In one of her first interviews since the “Scaffold” controversy erupted May 26, Walker Art Center executive director Olga Viso sat down to talk about the “flaws” she admitted in the Walker’s vetting process about the sculpture.
The piece was to have been a cornerstone in the Minnesota Sculpture Garden. Instead, it has been dismantled after the Dakota community objected to its gallows-like design, modeled on seven U.S.-sanctioned executions, including the hanging of 38 Dakota men in 1862 in Mankato, the largest mass execution in American history.
Viso discussed the moment that she realized there was a problem in how “Scaffold” would be received in its Minnesota context. She explained how the Walker planned to move forward and what she learned through the mediation and dismantling process from Dakota elders, who proposed that the piece be taken down.
The Dakota also have discussed burning the work’s wooden pieces ceremonially, but have not confirmed plans to do so. “No decisions have been made, whether there is burning or no burning, and that’s really up to the Dakota people to decide,” Viso said.
Los Angeles-based artist Sam Durant took part in the conversation via phone. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Q: What prompted your open letter to the Native community, which the Walker posted on its website May 26?
Viso: As we were finalizing and developing interpretation around the piece, we became sensitized to concerns within the Dakota community that were different from what we were hearing before.
We were always hoping to bring awareness and understanding to this event in Minnesota history as part of the larger context in history that the piece represents, but we came to understand that the work would only be really seen through the lens of trauma. What we hoped would be legible as a way to surface a little-understood and suppressed moment in Minnesota history could really only be seen on literal terms, and not on representational terms. Again, really just seen through the lens of trauma.
So, coming to that understanding that all the other political dimensions of the work and injustices and narratives of the work would not be legible, it seemed that the only right thing to do was to reach out to the Native community and admit that we did not consider the context fully and its meaning and register within this particular context — the context and place really mattered, on public land, on former Dakota land, proximate to Mankato.
What we came to understand — a piece that is a singular composite structure, where one [gallows] is not discernible from another, where all these histories are transcribed — a piece about the history of capital punishment in our history, as a country — that it could only be read through the lens of Mankato history. That it was on literal terms, rather symbolic or representational. That was an indication that there needed to be an acknowledgment of that and an apology, a sincere apology, that it was not our intent to harm — it was to educate. It was about pain. It wasn’t a productive conversation.
Q: How did the selection process for “Scaffold” work? How was it vetted, and by whom?
Viso: As with any acquisition at the Walker, it is brought forward by the curatorial staff. We debate it and discuss it as a team, and then it is brought to the acquisitions committee, which is a group of about 20 members of the Walker’s board who then approve that, and it is recommended to the board, and then the board approves that. It was part of a larger plan to bring a new generation of artists, different voices that reflect contemporary art today. It was one of nearly 20 new pieces for the park.
Q: You talked about the process being flawed. What were those flaws?
Viso: Well, I think the flaw [is] in terms of its location within a public place. I don’t think it is the acquisition process being flawed, but understanding that it’s on public land, it’s a more permanent basis of installation that required a different set of considerations that we didn’t take fully into account. It’s been over 20 years since we added major works to the garden, and so re-examining our processes about decisions — that we consider the context when we position work in a public place, on a permanent basis, in a space that is open to the public for free 365 days per year — does carry a different responsibility.
Q: There was a lot of time between purchasing the piece and the garden opening — the piece was purchased in 2014 — so why didn’t you engage with the Native communities during that time? If you knew this was a difficult piece, why wasn’t there additional programming or something else to deal with the sensitivities?
Viso: I think that we understood the piece as being a piece about capital punishment. It’s not just a piece about Mankato, it’s really about all of these histories being inscribed in it. I think not until it was really in this context could we understand how it could only be seen through this one lens because of the unique context and circumstances of its location.
Q: Did any staffers or board members raise concerns about it?
Viso: No. I mean there’s certainly an acknowledgment that it was presenting difficult subject matter and different histories, and it’s part of the context of other works in the garden — like Theaster Gates’ new commission, it also looks at invisible histories that need to be brought forward. Like Danh Vo’s piece that brings up death and memorial. It was part of a context of works that also build on — like Jenny Holzer’s piece, which also asks many questions about truths in our culture and in our society.
It is not a work in an isolated context, it’s within a broader context of contemporary practice. Even the most beloved pieces in the garden, like the “Spoonbridge & Cherry” and even Katharina Fritsch’s blue rooster, turn conventions and conventional forms and traditions on their ends. So I think that context is just important to understand — that the work had a different register in different contexts.
When it was shown in Europe and in the Hague, it was lauded and supported by Amnesty International as a way to talk about capital punishment. The idea of bringing it to the U.S. — this was the first time it was in the U.S. — seemed like an important opportunity to acknowledge that we live in the only Western democracy that continues to have the death penalty, right? So, are capital punishment and the death penalty compatible with ideas of democracy? Those were really the motivations and intents and dialogue that we were hoping the piece would forge.
Q: How did the staff and board makeup contribute to these “flaws” and an overlooking of the context? How does the Walker’s staff look in terms of people of color, Minnesotans, Native/Indigenous/First Nation peoples?
Viso: We can get you more specifics about POC [people of color] on the staff. [They account for 13 percent of the Walker staff.] We have been working very hard over the last several years to be a more inclusive organization. We have made progress in terms of POC on the board and POC on the staff. There are many [staffers] who grew up here, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that even in the last year the St. Paul public school system has just started to include the Dakota War in their curriculum. It is a suppressed part of our history that needs more dialogue and discussion.
Q: Do you see yourself as POC?
Viso: I do. I am the child of Cuban immigrants. I’m Latina, my curatorial work and practice has focused on giving recognition to underrepresented artists, particularly Latin American artists, and artists whose works need to be understood in a broader context and a bigger platform. So it’s painful to me that this would happen here. To a staff that values being inclusive and open, it’s a huge learning moment, and 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. We have a diversity-equity-inclusion task force on the board that launched a few years ago. So this is really deeply, committed and important work for us.
We’re learning in public, as I said, in a very painful, painful way and I take full responsibility for the missteps that have been made heres, with really no desire to hurt the community more broadly, and the Dakota community particularly.
Q: How did the ceremony affect you?
Viso: Well, of course, it was a hugely powerful, emotional and poignant process. I mean the entire process of mediation and understanding and discussion and learning has been deeply profound and transformative for everyone involved.
I think Sam has echoed that — and Sam, you should chime in — but the work was also transformed. It went from one platform to another. It was always intended as a platform for dialogue and discussion on difficult issues, and it no longer exists as a physical manifestation, but I believe it lives on in archive and oral history and in the lives of those transformed in the process. We remade the work as a community together and tried to really get through some really tough conversations in the process.
Q: Are there any plans to memorialize this process beyond the archives in that spot and in that location?
Viso: There are no plans to do anything specific. It may need time and space. And we look forward to working with the Dakota community in the future — what feels right.
Q: What does that look like? How will you consult with them in the future?
Viso: We’ll continue to work with the four Dakota nations that have reached out to us, the elders here locally that have reached out to us. We want to engage in forums both in and outside the Walker that will facilitate discussion and bring a broader cross-section of the Dakota community and the Native community into these discussions with our whole community.
There are still discussions going on about the ultimate disposition of the wood. Really no decisions have been made, whether there is burning or no burning, and that’s really up to the Dakota people to decide and on their timetable and in their terms and we support that. And Sam has transferred intellectual property rights, so that’s really for them to determine what lives on as far as document or beyond that.
Q: Has it changed your vetting process, or process of acquiring artworks more broadly? Will Dakota people be involved in those discussions about unrelated artworks?
Viso: I think what we will re-examine is the process of placing the art in a public space, especially when it is on a longer-term, more permanent basis.
Q: Can you give an example of a different sort of criteria you will have, or questions you will ask that will be a part of that?
Viso: We are still at the beginning of trying to think through what that means, but I think being conscious of the place and the context, and understanding the histories, the impacts here. And if there are communities that should be involved in the process, that will inform our decision.
Q: Some people have called for your firing. I wonder how you respond to that. Have you had a conversation about resigning?
Viso: I remain deeply committed to this community and to what the Walker represents in this community and I feel very committed to trying to regain the ground that has been lost, not just for the institution but for myself in this community. I hope that we can move forward to a place of understanding. I remain committed to making progress and change, and to the Walker being an open and inclusive space that the community feels is a place for everyone. The Sculpture Garden in particular is such an important civic space. So being good stewards with the [Minneapolis] Park Board is important.
Q: [For Sam Durant] Do you plan to work with [the Dakota] or work here again?
Durant: I am completely open. I think that’s really up to them. I don’t have any concrete plans to do anything in Minnesota, I’m not working on any work that has to do with U.S. history as it relates to Native Americans. Of course I would welcome being involved as the process continues. As the larger Dakota community decides what they want to do — now that in a sense they own this work — 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. I don’t plan to try and turn this around and somehow use it as some sort of, I don’t know, new work or something. It’s about them, and healing from a trauma. I had no idea that, really, 1862 is like it happened yesterday for this community, and they still have not been able to gain closure. Of course, I also don’t presume that dealing with my work will give them closure, but I think this is part of the process of moving toward this. There are many other steps that the Dakota are engaged with and have been for generations. I’m trying to put right, in some sense, this history. If I can be part of that and help in any way, I’m totally open to it.
Q: Olga, is there anything else that you’d like to add, that you think people should know about this?
Viso: Acknowledgment and understanding of these deep dark moments in our history.
Not everyone in our community knows about this history. I think that is not well understood. It’s not taught — the elders have repeatedly said that the lack of education and the lack of this being a history that is readily taught in our state and in our nation is one of the reasons this happened. That doesn’t mitigate the responsibilities that I have or the institutions have in considering the work more deeply, but that’s important to acknowledge.
So to me that’s something that the elders have put forward. I am grateful to them for their willingness to start a space for dialogue, understanding and potential healing out of this. 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. I feel a deep gratitude and I know Sam does too, in their willingness to bridge that understanding so we can all learn from this.