SFAC Awards the Maya Angelou Monument to Lava Thomas, Finally

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

After a yearlong ordeal, Lava Thomas’ design for a monument to honor Dr. Maya Angelou at the main branch of the public library has finally been approved by the San Francisco Arts Commission. On Nov. 2, the commissioners voted unanimously to terminate the second request for qualifications (RFQ) launched by the SFAC in January and paused in August, and award the $250,000 project to Thomas, the 2019 review panel’s original selection.

Resolving this embarrassing delay in the city’s attempt to increase the representation of women in public monuments (there are currently only three monuments to specific women in San Francisco; 91% of the city’s monuments honor or depict men) became a top priority for Acting Director of Cultural Affairs Denise Bradley-Tyson when she assumed her position in early October.

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In just the past month, Bradley-Tyson moved swiftly to organize meetings with members of the arts commission, leveraging her personal connections to Mayor London Breed, Thomas and other stakeholders to pave the way for the Nov. 2 decision.

“With this issue—the discord around it had been going on for so many months—there was truly a willingness among all parties to find a path forward, to begin healing and focusing on the project itself,” says Bradley-Tyson.

The arts commission publicly apologized to Thomas in early August during a meeting that saw nearly two hours of public comment criticizing the SFAC’s mishandling of the project. In September, Mayor Breed and Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who authored the original legislation to increase the representation of women in city monuments, and who favored “a significant figurative representation of Maya Angelou” as opposed to Thomas’ book-like design, met with Thomas privately and apologized to her. And in the Oct. 21 meeting of the SFAC’s visual arts committee, Stefani made a public apology, saying, “For the pain I caused you, Ms. Thomas, and the process you have had to endure, I am truly sorry. And to the others who have felt they were not seen or heard over the past year, I am also truly sorry.”

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“I’m certain that Dr. Angelou’s spirit can rest knowing that justice has been served here today,” Thomas said to the visual arts committee on Oct. 21, accepting Stefani’s apology. “It has been a long time coming.”

Over the past year, as rumors swirled of exactly who blocked Thomas’ design (some named the mayor, others pointed to an anonymous private donor) and why, the conversation around which figures public monuments should recognize—and how—has become an international one. San Francisco is now evaluating all its existing monuments, after protestors targeted statuary in Golden Gate Park and the SFAC preemptively removed the Christopher Columbus statue near Coit Tower.

San Francisco's Acting Director of Cultural Affairs Denise Bradley-Tyson. (Courtesy SFAC)

Against a background of calls for racial justice and increased transparency (many of them led by Thomas herself), the artist selection process for the Maya Angelou monument has spanned the tenure of three separate leaders of the SFAC. Tom DeCaigny departed after eight years as San Francisco’s director of cultural affairs at the beginning of 2020, and Deputy Director Rebekah Krell stepped in as acting director. When Krell left for a position in the city’s COVID Command Center in October, the mayor appointed Bradley-Tyson, former executive director of the Museum of the African Diaspora, in her stead. Bradley-Tyson will remain in the role until newly announced Ralph Remington becomes DeCaigny’s official replacement in early 2021.

Despite her short tenure—or perhaps because of it—Bradley-Tyson has led the SFAC to effective action on the Maya Angelou monument. She quotes the famous writer, as many involved in the project are wont to do: “‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’”

“I felt like this was one of those untold stories,” she says of Thomas’ spurned design.

Before the decision to cancel the second RFQ was finalized, a collector of Thomas’ work had actually approached the city offering to fund Thomas’ Maya Angelou monument and then donate the bronze sculpture to the city, ensuring it would enter the civic art collection, if in a more roundabout way. But this was an imperfect solution for many, since it meant Thomas’ design would retain second-tier status, and would have to be installed elsewhere in San Francisco (the SFAC’s commission would claim the space just outside the main branch of the public library).

So when canceling the second RFQ became a possibility, Bradley-Tyson and members of her office lead discussions with Thomas, the collector and library staff about turning that proposed funding towards other purposes. “We have someone who loves Lava’s work, loves what it stood for,” Bradley-Tyson says. “Rather than see this money go away, we had a discussion about how could this money be redeployed in terms of activating the monument so that it could be a living, breathing monument.”

The donor (who will be named once the paperwork is finalized) has promised $160,000 to create programming inside and outside of the library that centers around “the spirits and legacy of Dr. Maya Angelou,” Bradley-Tyson explains.

The verso of Lava Thomas' 'Portrait of a Phenomenal Woman.'
A rendering of Lava Thomas' proposed monument to Maya Angelou, 'Portrait of a Phenomenal Woman.' (Courtesy of Eren Hebert)

While some of the public comment at the SFAC’s Nov. 2 meeting touched on ways this long process might forever taint the Maya Angelou monument moving forward, Bradley-Tyson is more optimistic. “This is just the first step in reframing our city’s art collection to be one that includes women and people of color who are universal heroes, who inspire all of us,” she says. To her, the journey to eventually selecting Thomas’ design—even at its most painful moments—opened up a much-needed local conversation. She points to the coalitions that formed around Thomas, including the See Black Womxn collective, and the outpouring of community support that pushed the SFAC to address the issue head-on.

“My personal hashtag became ‘monuments matter,’” Bradley-Tyson says. “I think as a nation we want to be proud of who we exalt in public spaces and also want to ensure that future generations see themselves in the monuments in our public spaces.”

To that end, the SFAC is working with Supervisor Stefani and the mayor’s office to establish an advisory committee to help guide the city through future representations of Black women and women of color in the public realm. Stefani said the committee would include Black women artists and arts professionals. “I also plan to advocate for funding to expand representation in the public realm with the input of this newly formed advisory committee,” Stefani said on Oct. 21, “as well as for educational programming focusing on cultural and racial equity in public art.”

Lava Thomas’ Portrait of a Phenomenal Woman will be the first time a woman of color is honored with a monument on a piece of city property. San Francisco is a leader on so many issues, Bradley-Tyson says, and this can be yet another realm in which the city sets national precedence.

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“I’m confident we’ll be looked at in terms of the work we do in this space,” she says, “particularly as it relates to paying honor to more women and women of color.”