The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Fearless Girl’ ignites debate about art, Wall Street and the lack of female executives

After the 1987 stock market crash, sculptor Arturo Di Modica spent two years and $300,000 secretly working on a gift he hoped would lift the spirits of a demoralized city. He deposited the 11-foot, 3-ton "Charging Bull" statue in front of the New York Stock Exchange in the middle of a wintry night.

Today, that icon of Wall Street prosperity is staring down another statue that has become a potent symbol in its own right — a petite girl in high-top sneakers. The “Fearless Girl,” fists curled at her sides and face held high in seeming defiance of the giant bull galloping before her, has drawn international attention since it was unveiled last month and tapped into growing frustration around the struggle female executives face rising into leadership positions, particularly on Wall Street.

Di Modica sees something else: “Fearless Girl,” he argues, has turned his bull into a symbol of male chauvinism. His attorneys said he may sue if the statue isn’t removed.

But the city isn’t budging, and the standoff has turned into a high-profile debate over the role of public art, intertwined with visceral feelings about Wall Street and the role of women.

The origins of the two works of art could not be more different. “Fearless Girl” belongs to one of the largest banks in the world, Boston-based State Street, which commissioned the work last year as part of an advertising campaign. The statue, the bank says, is part of an effort to use its financial might to encourage companies to put women in more prominent leadership positions. (It initially included a plaque that mentioned one of the bank’s funds.)

Di Modica says his statue was a work of conviction.

The 76-year-old gray-bearded sculptor has generated some sympathy, particularly from other artists. Gabriel Koren, whose bronze sculpture of Frederick Douglass looks into Harlem from Central Park, says she would be offended by another artist placing a competing piece of art near her creation without permission.

“Every sculpture needs space. That is the nature of sculpture,” she said. “If you put something else there, it changes it.” “Fearless Girl,” she said, is “cute,” but “you don’t stand up for women’s rights at the expense of the artist’s rights. Each right is equally important. I am saying this as a woman.”

Yet others say the meaning of Di Modica’s bull began to change long before “Fearless Girl” arrived. During the height of the Occupy Wall Street protests, New York City police put barricades around the statue to protect it from demonstrators.

“Let’s be blunt, the ‘Charging Bull’ is a celebration of unfettered capitalism,” New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said recently on WYNC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” “You could say it is about the spirit of optimism, sure — that’s what the artist was thinking, that’s great. But it is a symbol of Wall Street. And Wall Street, to say the least, is a double-edge sword.”

This comes as the financial industry struggles to shed its reputation as a boys club where women struggle to succeed. None of the country’s megabanks, such as JPMorgan, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs, are led by women. Even State Street has been forced to acknowledge its own shortfalls — the bank only has three women on its 11-member board of directors and five women on its 28-member leadership team.

“We ourselves are being challenged on how do we help address” the lack of women in leadership positions, said Stephen Tisdalle, chief of marketing at State Street Global Advisors, a subsidiary of the bank. “We’re taking a very humble approach to this.”

“Fearless Girl,” the bank says, was not meant to change the meaning of the bull statue but to create a potent symbol to show that women can — and should — be an important part of the financial sector.

“A growing market is exactly what we want to have happen,” Tisdalle said. “The question is who provides the talent and who provides the leadership to fuel that growing market, and we believe that women do.”

‘I am not against women’

The city has refused to remove the statue, which has a permit to stay put for another year.When asked for comment, de Blasio’s office pointed to a series of tweets the Democrat issued after Di Modica complained the new statue violated his rights. “Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl,” he said in one tweet. In another, he said, “We wouldn’t move the Charging Bull statue if it offended someone. The Fearless Girl is staying put.”

Years before Di Modica donated his iconic statue, he had developed a reputation for foisting gifts on New York that the city didn’t want. In 1977, again in the middle of the night, he reportedly dropped several marble statues in front of Rockefeller Center and in 1986 he sneaked a big bronze horse in front of Lincoln Center.

Di Modica, who is from Sicily, created “Charging Bull” in his Lower Manhattan loft, then had it bronzed in a Brooklyn factory. Friends helped him put the black-patina bull in a truck and maneuver it into place with a crane in front of the New York Stock Exchange.

Unimpressed city officials initially evicted the statue, calling it a traffic hazard and a nuisance before relenting under public pressure and moving it two blocks away.

“There it stood for 30 years and it became a very popular icon. It has been said that the bull is the most visited statue in New York next to the Statue of Liberty,” said Marc Gordon, a partner at Spacesmith, an architecture firm two blocks from New York’s Bowling Green Park, where the battle over the dueling statues is taking place.

Di Modica has repeatedly fought to protect the statue’s reputation. He sued Walmart and several other companies for using the bull’s image in advertisements. When Random House put a picture of “Charging Bull” on the cover of a book about the fall of Lehman Brothers, Di Modica complained again.

The bull, he has said, is not only among his most meaningful work, but a symbol of prosperity that transcends gender. “I am not against women,” he said at a news conference this month in which he appeared frail and was surrounded by his attorneys. “I am against this advertising trick.”

Di Modica owns the copyright to the statue’s image, his attorney Normal Siegel said. But it unclear whether he makes money from the reproduction of its images. Di Modica’s attorneys said the artist was not available for comment.

“Fearless Girl,” meanwhile, is the byproduct of State Street’s aggressive effort to address concerns raised by one of its biggest customers: the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, the nation’s second-largest public pension fund. The fund, known as CalSTRS, had become concerned that more women were not represented on company boards and leadership teams.

“Wall Street got started under Alexander Hamilton, and it was almost exclusively a province of males and it has just continued that way,” said New York University financial historian Richard Sylla.

State Street began looking for ways to invest in companies that had women in prominent positions and settled on exchange-traded funds, which are popular with mom-and-pop investors. The typical fund tracks a basket of stocks, allowing the investor to follow their ups and downs without buying each stock individually.

State Street’s fund, known as SHE, tracks the stock of more than 100 companies that the bank says do the best job in their industries of putting women in leadership positions. Companies with diverse leadership teams perform better over the long term and make better investments, the bank says.

SHE was launched last year with more than $200 million in assets from CalSTRS, but State Street wanted to broaden its audience and began working with McCann New York on a way to draw attention to the effort. The bank says it considered several options before commissioning Delaware artist Kristen Visbal to build a sculpture that would stand in front of Wall Street’s famous bull in time for International Women’s Day on March 8.

“It could have been a woman [instead of a girl], but there is something about the future in young people. We wanted a symbol that could represent today and tomorrow,” Tisdalle said.

The statue immediately developed a cult following — and SHE has received a boost from investors. At the spot where tourists have spent decades rubbing the nose of "Charging Bull" and climbing onto its horns, suddenly "Fearless Girl" fans were jockeying for the best position for a selfieSen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) posted a picture of herself with the pint-sized statue recently and De Blasio bent his more than 6-foot frame nearly in half to get into the perfect frame.

“Fearless Girl’s” many fans say Di Modica’s concerns are misguided. The new statue “does not detract from Charging Bull and all that work stands for but, rather, calls for collaboration between men and women in decision making,” Visbal said in an email. “There is room for both sculptures at Bowling Green Park and to deny Fearless Girl a presence is to deny women increased visibility in business.”