Philadelphia’s treatment of North Carolina sculptor Wesley Wofford, a white man whose sculpture “Harriet Tubman: The Journey to Freedom” has won high praise from both critics and viewers, comes close to being a national disgrace.

Wofford, a white man born in 1972, is a 2004 Academy for TV Arts and Sciences Emmy award winner and a 2005 Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences award winner for Technical Achievement.

His work is recognized worldwide.

The Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy (Creative Philadelphia) knew what it was doing when it offered Wofford a $500,000 commission to create a permanent monument to Tubman to stand in front of City Hall.

But when Creative Philadelphia held a virtual meeting regarding the project, a group of black activist artists expressed their displeasure that the Tubman project had gone to a white man.

This set off a clamor of activist cowbells that got Creative Philadelphia to bow to the mob.

Wesley Wofford, the white man, got his termination notice.

Instead of Wofford’s Tubman, there would be an open competition where the emphasis would be on artists of color and minorities because a white artist just isn’t capable of empathizing with what black people see and feel when it comes to slavery.

The five finalists in the open competition are all black, although one sculptor, Richard Blake, might pass for white. Will Blake’s “near whiteness” become a factor in the final selection process?

This question is not so absurd when you consider how far race and color have infected the Tubman issue.

“I didn’t have much of a voice,” the New York Times quoted Wofford as saying. “No one wanted to hear from me.”

The Times asked some of Tubman’s relatives what they thought about Wofford being canceled. Surely there would be some cowbell activist statements from this camp! On the contrary, Tubman’s people released a statement on the city’s website supporting Wofford.

“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,” the Tubman family statement said.

But what does the Tubman family know?

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Consider the world of art commissions and the City of Philadelphia: When Philadelphia’s French community sought aid from the Fairmount Park Art Commission in 1889 to purchase a copy of Emmanuel Fremiet’s statue of Joan of Arc, it asked no one’s permission as to the selection of the sculptor or even the theme of the work.

This is not to say that open competitions did not exist when it came to art and even poetry in the 19th century. The Centennial Exhibition Committee of 1876, for instance, held an open call for a Centennial poem. Walt Whitman entered the competition but lost to Kennett Square’s Bayard Taylor, a respectable gentleman of his era. Whitman, despite his worldwide fame, was still the odd man out in Philadelphia. Yet who really remembers Bayard Taylor today?

The Joan of Arc statue is one of three in existence worldwide. There’s a copy in Nancy, France, one by the Place des Pyramides, and a Philadelphia statue that was originally installed near the Girard Avenue Bridge in 1890 but relocated near the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1948.

Fremiet, who was commissioned by Napoleon III to design the statue, was not a peasant, although he “appropriated” a peasant girl, Aimee Girod, to pose as the great saint. (Girod, ironically, died in a fire in her apartment when she was 81 years old.)

Further back in history, Emperor Vespasian commissioned the Roman Colosseum around 70–80 AD. Apparently, at that time, there were no demands for an open competition from gladiators, who, by today’s standards, probably had every right to design the place in which they would meet death.

Leonardo da Vinci earned steady commissions for his artwork, such as “The Last Supper” in the Milan monastery church of Santa Maria della Grazia. What would the world have lost if Pope Julius II had decided to make the design of the Sistine Chapel an “open competition”?

Throughout history, most of the great art we are familiar with has been commission-based.

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.

The City of Philadelphia commissioned Alexander Milne Calder (1846–1923) to design and cast the bronze statue of William Penn atop City Hall.

According to the Association for Public Art, Calder sought the aid of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania to help determine the kind of clothing Penn would have worn. The Society of Friends did not revolt and demand that a Quaker create the Penn statue.

Calder, it should be noted, was not happy when the city incorrectly installed the statue facing northeast instead of south. Calder’s early drawings show Penn facing northwest toward Penn Treaty Park, the location of his treaty with the Lenni Lenape.

So, the city went wrong in placing the statue, just as it did when it gave Wesley Wofford his termination papers.

What if Alexander Stirling Calder (1870–1945) had encountered Wofford-like resistance in the early 1920s when he was commissioned by the Fountain Society to design a Native American-themed fountain on the Parkway?

This memorial to Dr. William Cary Swann, president of the Fountain Society, is named The Fountain of Three Rivers. It alludes to the story of Leda and the Swan. Representing the Delaware River, Calder chose a powerful male, a member of the Lenni Lenape tribe.

But why was a white man allowed to carve an image of a powerful Native American?

Calder knows nothing about the Native experience. He was from a privileged white artistic family of geniuses, and so he should have stuck to representing only privileged white people, such as the society dames standing before Stirling’s Shakespeare Memorial (1926) when it was installed in front of the Parkway Central Library.

In an old photo of the memorial’s dedication, these privileged lady socialites — all of them in 1920s bobbed hair and flapper hats — look very excited, no doubt anticipating the post-dedication champagne luncheon where (privileged) giggles would become the order of the day.

All of this points to a historical trend: When it comes to Philadelphia and public art, there is a lot of movement and change.

The Shakespeare Memorial was moved from its Central Library location to Shakespeare Park, just northwest of Logan Square, in 1953. Architects Paul Cret, Jacques Greber, and Gilbert McIlvain carefully chose its original location, but as the city so often does with public art, it changed the location of the memorial because an expressway was being built.

Also take into account former Director of City Planning Edmund Bacon, who purchased Alexander “Sandy” Calder’s “Three Discs, One Lacking” iron alloy painted sculpture in 1968. The sculpture was installed in front of City Hall but relocated in 1979, 1982, 1998, and finally in 2009.

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There’s also Philadelphia artist Emlen Etting’s “Phoenix Rising” sculpture, designed specifically to honor former mayor Richardson Dilworth for what used to be known as Dilworth Plaza in front of City Hall.

Etting and his wife, Gloria Braggiotti, inhabited an artistic and intellectual world that no longer exists in Philadelphia.

Etting, who died in 1993, is perhaps best remembered in “With the Rich and Mighty: Emlen Etting of Philadelphia,” a book by Kenneth C. Kaleta, published in 2008:

Kaleta writes:

“In 1993, the frothy class struggle of Cukor’s ‘The Philadelphia Story’ had been eclipsed in the movies by the Main Line’s struggle with AIDS… Jonathan Demme’s ‘Philadelphia’ opened with a montage of the marginal urban figures of city streets underscored by a rock anthem. The gritty movie city was foreign to the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood of the Ettings — the evolution of their century had brought his way of life to ashes along with the aristocratic painter.” 

The realization of Ettings’s non-representational metal sculpture in honor of Dilworth was met with some resistance. There was a considerable amount of political resistance, as Dilworth’s star was being demoted in the halls of City Hall, just as Frank Rizzo’s star would eventually crash and burn when his statue was removed from public view in front of the Municipal Services Building, a testament that former Philadelphia mayors do not generally fare well when it comes to remembrances in bronze, bricks, or mortar. (No doubt this is why outgoing Mayor Jim Kenney has stated he would never want a statue of himself.)

Etting eventually got approval for “Phoenix Rising” in 1982, and the sculpture was finally installed on Dilworth Plaza near City Hall.

Phoenix Rising “remained in its barren, sunken setting in the Plaza’s north end” during the 2012 renovation of Dilworth Plaza, as WHYY noted at the time. The sculpture was finally taken out of “the dusty demolition zone that is Dilworth Plaza” and relocated to Dock Street near Society Hill Towers, where its complete disassociation with Dilworth was finalized.

A final word about Alexander “Sandy” Calder’s “Three Discs, One Lacking,” which has been relocated several times since it was first installed in Penn Center near City Hall in 1968.

In the early 1970s, “Three Discs” was one of the favorite hangouts of the murderers of newspaper heir John S. Knight III, who lived in the Dorchester in Rittenhouse Square. In the warm summer months, men of this caliber or ordinary street hustlers would alternate between loitering near the underground ice skating rink and “Three Discs.”

In the late 1970s, “Three Discs” was a favorite sculpture to hang wet T-shirts out to dry.

Those who view life only through a racial lens may have won the Tubman debate, but the history of Philadelphia’s treatment of public statues, sculpture, and other forms of outdoor works of art suggests that no matter what image of Tubman is finally selected to be placed near City Hall, chances are that in time it will be moved elsewhere (and then moved again), perhaps even to a remote corner of Dock Street like “Phoenix Rising.”

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. He is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” His latest, “Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” was released in May 2023.

5 thoughts on “Thom Nickels: Talent, not race, should determine who creates public art in Philadelphia”

  1. Dear Thom, how can a public art selection committee evaluate talent? What scale are they to use? Many selection committees are loaded with political appointments who like most human beings have biases, preconceptions, and usually an agenda. Thus, the evaluation of talent in this context is subjective. It seems to me each selection, beginning with the short list, is a popularity contest rather than a critical selection process. The outcome of which produces an essay (their selection) memorializing “a path of least resistance”.

  2. A camel is a horse designed by a public art selection committee. My feeling is that there should be no public art of any kind. Following several years of attempts at altering history by railing against statuary, there is no point to spending public resources on what has become a process to air grievances. My question to Jenn, what is
    “activist” art, Black or otherwise?

    1. Michael, your question doesn’t make any sense. Black activists wanted a Black artist to make the statue. Read the article, Mr. No Public Art. Yeesh!

  3. How does a Black artist make the art more expressive, more understandable or more empathetic than an artist of some other ethnicity or race? The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was designed by an Asian female. As a Viet Nam veteran, I think she captured what the sacrifices were all about. I think that we would all be poorer if the memorial committee insist on a Vietnam veteran doing the desalvolumnign. Yeesh, back at ya, and “Cave malevolumn cattus.”

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