Curator Resigns Unexpectedly From Contemporary Art Museum in St. Louis After Controversial Show

His Kelley Walker exhibition sparked protests over racial insensitivity.

Jeffrey Uslip. Photo Tony Michaels, courtesy Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.
Jeffrey Uslip. Photo Tony Michaels, courtesy Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM) announced on October 10 that its chief curator, Jeffrey Uslip, had “unexpectedly accepted a new position at another institution.”

What now turned out to be Uslip’s final exhibition at the instituiton, “Kelley Walker: Direct Drive”—the artist’s first solo exhibition at an American museum—opened at the CAM on September 16, quickly making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

A number of Walker’s works on view at the museum include images of police brutality toward Civil Rights protesters, silk screened with smeared white and dark chocolate. These didn’t sit right with members of the black community in St. Louis—including some museum staffers—who called for the removal of several pieces by the artist, who is white, and for Uslip’s resignation.

Kelley Walker, Black Star Press (rotated 90 degrees), 2006. Courtesy the artist; Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; Thomas Dane Gallery, London; and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.

Kelley Walker, Black Star Press (rotated 90 degrees), 2006. Courtesy the artist; Paula Cooper Gallery, New York; Thomas Dane Gallery, London; and Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne.

The week of the opening, artist and activist Damon Davies took to Facebook to express his outrage at the actions of both the artist and the curator during a talk at the museum.

“When confronted with an actual black person, Walker became flustered and angry and had no actual answer for why he was using these images,” Davis wrote on Facebook. “When he couldn’t answer my questions, the curator, Jeffrey Uslip, interjected and tried to explain for him. Walker and Uslip never answered my questions, and were both rude and condescending to myself and multiple people that asked questions that both related to race and not.”

Shortly thereafter, Walker released an apologetic statement, saying “I deeply regret that a great deal of anger, frustration and resentment have developed in the St. Louis community as a result of my failure to engage certain questions from the audience during the public lecture at CAM last Saturday. The concerns were legitimate, so I regret that I did not answer them adequately at the time.”

Kelley Walker. Photo Meredyth Sparks, courtesy Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

Kelley Walker. Photo Meredyth Sparks, courtesy Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

Ten days later, the museum introduced some modifications to the show, adding a warning to visitors that might find the images hard to deal with, and a sign explaining the recent fracas over the works on view.

But the gesture may not have been enough for some. Only last Monday, an unidentified employee of the museum was verbally and nearly physically attacked at a gas station, Artnews reported. The attacker accused the employee—who was identified by CAM’s executive director as a woman of color—and the museum, of racism.

Now, just two weeks later, it seems Uslip has found new pastures to start afresh. The museum’s release does not state which institution Uslip will soon be joining, but it announces that a national search for a new curator will commence immediately.

Uslip became chief curator at CAM in 2014, and has curated exhibitions of artists including Mark Bradford, Laurie Simmons, Katharina Fritsch, Jon Rafman, and Liat Yossifor.


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