White Artist Denied Opportunity to Create Harriet Tubman Statue


(Robert Jonathan, Headline USA) An artist lost a $500,000 commission when Philadelphia officials cancelled his contract to design a Harriet Tubman statue for the city hall grounds.

North Carolina-based Wesley Wofford, 51, initially got the gig in March 2022 after his original sculpture of the revered and legendary abolitionist famous for the Underground Railroad received wide acclaim — including in Philadelphia — as a traveling monument honoring Tubman and celebrating her 200th birthday

The exhibit is known as “the Journey to Freedom.”

Tubman has historical ties to Philadelphia, including having headed there after escaping slavery in Maryland.

According to reporting by the New York Times, some local artists and community members insisted that the statue project, instead, be opened up to public bidding “in part because the artist Philadelphia had selected was a white man.”

Apparently because of the outcry, the city reversed the agreement with Wofford in August 2022 and opened the design selection process to any interested artist.

The city received 50 applications, including apparently one from Wofford, though the Times indicated that his role in the competition was in offering “a larger version of ‘Journey to Freedom’ at cost if Philadelphia needed a fallback plan.”

Working with an advisory committee, Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (a.k.a. Creative Philly) subsequently announced five semifinalists.

Wofford, who has an extensive resume as a sculptor that includes Oscar and Emmy Awards, was not among them.

Through Sept. 1, the public was invited to provide online input on the five proposed designs. A group of stakeholders is scheduled to select the winner in October.

All of the semifinalists are reportedly black.

Kelly Lee, Creative Philly’s executive director, said that “Race was not a specific criterion in the selection process.”

Lee added that “We looked at the artists who applied to ask about whether or not they reflected the diversity of the Philadelphia community.”

Reflecting on the months of public debate about the process, Wofford remarked that “Art is supposed to be a universal language that transcends gender, race and culture…I didn’t have much of a voice. No one wanted to hear from me.”

He did receive support from some members of Tubman’s family who released the following statement:

“Harriet Tubman worked with people of all races who were like-minded, and Mr. Wofford is like-minded. Harriet Tubman stood for people of all races.”

According to the Times, “The controversy over the Tubman statue is part of a broader conversation in the art world about to what extent racial identity should matter.”

Creative Philly’s original plan was to simply buy the nine-foot, bronze touring version — which has bookings around the country well into next year — of the Tubman statue.

That option apparently came off the table, however, because the art was made pursuant to a private commission from another client.