Public Art Updates: More Challenges to the Historic Figures We Honor Through Art and Naming

Stephen Austin (Image courtesy of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.)

The Pew Charitable Trust’s Stateline publication ran a story — In Wake of Charlottesville, New Scrutiny for Native American Statues — that reported on a number of public art changes and challenges going on across the country. For instance, in  Kalamazoo, Mich., officials removed a granite sculpture from the city’s Fountain of the Pioneers, showing “a pioneer, weapon raised, rising above a Native American.”

Last week, Austin, Texas’ Equity Office recommended renaming seven streets and removing three markers honoring Confederate history, “calling it a high priority for the city to decide,” according to a story in the Washington Post. Possible changes include renaming “Confederate Avenue” and “Dixie Drive.” Perhaps its most controversial recommendation was suggesting a possible name change for the city itself, since Stephen Austin worked to perpetuate slavery.

These issues are surfacing locally and nationally and represent deeply important community conversations. Continue reading

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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?

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How Could Our Community Recognize Native American Trauma? Lessons from the Whitney Plantation

Peter, a whipped Louisiana slave, photographed in April 1863 and later distributed by abolitionists. (From Wikipedia.)
Peter, a whipped Louisiana slave, 1863. (From Wikipedia.)

Our nation has created museums to deeply traumatic events. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened in Washington D.C. in 1980, 36 years after the liberation of the concentration camps. The National September 11 Memorial and Museum opened in Greenwich Village in 2011, a decade after the attack.

Yet where in this country do we have a museum focused on the trauma of slavery and its legacy? And where in Minnesota do we have a museum dedicated to remember and acknowledge the  trauma suffered by the Dakota and Ojibwe nations, their dispossession of lands, languages and cultures, and their legacies?

It was not until late 2014 that a museum opened that was solely dedicated to telling the trauma and horrors of slavery: the Whitney Plantation just outside New Orleans.

The trauma suffered by African Americans and Native Americans differs from events like 911. They are not born of a single event, but span centuries and many, many events. In the case of Native Americans, they include: broken treaties, epidemics, language loss, suppression of Native religions, boarding schools, and more.

How do we tell those stories in a way that gets beyond a retelling of historical facts and really gets to the horror of what happened and how that pain continues today?

For slavery, consider the photograph of Peter (above). He was brutally whipped by slave masters. The photo is disturbing, and abolitionists used it as a visceral way to educate people about the truth of slavery. More recently, the images of the open casket funeral of Emmett Till, a young black boy brutally killed in 1955 in Mississippi. His crime was looking  at white woman and the image of his mutilated body shocked the nation.

The brutality suffered by Native Americans can be a difficult story to show. There are some images that might stick in peoples’ minds, such as photos from the 1891 Wounded Knee Massacre. But Native Americans were generally pushed off their land, their suffering hidden from sight. Images of a treaty signing or a boarding school don’t evoke the true devastation that occurred.

The Whitney Plantation offers a few ideas.

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