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San Francisco apologizes to artist over Maya Angelou monument
File photo of Maya Angelou at home in her Harlem brownstone in New York, Dec. 14, 2006. Chester Higgins, Jr./The New York Times.

by Zachary Small

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The decision to build a monument honoring poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou was supposed to jump-start San Francisco’s planned diversification of city sculptures; instead, an opaque selection process has opened new wounds between public officials and local artists.

In 2019, the San Francisco Arts Commission announced that artist Lava Thomas had been chosen to design the monument, but officials soon rescinded the offer after City Supervisor Catherine Stefani — the legislative sponsor behind the project — quickly rejected the design because she disliked its nonfigurative elements. Thomas’ design featured a 9-foot-tall bronze book with Angelou’s portrait on one side and her words on the other. Stefani then requested that the commission restart the selection process, focusing on artist proposals that included traditional statues of Angelou.

That reversal came as a shock to Thomas, who said she had spent the last year seeking answers from the commission, which did not respond to her questions and requests for information through the city’s freedom of information laws. And when she tried to address the controversy in a public hearing with the commission last month, she was abruptly muted toward the end of her speech and refused extra time.

“Uproar ensued,” Thomas, 61, said in an interview. “The commission broke trust with the public and stonewalled me from asking questions.”

At a time when classical bronze statues of men are falling out of favor across the country, some artists see the scrapped Angelou monument, which was intended for a spot outside the city’s central library, as an example of politicians’ thwarting visions of a more diverse future.

Supporters of Thomas are demanding that the city’s arts commission enact reforms to prevent another controversy. “Lava’s monument is a challenge to conventional representations of Black women, ” said Angela Hennessy, an artist who helped found the collective See Black Womxn, which has been an advocate of Thomas over the last year. “It’s quite subversive in a poetic way. That monument would be in production right now in the context of all these other colonial monuments being reconsidered and removed.”

Acknowledging the problem, the commission president, Roberto Ordeñana, apologized to Thomas on Monday. “I want to remind us all that when there are systems failures, the individuals and communities that end up experiencing the most harm as a result of said failures are those of us who experience oppression and marginalization,” he said during a public meeting. “Due to our failures, we have caused significant harm to an incredibly talented Black woman artist, and we have caused deep pain to members of the Black artist community.”

For Thomas and her supporters, it was a step in the right direction. But the group is demanding additional measures, including the resignations of the art commission’s visual arts committee chair, Dorka Keehn, and Stefani; a meeting with Mayor London Breed; and the suspension of the reissued call for proposals.

The commission complied with the latter request, voting unanimously to pause the selection process to engage stakeholders and promote clarity and transparency moving forward. Officials have yet to determine a new timeline for the project, which started with a $180,000 budget and has risen to $250,000.

“Until the city can prove that it truly cares about the ideals and principles of Maya Angelou, San Francisco doesn’t deserve her monument,” said Thomas, who is now planning to bring her dedication to the author elsewhere. “But it’s not yet time.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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