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Pictured: Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney. Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images.
The mayor's excitement was quickly dampened after a prized commission was brought to a halt, following criticism from local artists. Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images.

Philadelphia halts Harriet Tubman statue commission amid backlash

The city drew pointed criticism over closed-door meetings during the artist selection process, as well as the eventual artist chosen, a white sculptor.

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Philadelphia has backtracked a Harriet Tubman commission this week after Black artists expressed outrage over the selection process — one that was held behind closed doors and opted for a white sculptor to construct a permanent Harriet Tubman statue outside Philadelphia City Hall. 

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney assigned $500,000 in funds towards the project in partnership with the Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. 

The project’s inception stems from a traveling statute that touched down in Philly in January. Wesley Wofford, the artist behind the statute, called Harriet Tubman: The Journey to Freedom a personal career highlight. 

The statue’s unveiling received an overwhelmingly positive response, prompting Kenney to assign city funding towards the commission of a permanent statue in the city, set to finish in 2023. The city commissioned Wofford for the undertaking following a positive reaction from the initial unveiling. 

But the selection process did not involve city taxpayers, who expressed disappointment in a public virtual meeting held on July 13 to gauge public opinion on the matter.

“As an artist, it’s hurtful and it is traumatizing,” said textile artist Dee Jones during the meeting. “If it was an open call and Wesley was chosen, it would be fine. But because the process wasn’t open, that’s the big issue,” she continued. 

Jones was not alone in her sentiment. Several artists used the singular platform held by city officials to denounce the path to commission, which did not survey local Black talent, nor did it seek the public’s overall opinion until a virtual meeting was held. 

Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza, an artist and member of a coalition dedicated to celebrating the life and legacy of Harriet Tubman, also explained the inappropriate nature of the commission.

“Nana Harriet risked life and limb to be free so that no one White person would benefit off her person, and now we have someone White benefiting off of her,” she said. 

City officials also joined the outcry against the project. On Aug. 18, At-Large City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas authored a letter cosigned by six other members of the council.

"The arts community demanded that the permanent Harriet Tubman statue be commissioned by a local, Philadelphia artist and it is important that City Council be listening and responsive," a spokesperson for Councilmember Thomas told AL DÍA in a statement. 

The city will hold a new open call where competing Black artists can submit their work for evaluation and eventually be commissioned for the work.  The city said “as with all OACCE open calls,” priority would be given to artists “who reflect the diversity of Philadelphia.”

“To our understanding, the advocates who raised this issue one of the main things they were looking for was representation from Black and female artists. If that's what the open call can do, we support this move from the OACCE. We’ll be closely monitoring the process,” Thomas’ spokesperson said, regarding the steps forward to reevaluate the selection process. 

A new open call for submissions will be announced by the end of the year, and the city is hoping to select a new artist in 2023, aiming for a 2024 unveiling. 

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