Photo credit: Anthony Souffle for Star Tribune

Now that ‘Scaffold’ has come down and plans for what to do with the wood are underway, several organizations are publicly criticizing the Walker Art Center’s actions in the case.

In a statement issued June 9, a group led by the National Coalition Against Censorship took issue with both the outcome and the process by which the Walker agreed to dismantle "Scaffold," which began on Friday, June 2, only seven days after Walker executive director Olga Viso opened public discussion about the sculpture by posting an open letter to the American Indian community.

"The Walker’s decision to destroy Scaffold as a way to respond to protests sets an ominous precedent: not only does it weaken the institution’s position in future programming but sends a chill over artists’ — and other cultural institutions’ — commitment to creating and exhibiting political, socially relevant work," said the statement from NCAC, which represents more than 50 organizations. The statement also was endorsed by the literary organization PEN America, the International Association of Art Critics, Observatoire de la liberté de création (France), International Art Rights Advisors, Freemuse – defending artistic freedom, Index on Censorship and Stichting In den Vreemde. 

Moreover, the statement said, "The hasty decision did not allow for time to obtain meaningful feedback from the broader community or consider various options to respond to the concerns raised by Dakota leaders." 

Recognizing the need for cultural organizations and artists to respond in "creative ways" to such controversies, the coalition had reached out to the Walker, according to Joy Garnett, Arts Advocacy Program Associate at NCAC.

“We were in communication with the Walker after the controversy erupted,” Garnett said. “We decided we might offer our assistance or sounding board – we know that these things can be very complex. [The Walker] didn’t take our advice to move more slowly. They moved quickly.”

The timing of the protests was inopportune for the Walker, which had planned the sculpture as part of the June 3 reopening of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. It made another fast decision: to push back the opening until June 10.  

Sam Durant’s ‘Scaffold’ was a large wooden-and-steel structure composite of the gallows used in seven U.S.-state sanctioned executions, including the abolitionist John Brown (1859), the Dakota 38 (1862), the Lincoln Conspirators (1865), Saddam Hussein (2006), and several others. Facing starvation, a number of Dakota took up arms in 1862 after being forced onto reservations and cheated out of money they were owed. The six-week U.S.-Dakota War cost the lives of an estimated 600 white settlers and soldiers, and 100 Dakota warriors. The Dakota 38 was the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

Protests over the work’s placement in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden began on Friday, May 27 after Walker Director Olga Viso posted an open letter to The Circle, an American Indian newspaper in St. Paul. The Walker’s decision to dismantle and remove the sculpture happened the next day, Saturday May 27. One week later, on Friday, June 2, the piece was dismantled in a ceremony with Dakota elders and spiritual leaders.  

The Dakota community has put a hold on any proposed burning, taking time to reconvene in-person with elders and spiritual leaders from different parts of North America. They will meet on June 25 to decide what to do with the wood, which is being held in an undisclosed location within the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

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