Plans for Maya Angelou Monument in San Francisco Face Long Delay

A rendering of Lava Thomas' proposed monument to Maya Angelou, 'Portrait of a Phenomenal Woman,' outside the SFPL main branch.  (Courtesy of Eren Hebert)

Plans to erect a major new monument in San Francisco honoring poet Maya Angelou now face a long delay, following a decision by city officials to scrap the city arts commission's recommended proposal.

Around two months ago, the San Francisco Arts Commission's Visual Arts Committee selected Bay Area artist Lava Thomas' proposal from a pool of three finalists.

The artwork, titled Portrait of a Phenomenal Woman, was to stand outside the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library.

The verso of Lava Thomas' 'Portrait of a Phenomenal Woman.'
The verso of Lava Thomas' 'Portrait of a Phenomenal Woman.' (Courtesy of Eren Hebert)

But city officials said Thomas' proposal for a nine-foot-tall book made out of bronze with Angelou's face cast on the cover wasn't "figurative" enough—in other words, that it was too abstract and conceptual.

They have ordered the arts commission to start the process over from scratch.

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At a visual arts committee meeting Wednesday, San Francisco supervisor Catherine Stefani, who authored the legislation to commission the Angelou monument, explained the intent behind her legislation and the reason for the city's decision.

"The legislation I wrote was clear: that the Maya Angelou statue be a significant figurative representation of Maya Angelou," Stefani said. "As I carry 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 this city."

Stefani said that the city's call for proposals may not have been worded clearly enough, adding that it was unfair to the competing artists.

"I feel like the only fair way to be fair here is to give all the artists to meet the legislative intent by issuing a new RFP [Request for Proposals] with clear criteria that adheres to the legislative intent," Stefani said.

Acting director of cultural affairs, Joanne Lee, issued the following statement shortly after the meeting:

Given the lack of clear consensus on the selection, the Arts Commission’s Visual Arts Committee felt the best move would be to start this process over, and seek a more unifying outcome.  All artists who responded to the Request for Qualifications will be invited to compete in the next public RFQ.  This will be an important, permanent work of public art.  It’s more important to get it done right than to get it done fast.

Members of the Bay Area arts community present at the meeting responded with dismay and anger, including Thomas herself. "The fact that an artist—a black woman—is disrespected in this way, in the name of honoring another black woman?" Thomas said. "Give me a break."

Artist Lava Thomas speaks her mind at the arts commission visual arts committee meeting.
Artist Lava Thomas speaks her mind at the arts commission visual arts committee meeting. Oct. 16, 2019. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Bay Area resident and former vice president of the city's planning commission, Edward Sewell, read aloud a letter from Angelou's son, Guy Johnson. Johnson was a member of the selection panel for the project, though not present at the Wednesday meeting.

"I freely admit Ms. Thomas was not my first choice," Johnson wrote in his letter, as dictated by Sewell. "But she was selected by a democratic process and I was fine with that."

Edward Sewell reads aloud from a letter by Guy Johnson, the son of Maya Angelou, at the Oct. 16 arts commission visual arts committee meeting.
Edward Sewell reads aloud from a letter by Guy Johnson, the son of Maya Angelou, at the Oct. 16 arts commission visual arts committee meeting. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

The Angelou work is the first in a larger initiative to close the gender gap among San Francisco's public monuments. So far, of the city’s roughly 90 statues, less than a handful honor nonfictional women—among them, Dianne Feinstein and Florence Nightingale.

More than 100 artists responded to the art commission's call for proposals in November 2018. An Arts Commission document states the maximum budget for the Maya Angelou statue, including design, engineering, fabrication, consultation and transportation, is $180,000. The two other shortlisted proposals were by Jules Arthur and Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle.

“I was excited when I found out I was one of the three finalists,” Thomas said in a phone interview at the time she was informed that she had been recommended for the commission, back in August. “When I found out I’d been selected, I was elated and surprised.”

Angelou was a longtime resident of San Francisco. She moved to the city as a young girl in the early 1940s. She attended George Washington High School and studied dance and drama on a scholarship at the California Labor School. She was a regular attendee at Glide Memorial Church.

A spokeswoman for the arts commission said the city is confident about selecting a new proposal for the project by the end of next year, before the enabling legislation expires.

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