Celebrated author and civil rights activist James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
In the face of community resistance to the award of a sole source contract to a white artist to create a permanent Harriet Tubman statue, Mayor Jim Kenney and the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) announced the City is taking a “new direction.” Kenney said:
Our Administration and OACCE have always been committed to public art that celebrates and showcases the stories of African American contributions to this country’s history while also developing or supporting various opportunities to increase the diversity of artists. In that spirit, it is important that we listen to the voices of those in the community and incorporate that feedback into our vision of commissioning this permanent statue. Opening the process to a Call for Artists is the appropriate next step as we begin telling the powerful stories of historic Black figures to all who visit City Hall.
As I told the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Mayor had to reverse course. Procurement opportunities must be advertised on the City’s website and open to all bidders. But the fight is not over. I have outstanding Right-To-Know Law (RTKL) requests with the Mayor’s Office, which includes OACCE, and the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer.
The RTKL contact in the Mayor’s Office asked whether I am still seeking the records “in light of recent developments in the proposed project.” If so, they asked for an extension until September 14. My response: No problem. I can wait. One would think Kenney and OACCE would be eager to silence critics who question whether four million people “positively reacted” to the temporary Harriet Tubman statue that was on display at City Hall for three months during the dead of winter.
I hope the records shed light on why OACCE Director Kelly Lee continues to say “the City’s contracting process allows OACCE to directly commission public artwork.” I sought records related to her assertion from the three agencies that must approve non-competitively bid contracts. Both the City Solicitor and Finance Director wrote: “The City does not have records responsive to your request.” The Procurement Commissioner claims her office did not receive my email.
In any case, time is running out on the Kenney Administration (his term ends on January 1, 2024). It remains to be seen whether an RFP will be issued. If one is issued, we will demand the recusal of Kelly Lee and Public Art Director Marguerite Anglin from the review and selection process. They orchestrated the exclusion of Black artists from competing for a public commission for a statue of a Black icon. History tells us one cannot be part of the problem and the solution.
We also will demand the recusal of the Harriet Tubman Statue Advisory Committee. Silence equals complicity. With the exception of Cornelia Swinson, executive director of the Johnson House Historic Site, Committee members supported OACCE’s plan to give a white artist who has never won a public commission for a Harriet Tubman statue a $500,000 “direct commission.”
For updates on the open Call for Artists, sign up here.