SFAC Apologizes to Lava Thomas for Mishandling Maya Angelou Monument

Lava Thomas speaks at the Oct. 16, 2019 arts commission meeting about her disappointment in the process. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

San Francisco officials hit pause on plans to erect a monument to poet Maya Angelou once again Monday, this time in response to criticism from the Bay Area arts community.

It’s been nearly a year since the SFAC came close to green-lighting a proposal by local artist Lava Thomas for a public artwork honoring Angelou. But in October 2019, city officials rejected Thomas’ design, saying the artist’s book-shaped sculpture etched with an image of Angelou’s face wasn’t what they had in mind: a traditional, figurative statue of the poet.

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So the SFAC restarted the entire process in January, issuing a new request for qualifications (with an increased budget of $250,000, up from $180,000). Thomas declined to be considered. In March, the commission’s pre-qualification panel selected a short list of 19 artists. Another panel was scheduled to select finalists later this month.

Thomas, meanwhile, says her efforts to make contact with the SFAC or gain further understanding about what happened to her proposal went largely unacknowledged during the past year. She appeared at a July 15 Visual Arts Committee meeting to offer public comment during a discussion about evaluating the city’s monuments; Thomas questioned SFAC’s desire to remove symbols of white supremacy while seeking to honor Angelou in the very same visual language. Her comment was cut short by a two-minute time limit—a move that subsequent public commenters and presenters objected to as disrespectful, calling for the SFAC to give Thomas additional time.

At Monday’s meeting, Thomas held the floor with her own agenda item, reading a 10-minute statement that detailed her own experiences and called for the SFAC to take steps towards restorative justice, beginning with pausing the new selection process.

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“The way in which this process was handled is an insult to Dr. Angelou’s legacy and the principles that she stood for,” Thomas said. “Mockery of due process, a pattern of disrespect, the erasure of our expertise and intellectual and creative labor, and the insistence of upholding racist tropes to represent one of the most celebrated exceptional Black women of our time in the name of honoring her, is beyond outrageous.”

Commission President Roberto Ordeñana apologized to Thomas on behalf of the SFAC. “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. “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.”

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

Visual Arts Committee Chair Dorka Keehn also formally apologized to Thomas, announcing that she would recuse herself from future engagement with the Maya Angelou project, as well as from her involvement with the evaluation of the city’s public monuments.

In nearly two hours of public comment, artists, curators and other members of the Bay Area arts community stated their support for the demands of Thomas and the collective See Black Womxn, formed late last year. Among the collective’s demands are a public apology from Supervisor Catherine Stefani, the monument’s legislative sponsor; that the SFAC change the language in the RFQ back from “statue” to “artwork”; that Keehn and Stefani resign; and that the SFAC arrange a meeting between See Black Womxn and Mayor London Breed.

Members of the public called for Thomas to be paid for the emotional and physical labor she has put into bringing attention to the issue. One commenter played a clip of Angelou reading poetry.

Arts commissioners voted unanimously to pause the selection process in favor of “engaging stakeholders in a meaningful way” to have “clarity and transparency moving forward.” Ordeñana initially proposed a delay of 30–60 days to address the issues raised by Thomas, but conversation between the commissioners following the lengthy period of public comment acknowledged more time would be needed to reestablish public trust.

Acting Director of Cultural Affairs Rebekah Krell said the budget for the publicly funded monument, which was scheduled to be completed by the end of this year, will not be impacted by the delay. However, the board of supervisors or the mayor will need to approve a deadline extension into 2021.

“Whatever the time frame is, it is what it is,” said commissioner Linda Parker Pennington, who earlier identified herself as the lone Black woman on the SFAC. “If that requires we have to go back and defer the ordinance, so be it. I really do think we need to allow the time to be taken that’s needed to repair what’s happened.”