Journey to Freedom from White Privilege

At the height of the Black Power Movement, the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an exhibition, “Harlem on My Mind: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968,” that excluded paintings and sculptures by African American artists.

The exclusion caused an uproar in the Black community. Historian John Henrik Clark, a consultant for the exhibition, later withdrew in protest. Dr. Clark told The New York Times:

In the light of the vocal role played by blacks in the current social upheaval, it is shocking that [Museum Director Thomas] Hoving and [Exhibition Curator Allon] Schoener have remained sheltered from urban life. They continue to persist in a paternalistic approach to black people – one that demands that whites define and describe the black experience, about which they know nothing.

Fast forward to today, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and his appointee, Kelly Lee, executive director of the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE), want to give a no-bid $500,000 commission to Wesley Wofford, creator of the traveling statue, Harriet Tubman: The Journey to Freedom. The commission would be for a new statue. Wofford has no unique insight into Harriet Tubman and knows nothing about Philadelphia, a city that is majority minority. His studio is located in the North Carolina mountains.

The exclusion of Black artists has caused an uproar. OACCE’s plan to spoon-feed Wofford gives new meaning to “starving artist.” The data collected from the public survey “will help determine the theme and messaging of the permanent Harriet Tubman statue to make it unique to Philadelphia and inform the physical design and statue’s text.”

We are taking a page from the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, a watchdog group whose members included Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden and Harlem residents. We are protesting the planned exclusion of Black, women and other underrepresented artists from competing for the Harriet Tubman commission. Much to their chagrin, Mayor Kenney and Kelly Lee cannot just give Wofford the commission. While professional services contracts are not subject to the lowest responsible bidder requirement of the Home Rule Charter, OACCE must follow the procurement process and advertise a non-competitively bid contracting opportunity. The notice must include the criteria by which the selection will be made.

Notice must be posted to eContract Philly. Applicants will have at least 14 days to submit a proposal. When the notice of “New Contract Opportunities” is posted, we will give the signal.

We will share the Request for Proposals on social media and via email. Established artists should be able to respond within the timeframe. We already know the location of the statue, City Hall’s North Apron, and some design elements, granite base and at least nine feet tall. The theme(s) will be announced once the public survey data are compiled. So start visualizing your design. By the way, don’t be concerned that submitting a proposal will jeopardize future opportunities with OACCE. Kelly Lee and Jim “I’ll be happy when I’m not here, when I’m not mayor” Kenney are lame ducks. Kenney leaves office in January 2024.

For updates, join the Facebook group, Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman Committee. If you’re not on Facebook, send your contact info to phillyjazzapp@gmail.com to be added to the Harriet Tubman Statue mailing list.