A project to create a permanent statue of Harriet Tubman in Philadelphia is moving forward after the city selected an artist and design.
Artist Alvin Pettit was selected commissioned by the city’s Office for Arts, Culture and Creative Industries to create the statue as a tribute to Tubman, the famous abolitionist and emancipator who escaped slavery when she arrived in the free city of Philadelphia in 1849. The sculpture, which will be placed outside City Hall, will be the first statue of a black female historical figure in Philly’s public art collection.
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In September, the OACCE launched a survey for the public to choose between possible sculpture designs by artists Pettit, Vinnie Bagwell, Tanda Francis, Richard Blake and Basil Watson. (Blake subsequently dropped out of the competition.) The survey, which allowed voters to rate the designs in seven categories, including similarity, essence and emotional qualities, received nearly 3,000 responses. Pettit’s proposal received the highest score in all categories.
Be The design, titled “A Higher Power: The Call of a Freedom Fighter,” is inspired by Tubman’s exploits as a Civil War soldier and Arnold Friberg’s 1975 painting “The Prayer at Valley Forge,” which shows George Washington praying in the woods during the Revolutionary War.
“I consciously avoided depicting it as persecuted like many other monuments,” Pettit wrote of his design Instagram. “Instead, I chose to highlight a moment in history when tyranny was on the run.”
Today our office announced @alvinpettit as winning artist for the creation of the permanent Harriet Tubman statue in Philadelphia!
The statue will be the first statue of a Black female historical figure in the city’s public art collection! pic.twitter.com/Bu4nudUBtc
— Creative Philadelphia (@CreativePHL) October 30, 2023
To guide the process of selecting an artist and design, the African American Historic Statue Advisory Committee was formed. It consists of public arts professionals, historians, educators, community leaders, Tubman’s family members and OACCE staff. The survey results, along with other evaluation criteria, were taken into account when selecting the winning design.
“Throughout the course of this competition, we have seen remarkable talent from our semifinalist artists,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a news release. “Each presented a unique vision and told their own story about Harriet Tubman through their suggestions. Still, I was impressed by Alvin Pettit’s design and how it portrays the likeness of Harriet Tubman, evoking her power and reminding us of her leadership.”
Pettit is a Baltimore-born artist who spent three decades sculpting and painting. His recent works include a two-block-long Black Lives Matter mural and a bronze sculpture of activist Mary McLeod Bethune, both in Jersey City, where Pettit serves on the city’s arts council board.
Philly’s new statue was announced following a sculpture of Tubman temporarily honored Philadelphia last year and gained popularity among the public. Wesley Wofford’s “Harriet Tubman: A Journey to Freedom” stood in front of City Hall from January to March to commemorate Tubman’s 200th birthday.
The city then decided to permanently erect a statue of Tubman, also designed by Wofford. After public backlash from local artists — who protested the decision by Wofford, a white artist, to depict a black historical figure — the city instead launched a public call for designs.
After Pettit’s design is selected, the artist is expected to begin installing the statue next summer. It is expected to be fully completed by no later than Early 2025according to current city forecasts.