Posted on October 24, 2019

Artist’s Vision for Maya Angelou Statue Crushed by City Hall’s Dysfunction

Heather Knight, San Francisco Chronicle, October 19, 2019

City Hall’s custom of spending as long as possible to get almost nothing done has sadly slowed the effort to install a monument to Maya Angelou outside the Main Library and has left a talented local artist fuming.

You’ll recall that 2½ years ago, our so-called progressive city realized its public art collection included 87 statues, but only two represented real women.

The Board of Supervisors passed legislation to increase the representation of women in the public realm, including adding the Angelou statue, and raised money to pay for it.

In the tortoise-like pace of City Hall bureaucracy, it took two years for three artists to be named as finalists to create the Angelou monument and another few weeks for a selection panel to name Berkeley artist Lava Thomas as its top choice.

But in the old allegory, the tortoise keeps plodding along and ultimately wins. In the Angelou saga, the tortoise has declared the competition invalid and has returned to the starting line. Thomas is not the choice after all. Nobody is.

The dispute stems from Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who sponsored the legislation creating and paying for the monument, only specifying after Thomas was selected that she wants a literal statue. A traditional, person-in-bronze statue like all the old-school ones depicting men that dot Golden Gate Park, City Hall and elsewhere. {snip}


The ridiculous outcome stems from the November 2018 call from the Arts Commission for proposals to honor Angelou, the late writer and civil rights activist who lived in San Francisco as a teenager and young woman. It sought a “significant figurative representation” of Angelou, and 111 artists responded.


Thomas told me she chose an image of Angelou that wasn’t widely familiar — of Angelou in her 40s with close-cropped natural hair and big, gold hoop earrings.


But not to Stefani. She prefers the second-choice pick by Arthur, which depicts two Angelous — a young girl reading and an older woman typing — in statue form.

Stefani said she always wanted a statue, but the Arts Commission staff didn’t want that word included in its request for proposals. It compromised on the phrase “significant figurative representation,” which prompted the confusion, Stefani said.


Dorka Keehn, chair of the Visual Arts Committee, said it’s not uncommon to go back to the drawing board if a client — in this case, Stefani — isn’t happy with the outcome. The commission, she explained, is like an art consultant, working to ensure the client is satisfied.


Moreover, while I’m no art expert, even I know the effort to depict an African American woman should not look exactly the same as the dozens of depictions of white men all over our city. The whole point is that Angelou is different — in gender, in color, in political viewpoint, in priorities — and she deserves to be celebrated for that difference.

“She represents freedom, possibility and potentiality,” Thomas said. “Why would the city want a European figurative convention that colonial and Confederate monuments are based on? What I wanted to do with my proposal was to give the city of San Francisco a new icon.”