To the Walker Art Center, the sculpture was a powerful critique of capital punishment. A metaphorical mash-up of seven gallows used in U.S. history. But, as the reopening of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden drew near, it became clear that to American Indian communities, “Scaffold” was a painful reminder of the actual gallows from which their ancestors hung.
“We were always hoping to bring awareness and understanding to this event in Minnesota history,” said Walker executive director Olga Viso. “But we came to understand that the work would only be really seen through the lens of trauma.”
In one of her first interviews since the controversy erupted May 26, Viso on Monday discussed her belated realization that the sculpture — based partly on the design of the gallows used to execute 38 Dakota men in Mankato in 1862 — would get a chilly reception in Minnesota: “The context and place really mattered, on public land, on former Dakota land, in proximity to Mankato.” She explained how the Walker will change going forward and what she learned through mediation with Dakota elders, who proposed that the piece be taken down.
“We’re learning in public ... in a very painful, painful way,” she said. “I take full responsibility for the missteps that have been made here.”
As Viso spoke, wood from the dismantled sculpture was stacked high in dumpsters that were removed from the garden by Monday evening. Some Dakota elders believe that the wood ought to be burned during a ceremony near Fort Snelling. But no timetable has been announced — and Viso said Monday it’s possible the wood may not be burned.
“No decisions have been made,,” she said, “and that’s really up to the Dakota people to decide.”
The June reopening of the sculpture garden after its multimillion-dollar makeover was meant to celebrate a space that embraces the city around it — a major moment for Minneapolis, which is gussying itself up to host the Super Bowl next year. It was meant to cap a yearslong transformation of the Walker’s campus.
But the opening was pushed back until June 10, a one-week delay, after Indian leaders and allies protested “Scaffold,” arguing that artist Sam Durant, who is white, was exploiting that all-too-recent history and re-traumatizing Dakota communities. Durant, who is based in Los Angeles, ultimately endorsed the request of Dakota elders that the sculpture be taken down.
“This is exactly how public art is supposed to function: inspiring discussion and debate, providing an occasion for education and even controversy,” said John Beardsley, director of garden and landscape studies at the Dumbarton Oaks research institute in Washington, D.C. “I’m sure this episode has been painful in various ways for different people, but any honest discussion usually is.”
During an interview Monday, Viso said that as the child of Cuban immigrants, this process has been “painful to me.” “The regret that I feel as someone who is deeply committed to inclusion and to telling stories and giving platforms to artists whose works need visibility,” she said. “It’s a huge learning moment.”
“I think we all see the need to continue to make that work and to make significant structural changes at all levels of the institution, which we are committed to and the board is committed to.” About 13 percent of Walker staff members are people of color, a Walker spokesperson said.
In recent days, some protesters have called for Viso’s firing. When asked whether she has discussed resigning, Viso said that she feels “very committed to trying to regain the ground that has been lost, not just for the institution but for myself in this community.”
In a statement Monday, Monica Nassif, president of Walker’s board of trustees, said, “The Board officers have been deeply engaged in this process, have supported Olga and the artist throughout mediation, and will continue to work together to move forward.”
How works were chosen
Since its opening in 1988, the garden has inspired other cities and art centers around the country. The new park that will open Saturday after a two-year renovation will look different. Less sod, more native plants. More access and entrances. And more space.
Originally 7.8 acres, the garden has grown to 12 acres over the course of two expansions, plus 5 more on the Walker’s hillside. Surface water will ebb and flow in a meadow on the garden’s north end, an acknowledgment of the site’s bog-like conditions. An 80,000-gallon cistern that stores stormwater will irrigate the garden and part of the adjacent baseball field.
“We’re working with it, as opposed to against it,” said landscape architect Tom Oslund. Some of the towering arborvitae that once shielded the garden from the city are gone. A new entrance on the north end will welcome visitors and, on the west side, a new building with accessible bathrooms will greet buses.
‘Scaffold’ cost not revealed
This project, the final piece of the Walker’s $41 million campus redesign, was meant to connect the gardens on either side of Vineland Place, drawing people from the popular Sculpture Garden to the Walker’s new entrance and into its galleries.
While the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board owns the land, the Walker has sole responsibility for choosing the art. It acquired 18 new works as part of the renovation of the garden and the Walker “campus,” using private funds. As a matter of policy, it declined to say how much it paid for “Scaffold,” which was financed by the Frederick R. Weisman Sculpture Acquisition Fund.
In choosing new works for the garden, the Walker sought to explore complex, contemporary questions. “Even the most beloved pieces in the garden, like ‘Spoonbridge and Cherry’ ... turn conventions and conventional forms and traditions on their heads,” Viso said.
The new blue rooster, “Hahn/Cock,” by Katharina Fritsch, asks questions about macho, military statues and how we memorialize history. Theaster Gates’ circular, 20-foot-tall brick structure creates a contemplative space using a statue salvaged from a church on Chicago’s South Side.
Like those pieces, Durant’s sculpture “looks at invisible histories that need to be brought forward,” Viso said.
But context changes the piece. When “Scaffold” was first shown in Europe, “it was lauded and supported by Amnesty International as a way to talk about capital punishment,” Viso said. By bringing the piece to the United States, the Walker hoped to start a conversation about capital punishment, she said.
Each piece the Walker acquired went through a process, Viso said. The curators first debate and discuss the piece, then send it to about 20 people on the board’s acquisitions committee. That group makes recommendations to the full board, which has final approval.
The center is rethinking that process for works in the garden, Viso said. When a work is “in a public place, on a permanent basis, in a space that is open to the public for free 365 days per year, it does carry a different responsibility.”
Durant ceded intellectual property rights to the Dakota people. “In a sense they own this work,” he said by phone Monday, “and how they want to approach the healing process around this, I would welcome any engagement with them.
“That said, I don’t have any presumptions. It’s not about me. It’s about them. I want to respect that.”
Viso thanked the Dakota elders for creating a space for “dialogue, understanding and potential healing. They were clear that the worst possible thing would have been for the piece to be burned down in some flagrant act of protest that would not have allowed a space for a dialogue of healing, reconciliation.”
Through this process, the sculpture has been “transformed,” Viso said. “It was always intended as a platform for dialogue and discussion on difficult issues,” she continued, and though it no longer exists as a sculpture, “I believe it lives on in archive and oral history and in the lives of those transformed in the process.”