Lawsuit over controversial Marilyn Monroe statue reinstated by appeals court panel

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A group of Palm Springs residents fighting the display of a 26ft statue of Marilyn Monroe that shows her skirt flying up have another chance at forcing its relocation after their lawsuit against the city was reinstated on appeal.

Sculptor Seward Johnson’s Forever Marilyn (2011) shows Monroe in a famous scene from the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch in which her white skirt is blown up by wind from a Manhattan sidewalk grate. Forever Marilyn, which was installed near the Palm Springs Art Museum in 2021, shows a clear view of Monroe’s backside and underwear and has been called sexist by critics.

On Thursday (23 February), California’s 4th District Court of Appeals overturned a previous decision to dismiss a lawsuit filed against the City of Palm Springs by the activist group the Committee to Relocate Marilyn (or Crema) made up of influential Palm Springs residents including fashion designer Trina Turk and Modernist design collector Chris Menrad.

Crema’s lawsuit argued that city officials did not have the authority to shut down vehicular traffic on the downtown Palm Springs street where the statue of Monroe was installed three years ago. The California law cited by Palm Springs allows cities to temporarily close streets for special temporary events, members of the panel wrote. While Palm Springs argued it was permissible to close the street for three years because the Monroe sculpture was temporary, not permanent, the panel disagreed.

“These enactments allow cities to temporarily close portions of streets for short-term events like holiday parades, neighbourhood street fairs and block parties … proceedings that generally last for hours, days or perhaps as long as a few weeks. They do not vest cities with the expansive power to close public streets—for years on end—so statues or other semi-permanent works of art may be erected in the middle of those streets,” the panel’s members wrote in the ruling.

Forever Marilyn was purchased for $1m 2020 by PS Resorts, a city-funded tourism agency that aims to increase visitors to Palm Springs, where Monroe was purportedly first “discovered” by a talent agent. The city council voted unanimously in 2021 to place the statue downtown near the Palm Springs Art Museum, despite community pushback.

“You come out of the museum and the first thing you’re going to see is a 26ft-tall Marilyn Monroe with her entire backside and underwear exposed,” the museum’s then-executive director Louis Grachos said in 2020. “What message does that send to our young people, our visitors and community to present a statue that objectifies women, is sexually charged and disrespectful?”

The image of Monroe, who died in 1962, has remained a mainstay in American pop culture in the decades since her death. Last year, a canvas featuring her image by late Pop artist Andy Warhol called Shot Sage Blue Marilyn (1964) sold at Christie’s New York for $195m (including fees), breaking the record for the most expensive 20th-century work to sell at auction and the most valuable by an American artist.

Large-scale sculptures by Seward Johnson, who died in March 2020, have repeatedly caused confusion and outrage. A giant sculpture of Abraham Lincoln alongside a generic modern white man sparked much head-scratching when it was installed in central Chicago in 2017. In 1992, Johnson opened Grounds for Sculpture, an institution in Hamilton, New Jersey, which features permanent displays of his kitschy statues, an outdoor sculpture park and temporary exhibitions by contemporary artists.

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