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Mayor Kenney,Creative Philly announce they will issue open call for artists for $500K HT Statue

Valerie Russ - Philly Inquirer

“Although the City’s contracting process allows OACCE to directly commission public artwork, we will not do so for this statue or any permanent public artwork,” reads a public statement released Tuesday afternoon.

Mayor Jim Kenney and the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy have withdrawn the $500,000 no-bid commission for a new Harriet Tubman statue and will now open the process for other artists.

A statement from the Creative Philly office released Tuesday afternoon said city officials have heard the public outcry against awarding the commission to Wesley Wofford, a white artist from North Carolina, after he brought a traveling version of his statue, Journey to Freedom, to the city earlier this year.

The Creative Philly statement came four days after The Inquirer reported on Aug. 26 that seven City Council members had sent a letter to Creative Philly to say they agreed with community advocates calling for a more open process.

The councilmembers wrote in the Aug. 18 letter that there should have been an opportunity

for Philadelphia artists and for artists of color to submit proposals.

“After extensive engagement with the community and stakeholders, the City has decided to initiate an open Call for Artists to commission a permanent statue that will be located on the North Apron at City Hall,” the Creative Philly news release stated.

In the statement, the city’s chief cultural officer, Kelly R. Lee, also wrote:

“Although the City’s contracting process allows OACCE to directly commission public artwork, we will not do so for this statue, or any permanent public artwork, as we believe it is imperative to listen and learn from those in the community.”

Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza, a spokeswoman for the Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman Committee, which has strongly condemned the no-bid process, said that she and other Black artists told city officials last March, when the Wofford commission was announced, that there should have been a process that allowed other artists to show their visions of Tubman.

We feel cheated that we can’t get a chance to see what renditions other artists can offer us,” Sullivan-Ongoza told city officials during a June 15 public input meeting.

On Tuesday, after an Inquirer reporter told her the city had announced plans to ask other artists to submit proposals, Sullivan-Ongoza reacted with a joyful scream.

“I’m very pleased, and I’m very proud to have been among the committee who helped turn this around,” she said.

“I’m just very proud for everyone who stuck together, who did the research and all the advocacy and lobbying. I’m just proud of every member of our committee.”

Committee members said they wrote to several members of City Council, started an online petition, and collected signatures for in-person petitions from churches and community centers.

The city’s release also included a statement from Wofford, whose temporary statue stood at City Hall from Jan. 11 through March 31. Creative Philly leased the temporary statue to come to the city in honor of Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and also because 2022 is the 200th anniversary of Tubman’s birth, in 1822 in Maryland.

'“I fully accept the decision made by the City of Philadelphia,” Wofford’s statement said. “Because of Kelly Lee and the OACCE’s leadership and vision, the City of Philadelphia is having conversations about honoring Harriet Tubman in the city where she first experienced freedom.”

Tubman, who was born enslaved, escaped from Maryland, headed north, but later returned south several times to lead scores of people to freedom on the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses and trails.

She made her first escape in 1849 to Philadelphia and worked with abolitionist leader William Still.

“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,” Councilmember Isaiah Thomas said in a statement Tuesday.

“I am grateful to my colleagues for their support and thank the Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy for the opportunity to keep our dollars local and illuminate a Philly artist.”

The local arts community did not ask that only Philadelphia artists be considered for the project, but that Black artists and artists of color have the opportunity to be considered.

The Creative Philly news release said the open call for artists will be announced before the end of 2022, and plans to announce the selected artist and design by fall 2023, with the hope to have the project completed and installed by fall 2024.

But the release also indicated the statue could be of someone other than Harriet Tubman. It said: “The open Call for Artists will welcome proposals for a permanent statue that celebrates Harriet Tubman’s story or another African American’s contribution to our nation’s history.”

“The public will have a voice and opportunities to engage throughout the process,” the statement said.

Faye Anderson, a public historian who has spoken out on public media and her All That Philly Jazz website against the no-bid commission, said about Tuesday’s announcement:

“Mayor Kenney’s ‘new direction’ is not a cause for celebration. The city’s procurement regulations left him no choice. The Mayor’s original plan to award a no-bid commission underscores the hollowness of his commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s still hard to believe that in the city where Harriet Tubman found sanctuary among free Blacks, a city that is nearly 44% Black, Black artists would be denied the opportunity to compete for a permanent statue of a Black icon.”

Acknowledgment The work produced by the Communities & Engagement desk at The Inquirer is supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project's donors.

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