded them, and certainly excluded any women of color, transwomen or transwomen of color, is just one of the curious perversities that attend this moment of visual culture. Additionally, the political, social and cultural labor done by women often did not move into or onto the historical record as women were not named or were misnamed as a result of intersecting conditions of racism, settler colonialism, homophobia and transphobia.

In pointing to the vast contribution women (inclusive of transwomen) make and have made to the city of Philadelphia, If They Should Ask proposes both that these contributions be remembered more actively and prominently in the commemorative objects that populate U.S. cities and also that to do so requires a collective effort of reimagining what a monument can and should be.

Artist Biography

Sharon Hayes is an artist who engages multiple mediums—video, performance, and installation—in ongoing investigation into specific intersections between history, politics and speech. Hayes’ work is concerned with developing new representational strategies that examine and interrogate the present political moment as a moment that reaches simultaneously backward and forward; a present moment that is never wholly its own but rather one that is full of multiple past moments and the speculations of multiple futures. From this ground, Hayes often addresses political events or movements from the 1960s through the 1990s. Her focus on the particular sphere of the near-past is influenced by the potent imbrication of private and public urgencies that she experienced in her own foundational encounters with feminism and AIDS activism. Hayes’ work has been staged on the street, in museums, galleries and exhibition spaces, in theater and dance venues, as well as in 45 lesbian living rooms across the US.

Hayes has had solo exhibitions at Andrea Rosen Gallery (New York), Tanya Leighton Gallery (Berlin), the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York) and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia (Madrid). Her work been shown at the Venice Biennale (2013), the Museum of Modern Art (New York), the Guggenheim Museum (New York), the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia and numerous museums and venues in Europe and the Americas. Hayes is also a recipient of a Pew Fellowship (2016), Guggenheim Fellowship (2014), Alpert Award in Visual Arts (2013), Anonymous Was a Woman Award (2013), a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Fellowship (2007) among other awards. Hayes teaches in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Fine Arts.

Advisory Group

Nina Ahmad, Ph.D., Alliyah Allen, Kennedy Allen, Erica Atwood, Reverend Bonnie Camarda, Lorene Cary, Hazel Edwards, Lauren Footman, Tianna Gaines-Turner, Jane Golden, Gianna Graves, Helen Gym, Gayle Isa, Ariell Johnson, Celena Morrison, Dawn Munro, Jessica Roney, Raquel Evita Saraswati, Dr. Janet Sturdivant, Hillary Wang

Production Credits

Sharon Hayes Artist
Corin Wilson Project Manager
Pavel Efremoff Production Manager
Human Kind Design Concrete Casting
Matt Gilbert Metal Fabrication
Louis Tannen Mold Fabrication
Toren Falck Lasercutting
Carolyn Lieba Francois-Lazard Research Assistance
Monika Uchiyama Research Assistance
James Sprang Production Assistance
Emily Belshaw Production Assistance
Kristen Neville Taylor Production Assistance
Gwen Comings Production Assistance
Kathryn Hedley Production Assistance
Molly Collett Intern

Side & Project Partners

The City of Philadelphia, Parks and Recreation, Friends of Rittenhouse Square, the Art Alliance, and Amalgam Comics.


Cast concrete, steel, acrylic lettering