What was supposed to be a joyful opening of the long-awaited remodeling of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden on June 3 turned into a heated week of protests over a giant wooden “Scaffold.”
Envisioned by Walker Art Center Executive Director Olga Viso as a centerpiece of the family-friendly green space, the sculpture was modeled on eight gallows used in U.S. executions. L.A.-based artist Sam Durant intended to spark discussion about capital punishment.
But those gallows included one used to hang 38 Dakota warriors in 1862 in Mankato. Viso failed to anticipate the uproar from the American Indian community, who saw the work as traumatizing and objected to its placement in a park used by children, on land once held by the Dakota.
Viso quickly apologized for the Walker’s “flawed” process. The museum and Durant agreed to remove “Scaffold” and surrender all intellectual property rights to the Dakota people, who dismantled the sculpture after a ceremony.
The Twin Cities continued to engage an intense conversation about the propriety of destroying art, the lack of Native voices within the Walker and the inherently colonial nature of the museum world itself. It placed the Walker at the heart of a national debate that erupted throughout 2017 as marginalized communities pushed back against art they saw as offensive, while others worried about censorship.
“The wood has a spiritual nature that is inherent to itself in Lakota Dakota tradition,” said Dakota elder Ronald P. Leith. “Of the four elements — fire, water, air, earth — you cannot use any of the elements in a disparaging fashion without putting yourself in a position of being disrespectful. To use fire to burn this wood that has a negative stigma attached to it — that is not allowed.”