The city of Philadelphia has finally shared proposed designs from five artists who are in competition to create a statue of abolitionist Harriet Tubman for City Hall. At a virtual public meeting last week, members of the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) presented the five site-specific statuary design options by semi-finalists Vinnie Bagwell, Richard Blake, Tanda Francis, Alvin Pettit, and Basil Watson.
Over the next few weeks, the public can voice their thoughts on the five submissions in an online survey, which closes at midnight September 1. The OACCE will share the public feedback with the five artists to give each individual a chance to revise their proposal prior to a final selection process by the African-American Statue Advisory Committee in October. The permanent statue is expected to begin installation by early 2025.
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The announcement follows a year of controversy. As first reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the city initially announced that Wesley Wofford, the sculptor who created the temporary “Harriet Tubman — The Journey to Freedom” statue, would be paid $500,000 to create a permanent public work in honor of Tubman’s 200th birthday. OACCE officials reasoned that Wofford had been chosen to design the permanent statue “in response to the outpouring of love and pride from so many members of the public” toward the artist’s temporary nine-foot statue. But the appointment of Wofford, who is White, faced immediate criticism from community members who argued that his no-bid commission was inequitable to historically underrepresented artists and disregarded public opinion. In response to the backlash, the city announced last August an open call for artists to give women, minority, and local artists an opportunity to apply for the commission.
Now, selections for the final design have been narrowed down to five artists, each with a very different vision for the permanent statue honoring the Underground Railroad legend. Vinnie Bagwell designed a nine-foot bronze statue of a young Tubman freshly arrived in Philadelphia. The skirts of her dress would feature the faces of people who escaped slavery, Adinkra symbols, and portraits of other notable abolitionists including William Still, Thomas Garrett, Thaddeus Stevens, Lucretia Mott, and Frederick Douglass. Richard Blake’s proposal envisions Tubman standing beneath a liberty bell and lighting the path to freedom with a lantern, while Alvin Pettit conceived of a design that shows Tubman carrying a military rifle on her back, in commemoration of her leadership role in the 1863 Combahee Ferry Raid. Another proposal by Tanda Francis, who was also a finalist in New York City’s open design call for a Shirley Chisholm monument, imagined a statue with multiple intersecting silhouettes interspersed with polished bronze panels titled “Together In Freedom.” In Basil Watson’s design submission, he wanted to illustrate Tubman as a warrior and a leader. His proposed 13-foot statue would depict Tubman pulling three loosely modeled figures forward up a slope.
“The road to get to this point was needlessly bumpy,” Faye Anderson, a Philadelphia historian and director of the local history and preservation project All That Philly Jazz, told Hyperallergic in a phone call. Throughout the year, Anderson leads walking tours highlighting sites tied to Billie Holiday and The Negro Motorist Green Book by Victor Green. “We would have gotten to this point a year ago, if the mayor had not presumed that he could just hand out a $500,000 commission.”
“There was no choice other than to resist the city,” Anderson said. She admitted that she would have preferred last week’s virtual meeting to be in-person to better understand the details of each design submission, and expressed some hesitancy with the virtual gathering after the city’s transit authority similarly done when they had commissioned Tom Judd in 2021 to create the subway mural “Portal to Discovery” in the Fifth Street/Independence Hall station. The resulting mural included a misspelling of Frederick Douglass’s first name.
“This is unfolding at a time when the teaching of Black history is under attack,” Anderson continued. In late June, Philadelphia was at the center of heated protest when extremist group and critical race theory opponent Moms for Liberty held a conference in the city’s downtown. “Any opportunity we get to tell the story, we should take advantage of.”
Anderson told Hyperallergic that she was especially drawn to Bagwell’s and Francis’s designs. She said she could imagine Francis’s multi-panel structure being used to delve deeper into the “untold and undertold stories” of other important Underground Railroad conductors, using the space to incorporate historical documents and facts about the neighborhood.
“The panels provide a canvas to tell stories about the people and places where Harriet lived in Philadelphia,” she explained.