After Outcry From the Dakota Nation, the Walker Art Center May Dismantle a ‘Traumatizing’ Gallows Sculpture by Sam Durant

The Walker may remove the work out of respect for the Native American community.

Sam Durant, Scaffold. Courtesy of the artist, Blum & Poe, Paula Cooper Gallery, Praz-Delavallade and Sadie Coles HQ. Photo by Rosa Maria Ruehling.
Sam Durant, Scaffold. Courtesy of the artist, Blum & Poe, Paula Cooper Gallery, Praz-Delavallade and Sadie Coles HQ. Photo by Rosa Maria Ruehling.

Minnesotans will have to wait a little longer to once again enjoy the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, closed for over a year for renovations and expansion. The Walker Art Center has announced that the planned June 3 reopening will be pushed back to June 10 following the eruption of controversy in the local Native American community over Sam Durant’s Scaffold (2012).

The piece, first shown at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany in 2012, is a wooden structure based on the gallows used in seven high-profile executions in US history, including the hangings of abolitionist leader John Brown in 1859 and deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2006.

It also references the country’s largest mass execution, which claimed the lives of 38 Dakota Indians in 1862, and took place in nearby Mankato, Minnesota. Made by a white artist, it looks like a jungle gym or a viewing platform, and is displayed alongside more lighthearted pieces such as Katharina Fritsch’s giant blue rooster, Hahn/Cock (2013), and Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s iconic Spoonbridge and Cherry (1985–1988).

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Spoonbridge and Cherry. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Spoonbridge and Cherry. Courtesy of the Walker Art Center.

“We recognize the decision to exhibit this work might cause some to question the Walker’s sensitivity to Native audiences and audiences in Minnesota more familiar with this dark history,” wrote Walker Art Center executive director Olga Viso in an open letter to Native American arts publication the Circle on Friday, May 26.

Protesters began gathering outside the museum that afternoon, and remained all weekend, displaying signs with the names of the victims, or messages like “$200 for scalp of artist,” according to the StarTribune. Following Viso’s missive, the piece was condemned by several local politicians, arts organization leaders, Native American artists, and tribal groups.

“It’s really traumatizing for our people to look at that and have it just appear without any warning or idea that they were doing this. And it’s not art to us,” a Dakota protestor, Sasha Houston Brown, told the StarTribune.

“You honestly have no idea the hurt you are causing the community. But I suppose that is the issue isn’t it? To dismiss the Native community, as history has primarily dismissed the atrocities inflicted upon the community since America was founded,” wrote Tawa Witko Clinical Psychologist at Indian Health Service, in a comment on a Walker blog post. “It truly saddens me that in 2017, we still live in a world where the intergenerational trauma of a people can be put on display for the world to see without any consequences.”

Sam Durant, <em>Scaffold</em>. Courtesy of Sarah Cascone.

Sam Durant, Scaffold. Courtesy of Sarah Cascone.

Dakota activist Graci Horne published a letter on Facebook offering guidance for peaceful protest of the artwork. “In Minnesota today, the legacy of the white, male monopoly over the historiography of the Dakota War lives on,” she wrote, noting that the white men who oversaw the mass execution now lend their names to Minnesota counties and landmarks.

“I regret that I did not better anticipate how the work would be received in Minnesota, especially by Native audiences. I should have engaged leaders in the Dakota and broader Native communities in advance of the work’s siting, and I apologize for any pain and disappointment that the sculpture might elicit,” Viso continued. “When I first encountered Scaffold in a sculpture park in Europe five years ago, I saw a potent artistic statement about the ethics of capital punishment. Most importantly, I recognized its capacity to address the buried histories of violence in this country, in particular raising needed awareness among white audiences.”

The Walker purchased the work following Documenta, and it had been in storage until its installation about a month ago. Given the pain it is now causing among the local community, Viso announced in a statement that Durant and the Walker were willing to remove the artwork. “It’s just wood and metal—nothing compared to the lives and histories of the Dakota people,” she wrote. “The best way to move forward is to have Scaffold dismantled in some manner and to listen and learn from the Elders.”

“I offer my deepest apologies for my thoughtlessness,” said Durant in a statement issued Monday, May 29. “I should have reached out to the Dakota community the moment I knew that the sculpture would be exhibited at the Walker Art Center in proximity to Mankato.”

Durant, who is based in Los Angeles, is flying to Minneapolis on Wednesday for a mediated meeting between Viso, city representatives, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and a council of Dakota elders.

Ahead of the meeting, the Dakota community will meet with the elders at Minneapolis at All My Relations Gallery, “only the first of many meetings to help create a process of healing and to help educate through Dakota truth-telling of our own history,” according to a tribe statement included in a May 29 email from the museum and the Parks and Recreation Board.

Scaffold was one of 16 new works being added to the garden as part of the $33 million restoration and expansion project. Here is Durant’s full statement about the work and the controversy surrounding it.

Let me begin by describing the sculpture that has become the focus of protest in recent days as I envisioned it when it was first exhibited in 2012 in Europe. Scaffold opens the difficult histories of the racial dimension of the criminal justice system in the United States, ranging from lynchings to mass incarceration to capital punishment. In bringing these troubled and complex histories of national importance to the fore, it was my intention not to cause pain or suffering, but to speak against the continued marginalization of these stories and peoples, and to build awareness around their significance.

Scaffold seeks to address the contemporary relevance and resonance of these narratives today, especially at a time of continued institutionalized racism, and the ongoing dehumanization and intimidation of people of color. Scaffold is neither memorial nor monument, and stands against
prevailing ideas and normative history. It warns against forgetting the past. In doing so, my hope for Scaffold is to offer a platform for open dialogue and exchange, a place to question not only our past, but the future we form together.

I made Scaffold as a learning space for people like me, white people who have not suffered the effects of a white supremacist society and who may not consciously know that it exists. It has been my belief that white artists need to address issues of white supremacy and its institutional manifestations. Whites created the concept of race and have used it to maintain dominance for centuries, whites must be involved in its dismantling. However, your protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community. In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience I failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people. I offer my deepest apologies for my thoughtlessness. I should have reached out to the Dakota community the moment I knew that the sculpture would be exhibited at the Walker Art Center in proximity to Mankato.

My work was created with the idea of creating a zone of discomfort for whites, your protests have now created a zone of discomfort for me. In my attempt to raise awareness I have learned something profound and I thank you for that. Can this be a learning experience for all of us, the Walker, other institutions and artists and larger society? I am open and ready to work together with you.


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