A year ago, the city of Philadelphia invited an artist to design a statue of Harriet Tubman that would stand in front of City Hall to honor the abolitionist’s legacy and celebrate her connection to the city.
Then came the complaints.
some Angry Artists Community members argued that the city should have used a public selection process rather than awarding a commission, in part because the artist chosen by Philadelphia was a white man.
The city eventually responded by ending its partnership with the artist and issuing an open call for applications. It received 50 submissions and recently revealed five semi-finalist designs, all created by Black artists.
Some say that artists should be free to pursue their vision on any subject matter regardless of their race or ethnicity, while others believe that identity and expression are inextricably linked and that art related to black people should only be created by someone who shared their history.
“We know the depth and value of our stories,” said Vinnie Bagwell, a 65-year-old New York artist and one of five blacks who were semifinalists for the Tubman statue. “It’s personal to us.”
Bagwell said she believes Philadelphia made the right decision by canceling its agreement with white designer Wesley Wofford.
But he was appalled by the public outcry. “Art is supposed to be a universal language that transcends gender, race and culture,” said Wofford, 51.
The idea to place the statue of Harriet Tubman in front of Philadelphia City Hall was inspired by a traveling statue designed by Wofford in 2017 after receiving a special commission. He added that when he posted pictures of the statue online, people responded with enthusiasm, asking how they could see it in person.
So Wofford created an artistic model for the statue, titled “Journey to Freedom,” which has since toured 17 U.S. cities, starting with a visit to Montgomery, Alabama, in February 2020. When it goes on display in Philadelphia from January to March 2022, Kelly Lee said… , executive director of the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy, said that in honor of Tubman’s 200th birthday, millions of people expressed their joy at the memorial.
Lee’s office tried to purchase the statue but could not because the design was privately commissioned. Instead, the city decided to commission Wofford to design a new statue of Tubman for about $500,000.
The contract was finalized when local artists and community members heard the news. Hundreds of people denounced the city for commissioning Wofford instead of opening a public operation that would allow local artists, especially blacks, to submit their work. Wofford, who grew up in rural Georgia and now lives in North Carolina, said the criticism was mostly about his race and that he felt marginalized.
“I didn’t have a great voice,” he said. “Nobody wanted to hear from me.”
Despite the criticism, some of Tubman’s relatives issued a statement on the city’s website in support of the artist.
They wrote: “Harriet Tubman has worked with people of all races who are like-minded, and Mr. Wofford is like-minded.” “Harriet Tubman has stood up for people of all races.”
At first, the city was also stuck with Wofford.
“Philadelphia would not have adopted this permanent statue of Harriet Tubman without the positive public response to the temporary Wofford statue,” Lee said. Philadelphia Inquirer on time. “It would be inappropriate for the city to bring in a different artist to recreate the artistic expression of Wesley Wofford.”
In August 2022, the city reverses course and Publicly soliciting new design proposals for the Tubman statue. In an interview with The New York Times, Lee said it was “very important” to provide opportunities for artists of color to tell their own stories.
“The city just wanted to have a statue that everyone could be proud of,” he told me. “So we made the decision to listen to the public again and issue an open invitation.”
The city opened general poll Let people vote on the five semi-finalists until Friday night. Public feedback will be taken into account when a panel made up of Tubman family members, historians, educators, public artists, and other stakeholders selects the winning design in October.
He told me that race was not a specific criterion in the selection process. She said the city selected the semi-finalists by examining photographs of the designs and asking the artists about the importance of Tubman.
“We looked at the artists who applied to ask whether or not they reflected the diversity of Philadelphia society,” Lee said.
Wofford said he considered entering the competition with one of his designs but thought he would get an unfair advantage because of his previous discussions with the city. He said he offered a larger version of “Journey to Freedom” at cost if Philadelphia needed a backup plan.
Bagwell’s design, “Harriet Tubman, City of Liberty,” shows the nine-foot-tall Tubman when she first arrived in Philadelphia at the age of 29, standing with her palms open toward the sky. The untitled design by Richard Blake shows Tubman holding a lantern and a revolver tucked to her belt as she walks below the Liberty Bell.
Together in Freedom, a design by Tanda Francis, 45, depicts several silhouettes of Tubman above the keystone. An untitled design by Alvin Petit shows Tubman bent into a prayerful posture as if leaning towards the wind, and a design by Basil Watson, called “Keep Onward”, depicts Tubman leading people escaping from slavery toward freedom.
Watson, 65, said that although he was pleased that a black person would design the statue, it was “unfortunate that we have to think about race when we look at these historic monuments”.
But Francis said it was appropriate that a black person be in charge of the Tubman memorial in the city.
“It’s a predecessor,” said Francis. “We must tell our story.”
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