City sculpture job: Whites need not apply

Let’s go crazy for a minute and imagine the city wants to honor Mayor Jim Kenney by commissioning a statue. Maybe bronze, maybe marble, maybe Crisco, whatever.

The Harriett Tubman statue at City Hall (Photo: Artform)

Now let’s imagine a handful of sculptors were invited to present their ideas. And let’s further imagine that all of them were white.

Can you imagine that? I can’t. It would violate the city’s well-known commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.

It would be, well, you know, racist.

With that in mind, we look at the city’s announcement last week that five “semi-finalists” have been selected to compete to execute a statue of famous abolitionist Harriett Tubman. 

All five are Black.

A curious coincidence, or flat-out racism?

Before you make up your mind,  here is the background.   

After Wesley Wofford’s bronze sculpture of Harriett Tubman was on display here, to rave reviews from the public during a three-month display outside City Hall, the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (a.k.a. Creative Philadelphia) offered Wofford a $500,000 commission to create a similar, permanent monument to stand in the same place.

Wesley Wofford working on Tubman statue (Photo: The Laurel of Asheville)

That’s when the molten bronze hit the fan. 

Why? Wofford is white.

The offer was quickly withdrawn, and maybe justifiably so, because the commission was offered with no competition. But the city did have a finished work of his that was loved.

Wofford’s name is not among the five, even though it was his excellent sculpture that sparked the desire for a Philadelphia statue. How can that be?

No, this isn’t an expression of “white fragility” — the award-winning Wofford will survive. 

It is a question directed at city leaders: How can it be a good thing to make race a key component of decision-making when it comes to art?

I can hear one response: Tubman was an important Black historical figure and her  image should be entrusted only to a Black artist.

OK. Let’s apply that standard to others and see what happens.

Sidney Kimmel may be the biggest philanthropist in the history of this city. His name is on everything from performing arts centers to university buildings to hospital wings.

At some point, someone will want to commission a statue of him.

Kimmel is Jewish. Should the competition be limited only to Jewish artists?

As a Jew, I would find that insulting, and limiting. In the vast universe of possibilities, a Christian might have the best design. Or a Muslim. Isn’t what is “the best” our goal?

As to Black artists, yes, I acknowledge past discrimination might have limited their reach. The five Black semi-finalist sculptors have achieved prominence despite that. Do they feel threatened by Wofford’s work?

The city’s goal should be to acquire the best possible statue. I’m not sure the competition should even be limited to American artists.

But artists of only one race? 

Decisions made solely on the basis of race is racism, straight up.

10 thoughts on “City sculpture job: Whites need not apply”

  1. Stu- thank you for having the integrity to say what needs to be said. Decisions that are based on the color of one’s skin are simply racist. I have lived my life ttrying to be fair to all people, regardless of color. In the current climate, skin color is the determining factor in so many decisions. I am appalled by it. Keep on fighting the good fight against this hypocrisy

  2. While I am in agreement in this particular case, wasn’t this exact same argument also used by many to oppose Affirmative Action?

    1. Affirmative Action morphed into quotas, which became racism de facto (if not de jure).

      Does anyone really think that all of this black/white sturm und drang is not part of some desire to drive us apart rather than unite us?

    2. Maybe, but I am not aware of ANY case where NO white students were admitted.
      I worked for a Black magazine for a few years and we believed in “equal opportunity,” judiciously applied. The publisher was a Black conservative businessman.

  3. Our country is upside down. In my opinion the pendulum has swung too far. I hope this country wakes up before it is too late

    1. The pendulum always swings back. I am hoping to see it before I die.
      Trump’s presidency was the pendulum swinging back, but his conduct repudiated some good ideas.

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