Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Meet the artist who will finally give Marian Anderson her Philly place of honor

Drexel-trained Tanda Francis is creating the long due statue of Anderson, which will stand outside the Academy of Music.

Artist Tanda Francis, who will design Philadelphia's new Marian Anderson sculpture.
Artist Tanda Francis, who will design Philadelphia's new Marian Anderson sculpture.Read moreJennifer S. Altman

She will stand tall outside of the Academy of Music, finished in a patina of fired bronze and backed by a series of rippling gold rings symbolizing sound waves.

Philadelphia’s Marian Anderson sculpture will be designed by Tanda Francis, an artist with a substantial public-art portfolio whose work centers on diasporic African people, organizers of the project say.

Francis’ proposal was chosen from among five finalists winnowed down from 53 hopefuls. She will now set to work on developing and refining her initial proposal portraying the singer and civil rights leader as an “Afro-future goddess” with a “graceful, angelic” feel.

“The theme I had in my mind, in my heart, when I was working was Classical meets Afrofuturism,” said Francis. “It doesn’t look like any portrait you’ve ever seen of her but it’s definitely Classical. In the back it has these rings emanating toward the building. So there’s something else going on.”

It was that something else that helped set her proposal apart from the others, said jury member Brittany Webb, one of the seven voting members of the jury that decided on the artist.

“How in three-dimensional art can you help an audience see sound? It’s such an interesting and creative choice,” said Webb, curator of 20th century art and the John Rhoden Collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Francis lives and works in Brooklyn, and trained at Drexel University as a design major and the Art Students League of New York. The sculpture will have a significant Philadelphia connection: She plans to fabricate it at a Philadelphia foundry.

She has dubbed the piece Freedom Rings.

The idea of a sculpture or memorial to Anderson has been raised more than once over the years, perhaps most notably by Blanche Burton-Lyles, the late Curtis-trained pianist who founded the Marian Anderson Museum and Historical Society in the South Philadelphia rowhouse that was once Anderson’s home. The idea gathered steam after a 2020 Inquirer column argued that the time was right.

An ad hoc group formed and has been developing plans and raising money. No firm date has been set for completion, but the goal is to have the sculpture in its Broad Street perch by fall 2023, said Theresa Rose, consultant to the project.

Francis said she sought to capture specific characteristics of Anderson: her music, of course, but also her humanity and something in the way she held herself.

“For me she has a poise that I feel was a necessity to be a performer back then in her day,” said Francis. “She is who she is, but you have to walk a line as a Black person now and especially back in the day, and she was someone who did that really well.”

Plans are being made to augment the sculpture with an app that has recordings of Anderson’s contralto voice and tells her story: her start in Philadelphia, her place in history as the first Black singer at the Metropolitan Opera, her triumphant Washington, D.C., performance after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused her a concert in Constitution Hall, and her work with the U.S. Department of State and United Nations. She died in 1993 at age 96.

“No one under 50 or 55 knows her history,” says Fred Stein, one of the project’s organizers, “and she’s right here from South Philly.”

Stein says fund-raising from private donors will continue; about $380,000 of the needed $1.2 million has been raised so far.

In the meantime, Francis will hone her design. She had originally depicted Anderson in a gown with a train, and then took it out. More recently, though, she’s learned how important that element was to Anderson.

“It was very much one of the iconic things about her. That train was really key to her visual identity, so I think I’m going to put that back in.”