Philadelphia City Council members weigh in on Harriet Tubman sculpture controversy

Seven members of the Philadelphia City Council have expressed “disappointment” at the city’s plan to award a $500,000 commission for a permanent statue of Harriet Tubman without giving the opportunity to consider Philadelphia artists.

In March, the city’s Office of Arts Culture and Creative Economy (OACCE) announced plans to award the commission to Wesley Wofford, the North Carolina sculptor who created a traveling version of his journey to freedom statue that stood in front of City Hall earlier this year.

In a letter dated Aug. 18, written and signed by council member Isaiah Thomas, elected officials told the city’s Office of the Creative Economy:

“While Mr. Wofford’s work on the original statue of Harriet Tubman was impressive and worth celebrating, Philadelphia taxpayer dollars for Philadelphia public art should be prioritized with Philadelphia artists. (Original in bold in the letter.)

The letter stated that Thomas enjoyed working with the Creative Economy Office for the “Illuminate the Arts” grant program “to put government money in the pockets of artists”.

“I write to express my disappointment that this vision was not shared when Philadelphia’s first state-funded statue of a woman of color was commissioned,” he said.

The letter was co-signed by board members Helen Gym, Katherine Gilmore Richardson, Derek S. Green, Curtis Jones, Jamie Gauthier and Cherelle L. Parker.

Earlier this summer, the committee Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman, an advocacy group, denounced the Wofford commission as an unfair “no-bid” process.

“We feel cheated that we don’t have the chance to see what interpretations other artists can give us,” committee spokeswoman Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza told city officials at a June 15 conference. public consultation meeting.

READ MORE: City plan for $500,000 Harriet Tubman monument criticized for not being open to black artists

Kelly Lee, executive director of the Office of Art, Culture and the Creative Economy, has said in previous interviews – and on the website – that the office decided to commission a permanent statue from Wofford because of the positive feedback they’ve heard. many people.

“Nearly 4 million people have been touched and touched by Wesley’s work and have shared images, commented on the beauty and likeness of the statue, how it captured the courage and spirit of Harriet Tubman, and expressed how much the statue made them feel,” is a statement on the OACCE website.

Lee said his office was authorized to award commissions without a bid in certain circumstances, and the city’s legal department supported that position, a city spokesperson said.

At the June meeting, members of the Tubman committee said it was insulting that black American sculptors were not given the opportunity to submit renderings of statues, given that Tubman remains one of the most black women most iconic in American history.

The letter from council members raised similar concerns:

“Additionally, an artist of color should be prioritized as we honor a historical figure who is a woman of color at a time when we are working to address a lack of representation.”

Sullivan-Ongoza released Thomas’s letter, which Sullivan-Ongoza received a copy of by email Monday, at a Harriet Tubman Committee meeting earlier this week.

In an interview Thursday, Max Weisman, a spokesperson for Thomas, confirmed both the authenticity of the letter and that portions were sent in bold type.

In a statement to The Inquirer on Thursday, Lee said, “We have received the letter from members of City Council and appreciate the sentiments expressed in it. The administration and the OACCE have always been committed to public art that celebrates and showcases the stories of African-American contributions to the history of this country while developing or supporting various opportunities to increase the diversity of artists .

Weisman said Lee responded to him personally in an email dated Tuesday. It was not addressed to Thomas.

Lee’s email began:

“Hello Max, I appreciate the communication and I understand your disappointment.

“…The conversation around the permanent statue of Harriet Tubman has raised questions about public art that occur in every city and are important to the OACCE. We appreciate the supportive and collaborative relationship with City Council and We will keep you and other City Council members informed of updates as we move forward.

“Best regards,

“Kelly”

At the Tubman committee meeting on Tuesday evening, attendees said they wrote to members of their city council, gave weekly interviews on WURD-Radio and delivered petitions in person to churches, mosques and other venues. The petitions demand that the city open the process for awarding the Tubman statue commission.

As of Thursday morning, 741 people have signed the group’s charter change.org petition asking Mayor Jim Kenney to create an open appeal process.

Additionally, Sullivan-Ongoza said the committee also collected between 300 and 400 in-person signatures on paper.

READ MORE: Controversy over $500,000 statue of Harriet Tubman garners national attention, sparks petition and sparks sculptor’s response

At that zoom meeting, committee members said they were still awaiting a response to an early August letter they sent to Kenney requesting a meeting.

A spokesperson for the mayor said Kenney received the letter and it was sent to his planning office to determine when and if a meeting was possible.

Committee members said they admired Wofford’s statue, but added that the decision for a $500,000 permanent statue shouldn’t be based on how many people “like” his traveling statue.

“It doesn’t matter how many people ‘liked’ the statue,” Sullivan-Ongoza said Tuesday night. “It’s not Facebook. It’s about what the city’s policy is when it comes to awarding contracts.

The OACCE brought the temporary statue to Philadelphia from January 11 to March 31 to honor Black History Month in February, Women’s History Month in March, and because 2022 is the 200th anniversary of her birth. by Tubmans.

“So far, the city has only received 424 responses to its public inquiry into what it wants to see in the statue,” Sullivan-Ongoza said this week. “How does 424 responses equal 4 million people liking the statue?” Sullivan-Ongoza also asked how 4 million people loved the statue in Philadelphia.

Fasaha Traylor, co-author of the book, They Transported Us: The Social Impact of Black Women Leaders in Philadelphia, attended the Zoom meeting and told the 28 people who gathered that it was “offensive” that the city awarded the commission without giving artists of color a chance to compete.

“How disappointing there have been so many problems understanding the basic idea of ​​equal opportunity in 2022,” Traylor said.

Tubman was born a slave in Maryland in 1822 and is the Underground Railroad’s most famous “conductor”. She made her first escape in 1849 and came to Philadelphia, where she worked with abolitionist William Still and spoke at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

She became an iconic figure for making several more trips to the South to lead others to freedom and joining forces with the Union. in raid at plantations along the Combahee River in South Carolina that freed 700 people enslaved during the Civil War.

Ogundipe Fayomi, who said he is an African-American sculptor living in Brooklyn, NY, was also at the meeting. He said “in all of my commission applications here in New York, I had to go through a vetting process, which is supposed to be.” He also said that even when black American artists receive commissions, the payment process is often delayed and dragged out.

Thomas’ letter noted the rationale posted on the OACCE website, but added in bold: “I’m disappointed that there hasn’t been a creative solution that allocates government dollars to artists in Philadelphia. (Original in bold in the letter.)

He also said he looked forward to receiving a “recovery plan” from the office.

Sulivan-Ongoza said she was pleased to read the council member’s letter, but said she would not have restricted eligibility to only Philadelphia artists.

She said the group plans to attend the Philadelphia Art Commission’s next meeting in September.

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