Reflections on “Scaffold”: Artistic Freedom, the Son of Sam, and Repentance

“Scaffold” sculpture was removed from the Walker Sculpture Garden.

The Walker Art Center made the right decision when it agreed to remove Scaffold from its new Sculpture Garden, yet for some thorny questions of artistic freedom remain.

We get stuck in this debate when we see the decision to remove Scaffold as a referendum on artistic freedom. That polarizes people. Yes, we deeply value artistic freedom, yet we hold other deep values, too, like fairness and inclusion. When values don’t line up on a particular decision, we have a difficult choice to make.

So here’s the question: In the case of Scaffold, how would those of us who agree with removing the sculpture describe our deeper values, those that in this case override our value for artistic freedom?

Continue reading

Applause for Dakota Elders’ Leadership in Taking Down “Scaffold”; Questions Remain about Cultural Appropriation

Signs of anger and hurt were hung on the chain link fence around the Sculpture Garden during the controversy

An unacknowledged aspect of the controversy around the Walker Sculpture Garden’s Scaffold is the Dakota elders’ leadership in resolving the conflict.

Consider the context. All native people have lived with generations of shame and humiliation from the broader society, from Indian mascots to boarding schools and broken treaties.

In this context, the Walker begins to erect the massive Scaffold, depicting several historic gallows. The most prominent feature replicates the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862. Neither the Walker nor Sam Durant, the artist, thought to talk to Dakota leaders. The sculpture is not only a painful reminder of their worst moment in history, it also shows they are invisible to the broader community, powerless to affect these decisions.

That’s a heavy burden. Yes, there was anger and hurt in the Dakota community. But in the end, Dakota elders led a healing ceremony with all parties in the circle.

Some have praised Durant and the Walker for agreeing to mediation and ultimately the sculpture’s removal. Yes, Durant and the Walker did the right thing — but they were fixing problems of their own making.

In the typical narrative, the Dakota are portrayed as aggrieved victims. It needs to be stated clearly: the Dakota elders were exemplary leaders.  They spoke of bringing “positive energy” to the Garden. The Dakota had no institutional power. Their power and leadership came from their moral authority on this issue, which resonated with many of us in the community, both Native and non-Native peoples.

We will have to wait and see what emerges from the Dakota-Walker collaboration moving forward. Meanwhile, there remain important issues to reflect upon. One is how to talk about cultural appropriation, the other is removing the veil of the dominant narrative and acknowledging the leadership Dakota elders brought to the table. Continue reading

Will Walker Embrace Institutional Changes in the Wake of “Scaffold” Controversy?

Olga Viso, Executive Director of the Walker Art Center at the Wednesday news conference.

The Walker Art Center will look for ways to bring more diversity and perspective to its board and staff following the recent controversy over the Scaffold Sculpture, said Olga Viso, Walker’s executive director.

She made her comments at a Wednesday news conference announcing an agreement to remove the sculpture, part of a mediation between Dakota elders, the Walker, and the sculpture’s artist, Sam Durant. In her formal remarks, Viso said:

“We pledge to host forums for continued listening and learning. We will reach out to Native communities including Upper Sioux, Lower Sioux, Shakopee and Prairie Island nations who have asked for dialogue and continued dialogue …

We will help bridge gaps of understanding among staff, among our board, among our audiences. We will examine our institutional structures and work to make structural change, which will take time.

Later in the Q&A, she was asked to elaborate on what institutional changes she envisioned to bring more voices to the table. She gave a brief answer: “So talking about representation on the board, more representation on the staff,” she said, and creating forums and other opportunities “to forge more deep connections for consultations so this doesn’t happen again.” Continue reading

Please Attend Ceremonial Deconstruction of “Scaffold” at the Walker Sculpture Garden, Friday at 2 p.m.

A news conference at the Walker Art Center announcing the removal of the sculpture “Scaffold” was well attended by local media.

The controversial outdoor sculpture “Scaffold” will start being disassembled on Friday, according to a joint statement by Dakota elders, representatives of the Walker Art Center and the artist who created the work. It was part of a  mediation agreement, announced today.

The sculpture was to be part of the upcoming Grand Reopening of the Sculpture Garden, but it was quickly engulfed in controversy. The artwork depicts several historic gallows, most prominently the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862. Neither the artist nor the Walker thought to ask Dakota people for their reaction.  When the sculpture started going up, that reaction came fast and strong.

Please join the ceremonial start of the deconstruction, Friday at 2 p.m. at the Sculpture Garden. It is a large sculpture and it will take four days to remove it completely. The wood will be taken to the Fort Snelling area where there will be a ceremonial burning. That date is yet to be announced.

The Fort Snelling area has great significance to the Dakota people, with both positive and negative reasons. Fort Snelling sits at Bdote, the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, the area central to the Dakota origin story. It also is the site where Dakota women, children and elders were held during the winter of 1862-63 following the Dakota-U.S. War. Hundreds died there.

The artist, Sam Durant, has turned over all intellectual property rights to the sculpture to the Dakota people, and promised never to replicate it.

This is a first in a series of blogs on today’s news conference. For the full statement that came out of mediation, keep reading. Continue reading

“Scaffold” Sculptor Seems to Contradict Himself

“Scaffold” sculpture at the Walker Sculpture Garden.

Artists and writers who make political statements run the risk of having their past works and words come back to bite them. Such seems to be the case for Sam Durant, the artist behind the controversial sculpture “Scaffold,” which is going to be removed from the Walker Sculpture Garden.

The sculpture is supposed to be a commentary on capital punishment. The main feature is a replica of the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in 1862, the largest mass hanging in U.S. history. Even as it was being installed, the sculpture created pain and anger in the Dakota community. The Dakota community was not consulted in this project, one that evokes a major traumatic event for their people.

A Facebook post by my friend Genjo pointed out that a landscape art sign Durant created in 2003 appears to contradict his 2012 work “Scaffold.” The piece (an electric sign with plastic text) was sold from a private collection at a Sotheby’s auction for $10,625. The sign has black letters on a red background. [Update: The sign quotes Black Panther Emory Douglas.] It reads:

LANDSCAPE ART
IS GOOD ONLY
WHEN IT SHOWS
THE OPPRESSOR
HANGING FROM
A TREE BY HIS
MOTHERF***ING
NECK

Durant’s “Scaffold” recalls seven significant hangings, including the 1862 Dakota hanging, the 1859 hanging of abolitionist John Brown, and the last legally conducted public execution in U.S. history (Billy Bailey, 1996). If Durant truly believed what he created in 2003, would he have created “Scaffold,” which is all about hanging but does not include an oppressor? Or has his thinking evolved? Genjo wrote: ” I am genuinely fascinated by the relationship of this poster to ‘Scaffold.'”

Walt Whitman once famously wrote: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Artists are free to change their minds or simply contradict themselves. But when controversies like this arise, their works are going to get extra scrutiny.

“Scaffold” Sculptor Apologizes to Dakota People

The “Scaffold” sculpture viewed from behind the Spoon and Cherry.

Sam Durant, the artist who made the controversial “Scaffold” sculpture, has issued an apology to the Dakota people.

The Walker Art Center bought the sculpture from Durant to include in its revamped Sculpture Garden, due to reopen in June. The artwork was a commentary on capital punishment, its defining feature a replica of the gallows that hung 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862 following the Dakota-U.S. War. The Walker did not include Dakota people at all in this process. When it started to be installed, it triggered shock and protest from Dakota people and their allies. The sculpture is going to be removed.

The story has made national headlines. The L.A. Times posted a story Saturday headlined: Sculpture of a gallows by L.A. artist in Minneapolis may be removed after Native American outcry.

Durant is coming to the Twin Cities to be part of discussions between the Walker Art Center and Dakota elders. His apology reads in part:

Scaffold opens the difficult histories of the racial dimension of the criminal justice system in the United States, ranging from lynchings to mass incarceration to capital punishment. In bringing these troubled and complex histories of national importance to the fore, it was my intention not to cause pain or suffering, but to speak against the continued marginalization of these stories and peoples, and to build awareness around their significance. …

I made Scaffold as a learning space for people like me, white people who have not suffered the effects of a white supremacist society and who may not consciously know that it exists. It has been my belief that white artists need to address issues of white supremacy and its institutional manifestations. Whites created the concept of race and have used it to maintain dominance for centuries, whites must be involved in its dismantling. However, your protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community. In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience I failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people. I offer my deepest apologies for my thoughtlessness. I should have reached out to the Dakota community the moment I knew that the sculpture would be exhibited at the Walker Art Center in proximity to Mankato.

Walker Delays Sculpture Garden Reopening, Leaving Space for Mediation with Dakota Elders

This statement from Olga Viso, Walker Art Center Executive Director, and Jayne Miller, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Superintendent was released this afternoon:

Out of respect for the process of mediation and resolution that is yet to unfold, the Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board announce today the official re-opening for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden will be postponed until Saturday, June 10, 2017. Both partners agree that this is the most appropriate course of action to honor the dialogue that is underway between Dakota Elders, the Walker, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and artist Sam Durant regarding the sculpture Scaffold in the Garden.

A private mediation with a group of Dakota Elders is planned for the morning of Wednesday, May 31, 2017, with leaders from the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, City of Minneapolis, and the artist and his representatives. In advance of this mediation, Dakota Elders will be meeting with a broader cross-section of the Dakota community on Tuesday evening. This meeting is being organized by Dakota Elders and will inform the mediation process.  …

Dakota Elders leading the mediation process have respectfully asked that others who feel allied in this endeavor, but who are not Dakota, or whom may represent other communities across the state and region, to please be patient and respect the process that is currently underway. There is concern from all parties involved in the mediation process that pre-emptive actions in advance of these discussions would be counterproductive.

A public statement at 2 pm on Wednesday, May 31, will provide an update on the status of the mediation.