The Star Tribune is reporting that Olga Viso is resigning as the Walker Art Center’s executive director effective at the end of the year.
Viso has led the Walker since 2008. No reason was given for her resignation. Her decision to step down comes after the Walker finished the multi-million overhaul of its campus and the Sculpture Garden. Her resignation also comes on the heals of the controversy over the sculpture Scaffold, a piece that was added to the new Sculpture Garden and ultimately removed.
Scaffold, a two-story tall sculpture, included seven different historic gallows; it was supposed to be a commentary on capital punishment. However, the sculpture’s most prominent feature was the gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in Mankato in the wake of the 1862 Dakota-U.S. War — the largest mass hanging in U.S. history. Neither the artist nor the Walker thought to ask Dakota people for their reaction, and as soon as it was put up it was engulfed in controversy and protest.
Karen Hering is a consulting literary minister for Unity Church Unitarian in St. Paul and writes a blog called: “Writing to Wake the Soul.” She wrote a powerful reflection on the removal of “Scaffold” from the Walker Sculpture Garden. It is republished here by permission.
Taking It Down: A Sacred Call for Deconstructing Oppression
On June 2, 2017, over 300 people gathered in downtown Minneapolis on the grounds of the Walker Art Museum’s redesigned sculpture garden, not quite finished and not yet opened, to witness the ceremonial deconstruction of an installation titled “Scaffold.” Designed by artist Sam Durant, “Scaffold” was modeled after a gallows used to hang 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota in 1862, the largest public execution in the history of the U.S.. A week before the planned reopening of the sculpture garden, the Walker engaged Dakota elders in a conversation about “Scaffold” and its possible impact on local audiences. Protests immediately called for its removal, and within one week, the Walker had postponed the garden’s reopening, participated in an independently mediated conversation with Dakota elders and the artist, and agreed to dismantle the installation in a public ceremony planned and led by Dakota elders. Other posts on-line offer more information about the sculpture and its deconstruction.
This reflection is based on my experience of the June 2 ceremony, with the hope of sharing the sorrow, the power and the call of that day’s events. The quotes are all from Sheldon Wolfchild’s opening words, delivered before the sacred ceremony began (which we were asked not to record out of respect). The wooden structure required four days to dismantle; the “Scaffold’s” understructure of steel and cement was then broken down by the Walker and also removed.
Taking It Down: a sacred call for deconstructing oppression
June 2, 2017: It is a hot summer’s day. Sun high in the blue sky. A crowd of over 300 gathers, a drum beats, a song thrums. Sheldon Wolfchild, Dakota elder from the Lower Sioux Agency, addresses the crowd. He says:
This is a sacred process…. Let us remember what this historical truth has brought us.
Behind him a newly constructed wooden scaffold looms. Unlike the gallows built in Mankato in the dead of winter 155 years earlier, after which it is modeled, this one is solid and built to last. Its beams are treated to withstand all weather, its foundation is cement, its invisible supports made of steel. The photos of it published in the previous week do not begin to represent its ominous presence and menacing energy. Wolfchild continues:
This is a sacred process to dismantle negativity. Let us all work together in one prayer from the heart, not the mind, as our elders say.Continue reading →
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 →
Several hundred people today attended a Dakota-led healing ceremony at the Walker Sculpture Garden to mark the beginning of the deconstruction of “Scaffold.”
The event began outside the temporary chain link fence surrounding the Sculpture Garden. Speakers included Art Owen of the Prairie Island Dakota Community and Sheldon Wolfchild of the Lower Sioux Indian Community.
“This is a negative energy up here that we are feeling at this moment,” Wolfchild said. “The spiritual elders have said the sooner we take down the scaffold, the sooner we get rid of negative energy.”
Wolfchild said Scaffold was a symbol of domination and dehumanization that has affected all First Nations peoples across the country. “So this symbol of taking down negative energy that was brought here — to justify the means of taking our original land and our spiritual belief system — will now end.”
Scaffold 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. It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Neither the artist nor the Walker thought to ask Dakota people for their reaction. When the sculpture started going up, that reaction came fast. The Walker and the artist Sam Durant have both issued public apologies for not being aware of how this would affect the Dakota community.
Straight Line Construction, a Native-owned business, volunteered to do the deconstruction. Louis Peters of Lower Sioux spoke at today’s ceremony on behalf of the crew: “The main thing I need to communicate is how glad and grateful we are to have our community here, to have all of you people here, for your prayers and your support as we start this process.”
Stephanie Hope Smith, the neutral mediator in this process, gave a brief update, saying today’s ceremony would be the last “media moment” at the Walker related to Scaffold. “This is closure,” she said.
The chain link fence was opened so people could gather next the sculpture for a “no cameras, no recording” prayer and sacred ceremony led by Owen. When it finished, the chain saws started. Continue reading →