Philadelphia’s Plan for Harriet Tubman Monument Decried for Excluding Black Artists

The city of Philadelphia’s plan for a new monument dedicated to Harriet Tubman has come under fire from local artists and historians who have criticized the city’s decision to commission Wesley Wofford, a white artist, to design the permanent sculpture without seeking proposals from additional artists.

Wofford, whose sculpture studio is based in North Carolina, had designed the statue Harriet Tubman: The Journey to Freedom, that was displayed outside of the Philadelphia’s City Hall from January to March. Set up as a traveling exhibition, the statue has since been moved to White Plains, New York, with plans for it to reside in other locations around the state throughout 2022.

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In a public virtual meeting in June held by the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy to discuss the project, a number of artists and historians criticized the plan for comissioning Wofford without considering alternative proposals by Black artists.

Philadelphia officials also sent out a public survey due to be concluded on July 13 seeking opinions from members of the public on the project. The cost earmarked for the public monument is $500,000. The statue is due to be installed in September 2023.

Marguerite Anglin, a director at the city’s office overseeing arts and culture who led the meeting, said the aim for the monument is to “speak to a diversity of audience.”

“I am not in support of this particular artist,” one participant, Leslie Garrett, an administrator based in Philadelphia, said at the virtual meeting. “This should have been brought to the community.”

Another speaker attending the virtual session, Jacqueline Wiggins, called the choice to move ahead with Wofford as the project’s designer over a Black sculptor a “missed opportunity.”

Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza, a community organizer said, “We’re concerned about the process,” adding she was particularly troubled by the racial dynamics. “Someone white is benefitting off of her,” she said.

Anglin responded saying that the city tried to purchase Wofford’s traveling sculpture because of its “impact,” but was not able due to legal and copyright restrictions.

“We’re doing the next best thing in commissioning that same artist to provide a version of this sculpture that is specifically for Philadelphia,” Anglin said.

She said that in a typical public art commission, the city would hold an open call for other artists. She defended the city’s current plan saying it would have been “inappropriate” to ask another artist to recreate a rendition of Wofford’s original piece.

This explanation did not satisfy many of the attendees.

“We don’t see enough of ourselves,” said Ongoza. “We feel cheated.”

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