Portrait of An Artist: Kristen Visbal

“Fearless Girl” leads women onto Wall Street

Kristen Visbal is the artist of “Fearless Girl,” a statue depicting a young girl. Since its installation on Wall Street facing opposite Arturo Di Modica’s famous “Charging Bull” earlier this year, “Fearless Girl” has come to symbolize feminism in the corporate world. It has also sparked some controversy.

The Harvard Crimson: Can you tell us what that process was like, how you started, how involved you were in the designs, and what it was like to work with State Street Global?

Kristen Visbal: Well, actually, you know, I just started with McCann Advertising … and they sent me a little google image of a 36-inch child that looked to be about five years old, with her hands on her hips, and she had braids and sandals and an old-fashioned dress. And from there we had a conversation … and I had one friend with a daughter that reminded me of that image, so I called her and I said, “How tall is your daughter?” She said, “48 inches.” I said, “I’ll be there in two hours.” And I went up there and ... I did what I always do. I set up my model and I told her to imagine being strong in front of a great big bull, and her attitude was phenomenal. And so once she got into the position I said “Okay, hold that.” And I photographed her every 10 degrees.

THC: So it sounds like you knew from the outset about the relationship this piece would have with the “Charging Bull.” Is that correct?

KV: I did, I did know about that. I inquired a couple times whether we had called the artist, but you know, we very much wanted to mimic the introduction of the piece to the way “Charging Bull” was received by the public which is, he placed the bull underneath a Christmas tree in 1989. But we did go through an extensive permitting process and actually extended the park cobblestone so that we could install her on it in city property.… I thought it was wonderful, in celebration of International Women’s Day that we put a spotlight on the child and said, “Hey! Women are part of this financial community. Women are part of the business community, and they are on equal footing with men."

THC: So then, what do you think about Di Modica’s claims since the installation that your piece has changed his and that that’s wrong?

KV: Well, you know, when a curator sets up an art exhibit they frequently juxtapose different pieces of art to get different meaning. And, you know, independently these works stand on their own. And, you know “Fearless Girl” is always going to be empowerment and boldness and braveness and standing up for one's rights, but “Charging Bull” is still going to mean, you know, the strength of the American people, the bull market. That has not changed at all. Our message is that women are part of that strength of America… And you know, I’m not a copyright lawyer, but from what I understand, we never physically changed [Di Modica’s] piece, and we placed the figure a very respectful distance from that charging bull.

THC: I wondered more generally, in relationship to both pieces, what you think about the path of a piece once it’s completed. As an artist, how much control do you think you have on your piece once it’s been put out in the world, and how much do you think an artist should have?

KV: When an artist places their work publically, I can’t say that they give up rights per se, but it becomes subject to the interpretation of the viewer.... We are making a call for collaboration between men and women, and I think that that collaboration needs to begin with these two sculptures. So, it’s Mr. Di Modica’s interpretation that his “Charging Bull” has been changed in some manner. For me, as the other artist, I think that “Charging Bull” stands for everything that Americans love and that has not changed. However, the financial market, on Wall Street, has always been viewed as a male-dominant community. The bull is male. So all we are saying is that women are part of that community, they are on equal footing. I think to remove her would be to diminish everything that “Fearless Girl” stands for, which is inclusion, equal rights, equal pay, the future of business, the logic of inclusion of women in business.

THC: And do you think there is something particularly important about having this now in the current political climate?

KV: You know, we want to keep “Fearless Girl” out of politics because we feel gender diversity, the gender diversity issue is more important than politics. But it’s very difficult to do that because if you want to establish any kind of headway on some of these issues, they then become political. But “Fearless Girl” doesn’t have to become political... We don’t want to align with Republican versus Democratic. This is an issue not only of women’s empowerment, but of men and women learning to respect each other, not only socially but professionally, and understanding the value of collaborating together. That’s my message.

THC: You’ve touched on it a little, but what do you think it is that draws people to this statue and sparks such a strong reaction in all sorts of people?

KV: Oh well, she really struck a chord in women around the world…. 50 percent of the workforce is made of women on a global scale, 49.5 percent of the global population is comprised of women. And I think the last study that I read shows only 17 percent of boards are comprised of women... “Fearless Girl” brought a lot of these numbers to light … The other huge issue is the fact that women are making 20 percent less than men for the same work in order to establish the leading edge in an industry, the corporation has to understand—and this is the message that we’re trying to send—that if they create this diverse environment, where men and women, both of them, feel that they can excel—then they are going to get better decisions and then they are going to increase their profits.

THC: Another thing that some people have criticized your piece for, in relationship to Di Modica’s, is corporate sponsorship. Some people have cited it as an issue. Do you feel that affects your piece and, if it does, what you think it might contribute to the piece?

KV: It really doesn’t matter how we got to the piece. And I’m actually really grateful to State Street Global Advisors for sponsoring the work, for being so clever to use a piece of fine art to send a message that actually benefits women.... Maybe their goal wasn’t to create a work for the empowerment of women, but rather to create a work that furthers business profitability…. But the two issues meld together in “Fearless Girl,” and they do it beautifully. So, you know, we are talking about business …. But who better to be a spokesperson for women in business than a big corporation? I actually think it lends “Fearless Girl” credibility.

THC: You also mentioned the idea of using fine arts to advance this message, to reach this goal. What do you think about the relationship between art for art’s sake and art for the sake of achieving something concrete?

KV: Well, you know, ever since I began my career, I’ve always been a big advocate for public art. So, the current administration wants to cut funding to the arts, which I think is a mistake because some of the best ideas in the world have come simply from people learning to dream and to think out of the box, and I think sculpture actually helps you do that. I think “Fearless Girl” is art at its very best, because she’s making people take note of certain issues. She’s making people debate over these issues, and that is what good art should do.

—Staff writer Yael M. Saiger can be reached at yael.saiger@thecrimson.com.