The search for an artist to create a monument to poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou suffered a setback Wednesday when a little-known Arts Commission committee decided to start the entire process over again over concerns that the top-rated work was not a traditional statue.
A competitive call for proposals was put out by The City after the Board of Supervisors passed legislation last year calling for a statue to honor Angelou, intended for placement outside the Main Public Library.
The proposal for “Portrait of a Phenomenal Woman” by Berkeley-based artist Lava Thomas was scored the highest by the panel asked to judge the works. But the work was rejected by the Arts Commission’s Visual Arts Committee during a hearing in August.
On Wednesday, District 2 Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who carried the legislation calling for the project after her predecessor Mark Farrell left the seat, called on the Arts Commission to start over and ask for new proposals using clearer criteria.
Stefani said Thomas’ work didn’t adhere to the intent of the legislation. Approved in October 2018, it calls for artwork that “shall include a significant figurative representation of Maya Angelou.”
“I am here to tell what my words meant,” Stefani said. “As I carried the legislation across the finish line to elevate women in monuments, I wanted to do it in the same way that men have been historically elevated in this city.”
She continued, “It is incredibly important to me that we get this first representation right.”
Thomas’ work was described by the Arts Commission as “inspired by the form of a book with the author’s name on its spine in bold capital letters.”
“A portrait of Dr. Angelou appears on the sculpture’s surface, translated in bas relief from an original drawing,” the commission’s description said.
Thomas objected to the decision to pass her over. She and many of her supporters called the decision unfair and said it would deter artists from participating in future projects.
“The time that I spent researching, living with, re-living Dr. Maya Angelou’s life, her works, I poured all of that into the monument that I designed. It has been a horrific two months. On Aug. 9 I was called and told that I won. I was elated and surprised,” Thomas said. “Two weeks later, I received a call telling me that the sponsors preferred a more figurative traditional statue. That was not the design brief that we were given. In the ordinance, ‘statue’ is crossed out and ‘artwork’ was replaced.”
Angela Hennessy, an Oakland-based artist and Associate Professor at California College of the Arts, who served on the judging panel, said “what has happened is hella shady.”
She called Thomas’ proposal “poetically subversive” and said that it “is challenging conventions of sculpture and of monument representation, and that is exactly what we want our art to do, and if it makes you feel uncomfortable then that means she is doing her job.”
Outside the meeting, Stefani said she would have preferred a proposal that came in second, that included a bronze statue of Angelou. That proposal was also supported on the judging panel by Angelou’s son, Guy Johnson.
That proposal was by Jules Arthur, a New York-based artist. Arthur’s work, titled “The Gift of Literature,” includes a bronze statue of Angelou who “in her golden years sits refined and reflective as she gazes upon her yesteryears as a seven-year old girl poised for the world.”
The Arts Commission Visual Arts Committee was not satisfied with either work, however, when they heard the matter in August and voted to table the matter.
Stefani suggested that the Arts Commission had issued an unclear project proposal at the start.
“I feel like the only fair way to move forward here is to give all the artists a chance to meet the legislative intent by issuing a new RFP with clear criteria that adheres to the legislative intent,” Stefani said.
The commission’s Visual Arts Committee chair Dorka Keehn referred to Stefani as among the “project sponsors” who “have the right to choose to not accept the recommendations of either the panel, the committee or the Arts Commission.”
And in the end, the committee agreed to re-open the project using a new description.
Visual Arts Committee member Abby Sadin Schnair, however, said it was “unfortunate.”
“We discussed we didn’t want it to be another sculpture bust. We wanted to see something more expressive, still figurative, but a really thoughtful piece of art,” Schnair said. “I understand we need to go by what the sponsor wishes are and I do wish they had been more specific; however, I would like to express my disappointment that we will have to reopen this because we have to go along with the sponsor’s wishes.”
Time is a factor for the re-do. The legislation calls on the city to increase representation of nonfiction women in The City’s statues and monuments, beginning with the Angelou installation by December 31, 2020.