Uproar as Philadelphia excludes black artists from commissioning process for statue of abolitionist Harriet Tubman

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A statue of Harriet Tubman commissioned by the City of Philadelphia aims to celebrate underrepresented stories in public spaces and help Philadelphians connect with one another. But the project is instead dividing residents, drawing critics who say the selection process was unfair because it was never open to submissions from other artists. Many also dispute that the sculptor, Wesley Wofford, is a white man and argue that the city missed an opportunity to support a black artist.

“It’s hurtful and it’s traumatic,” Dee Jones, a textile artist, told a virtual town hall meeting. June 15 organized by the city’s public art officials. “If it was an open call and Wesley was chosen, that would be fine. But because the process wasn’t open, that’s the big problem… The process wasn’t fair. That’s why we fought, for what [Tubman] fought for.”

Wofford, a North Carolina-based artist, received the $500,000 commission to design a bronze sculpture of the famous abolitionist for the north apron of Philadelphia City Hall. The city invited him to create the work for its public art collection after another of his sculptures, The journey to freedom, received a positive reception when it was temporarily set up outside City Hall earlier this year. This 7-foot work is itself a copy of a taller statue of Tubman that Wofford created in 2019 for a private building in Dallas. According to Philadelphia plaintiff, the artist said the response on social media to the original was so great that he created a smaller statue to tour the cities. Philadelphia is one of 22 hosts.

Marguerite Anglin, Philadelphia’s director of public art, says the city had tried to buy The journey to freedom, but was unable to do so due to legal and copyright issues. Officials instead backed funding Wofford to create a similar sculpture that would tell a “Philadelphia-focused” story about Tubman, who was born a slave in Maryland and fled to Philadelphia in 1849. The finished statue will depict the one of Philadelphia’s earliest works of art honoring a historic African-American female figure.

“We feel it would be inappropriate for us to hire another artist, to hire a black artist or a different artist to recreate another artist’s expression,” Anglin said during the June 15 meeting. She added that the city would generally send out a call for public commissions and prioritize artists who reflect the diversity of the community. “It’s a unique situation where we’re not starting from the beginning.”

Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza of the Sankofa Artisans Guild said artists “feel cheated that we can’t get a chance to see what interpretations other artists can give us.” In March, she and others formed the grassroots organization Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman to push back against the commission. “I was thinking about Nana Harriet and how she risked her life to be free so that no white people would take advantage of her anymore…and it continues now,” Sullivan-Ongoza said at the meeting. “I know the statue stirred a lot of emotions in people, but I know a lot of artists who can generate that same level of emotion. [Wofford] doesn’t have a monopoly on being able to capture how people want to feel about Nana Harriet.

Philadelphia hosted the traveling statue The journey to freedom from January to March, and authorities estimate that it attracted nearly 4 million people who visited it or responded positively to it on social networks. Among them is Karen Sutton, a City Hall tour guide, who told the virtual forum that “I loved the statue from the minute I saw it.” Addressing Wofford, she added: “I thought you just captured her. No matter the color you are, you just got it.

Responding to criticism at the meeting, Wofford said he understood the importance of hiring artists of color, but described the Underground Railroad – the network Tubman sailed on to lead 60 to 70 enslaved people to freedom – as “a biracial business”. He plans to follow up on the commission. “I am an ally of untold stories, and if asked, I want to help people tell their stories in our public spaces,” he said. Artnet News in an email. “To say no would not only be insulting, but would rob us all collectively of building the healing bridges and symbols that will bring us together.”

The city wants Wofford to deliver the statue by November 2023, but a contract for the commission has yet to be signed, the Applicant reported. The Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy is collecting feedback from Philadelphians through July 13, inviting them to respond to a public survey seven questions to determine the statue’s theme and message.

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