Category Archives: Public Art

Harriet Tubman Statue Update

Philadelphia’s plan to award a non-competitively bid commission for a Harriet Tubman statue has encountered fierce resistance (here and here). Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman Committee sent an open letter to Mayor Jim Kenney requesting a meeting:

We write this letter to request a meeting with you; preferably one day this month. We will make ourselves available according to your schedule. We want. We are aware you are in support of this decision.

The Committee Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman takes extreme exception to this decision announced by the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) to award a no bid commission (in the amount of $500,000) to create a permanent statue of Nana Harriet to Wesley Wofford, where an Open Call Process was not considered. Such actions prevent other artists from the opportunity to compete for a contract/commission especially for such an iconic, historical, and culturally important figure as Nana Harriet Tubman!

Our research shows that the OACCE has awarded one non-competitively bid commission to a performing artist to do a specific piece in 2017. The handful of non-bid contracts was awarded to conservation professionals. As one committee member has stated, “The community is fighting to ensure there’s not a second no bid-commission.”

Simply stated, as Philadelphia residents, we are being deprived of a free and open process to see other versions of Nana Harriet through the creative visioning of other artists, especially Black women and other People of Color. Our committee rejects this blatant disregard of protocol and nationally accepted best practices for public art procurement, coupled with the dismissal of community voices.

Mayor Kenney recently announced the African American Museum in Philadelphia will relocate to the former Family Court building on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. In a tweet, he said, “Looking forward to the proposals of the four chosen development teams who will reimagine the sites.”

While Mayor Kenney looks forward to the competing visions for the museum’s new home, Philadelphia residents are supposed to accept the vision of Kenney’s handpicked artist, Wesley Wofford, a white sculptor whose studio is located in the North Carolina Mountains. The Mayor and OACCE Executive Director Kelly Lee want to award a no-bid commission to Wofford to imagine a Black icon who was the most celebrated conductor of the Underground Railroad and Civil War hero.

The competitive procurement opportunity for the adaptive reuse of the Family Court building is managed by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC). The RFP affirms: “The City’s and PIDC’s primary objective in issuing this solicitation is to select a diverse, experienced, capable and qualified development team that will ultimately plan and implement a dynamic commercial development that significantly enhances and complements the existing cultural, commercial and residential developments along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and to maximize the value of the Property for the City.”

The focus on diversity and best qualified applicant begs the question: What is the primary objective in awarding a non-competitively bid commission to Wesley Wofford who is batting 0 for 23 on public commissions for Harriet Tubman statues?

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.

Standing Up for Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, the most celebrated conductor on the Underground Railroad, is memorialized in countless dissertations, history books, novels, documentaries, artworks, songs, and movies.

According to the Monument Lab National Audit, Harriet is among the historical figures with the most public monuments. As of December 2021, there were 21 public memorials of Harriet in cities across the country.

A new statue of Harriet Tubman was unveiled on the grounds of Lincoln Park in Pomona, California on July 4, 2022.

Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) plans to award a no-bid commission to Wesley Wofford, creator of the traveling statue, The Journey to Freedom, which was installed on the North Apron of City Hall from January 11 to March 31, 2022.

OACCE recently held a public engagement session to “help inform the design of this statue.”

Public Art Director Marguerite Anglin said the lack of an open call was due to the “tremendous outpouring of love and pride for the Journey to Freedom statue.” Maisha Ongoza, a member of Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman Committee, schooled Anglin and her boss, Chief Cultural Officer and OACCE Executive Director Kelly Lee:

I know the statue had a lot of emotions in people but I know a lot of artists who can generate that same level of emotion. That’s what artists do. … He [Wesley Wofford] doesn’t have a monopoly on being able to capture what people feel about Nana Harriet. Everyone feels her deeply that’s how important she is to us.

Ongoza and other community members protested the lack of transparency. The decision to award Wofford a no-bid commission was done without public input. Yet the public is expected to engage in “listening” sessions, surveys and other forums designed to pick their brain for free while an artist whose studio is located in the mountains of North Carolina, a former Confederate state, picks up a $500,000 check.

Wofford brings nothing unique to the table about Nana Harriet or her time in Philadelphia. There is no reason the public feedback that OACCE plans to share with Wofford cannot be shared in an open call with, among others, the artists who have already created Harriet Tubman statues.

Kelly Lee dismissed concerns about denying Black and other underrepresented artists an opportunity to compete for the commission. She said, “Our office has the ability to commission a specific artist to do a specific piece.” Lee’s office has awarded one non-competitively bid commission to a performing artist to do a specific piece since 2017. The handful of non-bid contracts were awarded to conservation professionals.

The community is fighting to ensure there’s not a second no-bid commission. Ongoza told Lee: “Why can’t we have an open call process? We feel cheated that we can’t get a chance see what other artists could offer up for us. We’re just locked into what we’ve seen already when we know the potential of others is also just as great.”

Harriet Tubman made her escape from bondage under the cover of darkness. OACCE made its decision to give Wesley Wofford a half-million dollar commission under the cover of darkness. I am going to shine light on this “unique situation” by filing Right-to-Know-Law requests with the Mayor’s Office, OACCE and the Procurement Department. Kelly Lee wants the community to believe she can unilaterally award a non-competitively bid contract. She cannot. Sole source contracts must be approved in writing by the Procurement Commissioner, the Finance Director and the City Solicitor.

The struggle continues.

Harriet Tubman@200

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Harriet Tubman, the most celebrated conductor of the Underground Railroad. Like most enslaved Black Americans, she did not know her date of her birth so we remember Harriet on the day of her death, March 10, 1913.

The Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection of Temple University Libraries is holding a two-day bicentennial celebration of the “Moses of Her People” on Tuesday, March 15 and Wednesday, March 16. The online events are free. Registration is encouraged.

Philadelphia is hosting the traveling exhibition, “Harriet Tubman – The Journey to Freedom,” by Wesley Wofford at City Hall through March 31, 2022.

Also at City Hall, there’s a multi-media exhibition, “Dreams of Freedom: The Threads That Hold Us Together,” on view through the end of March.

For information on Philadelphia’s Harriet Tubman 200th birthday celebration, go here.