With the recent controversy surrounding the Benson succession, I got to thinking about the statue of Tom Benson outside the Superdome. What's the story behind putting his statue there? Who paid for it, and is it on state land or private property?
While the drama behind who will control Tom Benson's sports empire has played out in the news over the past few weeks, photos show the family was all smiles Sept. 2, 2014, as the statue of the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans owner was unveiled near the Superdome. In one photo from that day, Benson is seated in a wheelchair near the statue, holding two thumbs up in approval. His wife Gayle is on one side of him (flanked by Archbishop Gregory Aymond, Gov. Bobby Jindal and Mayor Mitch Landrieu); on the other side are his daughter Renee and grandchildren Rita and Ryan, who are now embroiled in a bitter court case to overturn Tom Benson's recently stated wishes that his wife control those businesses upon his death.
Greg Bensel, senior vice president for communications and broadcasting for the Saints and Pelicans, did not give a cost for the 13.5-foot-tall bronze statue, but said it was "independently and privately funded by friends of Tom Benson."
The statue sits on land owned by the state, Bensel said, and its placement overlooking Champions Square was approved by Jindal (through the efforts of Ron Forman, chairman of the Louisiana Stadium & Exposition District, and Doug Thornton, executive vice president of SMG, the company that runs the Superdome).
"The location was selected as an area that would be suited for fans to visit the statue as they visited the Superdome and Champions Square to enjoy the statue and learn the importance of a man that has helped shape the history of sports, plus the future of sports in our city," Bensel said, adding that Gayle Benson played a key role in the process.
The sculptor is Brian Hanlon, a New Jersey native with a history of creating life-sized tributes to Louisiana sports figures. Hanlon was the artist for the 20-foot-high statue of Shaquille O'Neal, which was unveiled in 2011 at Louisiana State University's basketball practice facility in Baton Rouge. One year later, Hanlon and his company were commissioned to create the statue of former New Orleans Saint Steve Gleason that now sits outside the Superdome. The statue depicting Gleason blocking an Atlanta Falcons punt in 2006 during the first game played in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina was unveiled at an emotional ceremony in July 2012. It came about a year after Gleason revealed publicly that he had ALS, a neurodegenerative disease.
As for the Benson statue, Hanlon told Gambit the planning and design process was "cathartic and genuine."
"At the time, there was discussion about how would we keep it privately funded, seek the approval of the state to put it on the land by the Superdome and yet keep it discreet," he said. "In addition, it was discussed whether or not to wait until [Benson's] passing, but many of the folks we spoke with, including his wife Gayle, decided to forego that thought and proceed so he can see it himself."
The statue features a 4-foot-tall granite base inscribed with a tribute to Benson. The base weighs five tons, while the sculpture itself weighs 1,500 pounds.
"I'm very proud of the artwork around the Superdome," Hanlon said. "I'm honored to have met the Gleasons and the Bensons and call them my friends. In my estimation, the Saints organization reflects a culture created by their owner — steadfast and devoted to the people of New Orleans."