It’s been just more than a month since Minneapolis was hit with the “Scaffold” controversy. Set to be a part of the city’s redesigned Sculpture Garden, artist Sam Durant’s “Scaffold” sculpture was to be placed on former Dakota land. His piece re-created the designs of seven gallows used in U.S.-sanctioned executions in an attempt to foster dialogue about racism in the history of capital punishment. But in Minnesota, the work encountered a regional blind spot. One of the gallows in the sculpture referenced 38 Dakota men massacred in Mankato in 1862 on orders of President Abraham Lincoln. For many observers, that was a painful reminder of Minnesota’s colonial history, setting off days of emotional protests. What happened next was unprecedented. After a meeting of Dakota elders, the artist, Walker Art Center officials and representatives of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, it was decided that Dakota would dismantle the sculpture and do what they felt was right with the wood. Durant ceded all of the work’s intellectual property rights to the Dakota people, who are still weighing next steps.
We asked several American curators to consider the controversy’s lessons for the larger museum world. Their e-mail responses, which have lightly edited for clarity, set a new tone for how cultural institutions can work with local indigenous communities.
On “Scaffold” setting a precedent for how museums deal with culturally and historically traumatic work:
Christina Burke, curator of Native American and Non-Western Art at the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, Okla.: “In my opinion, the lesson is for museums to engage their communities (plural) in ongoing dialogue about collections, exhibitions, programs and day-to-day activities. This dynamic provides opportunities for institutions to explore potentially contentious issues and for communities to voice concerns as projects are being developed. I think the critical issue is making time to listen to relevant stakeholders and address conflicts early. As a non-Native curator of Native art, it strengthens my commitment to stay connected to the rich and diverse indigenous communities across North America. I will always have much to learn.”
Connie Butler, chief curator, Hammer Museum in Los Angeles: “While the issue of the ownership of history and trauma is one we are seeing on many fronts, I believe there are issues here that are very particular to this case and to Native American history in this country. So while some may worry that museums will bow to community pressures of all kinds, I think that this is an instance where clearly the trauma being recalled and relived on the part of native people warranted the serious consideration that the Walker gave it. I think we can all learn from this. The issue that still remains to be worked through, and makes the reception of the work part of its history and impact, is the transference of the intellectual property back to the Dakota people. This will become part of a living archive of the work.”
Ashley Holland, an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and former assistant curator of native art at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis: “I am hopeful that these events demonstrate to other museums that dialogue is important, especially when the subject matter of a program, exhibit or artwork discusses a marginalized community. If a museum is presenting on Native issues, especially if the artist has no connections to the Native community, bring in some outside perspectives. Ask for insight. Seek out established Native artists. Museums, especially those that can fall under the heading of mainstream or encyclopedic, should be actively presenting Native art and exhibitions. Native art is a dynamic and diverse field that is not separate from the rest of the art world.”
Sara Krajewski, curator of modern and contemporary art, Portland Art Museum: “In my eyes, this situation is a strong call for curators to step outside the contemporary art world bubble, get to know the contexts in which we are working, partner with communities in authentic ways, and take time to consider impact. It also serves as an example that museums can admit mistakes and act to make things right.”
On museums’ role in relation to local, marginalized and indigenous communities:
Butler: “It is instructive to look at sister institutions in places like Canada and Australia where there are parallel histories of indigenous struggle and many museums have made significant changes by having a curator or even department of native or indigenous art. This way an expertise is developed within the museum. I don’t know if this is warranted in Minneapolis but certainly having diverse voices among the curatorial staffs can only enrich the program. All institutions are tone-deaf to someone and we all need to educate ourselves in an ongoing way.”
Andrea Gyorody, assistant curator of modern and contemporary art, Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College: “If museums are truly active in and responsible to their communities — and conceive of those communities very broadly — then we will see fewer instances of what some have referred to as ‘tone-deafness,’ and a lesser need, I hope, for people of color and people of marginalized backgrounds (racial, socioeconomic, etc.) to have to play the role of teacher, enforcer and hand-holder.”
On the potential for “decolonizing the museum”:
This term sounds a bit academic, but I promise you it’s not. It’s more like getting honest about America’s colonial past and how museums reflect that history. Museums were imported from Europe, after all. Historically, they have not used art for bridging with local communities. “Most museums, by design, project an image of the West into the future while relegating non-Western cultures to the past or history,” says Hrag Vartanian, editor-in-chief of the New York-based art magazine Hyperallergic. “Decolonization means being honest about the forces that willed their institutions into reality but also seeing what they were built for, which is to prop up the ideology of the elites with specific agendas.”
Risa Puleo, curator-in-residence, Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts: “In my curatorial practice, I try to begin with the fact that the U.S. is a country founded on the dispossession of native lands and labor forcibly obtained from Black and Brown peoples whose bodies have been and in some cases are still treated like objects for producing labor, and whose cultural projects have been collected as trophies by the museum. If one starts from that place, you make different kinds of curatorial, but also institutional, decisions. It’s not only the museum that needs to be decolonized, but rather the cultural logic that underpins all institutions. The biases of museums also play out in the hospital, the prison, and school systems.”
Holland: “Museums are inherently colonial institutions. I’ve come to believe that truly decolonizing the museum space may not ever be possible. But that does not mean museums should not recognize their colonial status and make strides toward addressing them. That is what decolonizing the museum has started to mean for me as a curator and student of Native American art history. What I aim for is indigenizing the museum space. Putting Native voices back into the conversation of Native art, history and culture. Let the Native communities talk for themselves.”