Walker Art Center’s Controversial Gallows Sculpture Will Be Removed and Ceremonially Burned

After outcry from Dakota Nation, local Native American leaders will oversee the removal of Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold.

Sam Durant, Scaffold. Courtesy of Sarah Cascone.

Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold (2012) will be removed from the Walker Art Center’s garden and ceremonially burned by local Native American leaders in Minnesota. The decision follows a rising chorus of protests by members of the Dakota community and their supporters, who say the work trivializes a traumatizing chapter in the community’s history.

The composite structure was one of 16 planned additions to the Minneapolis institution’s sculpture garden. It draws on the gallows built for seven major executions in US history, including the largest mass execution ever to take place in the US, which killed 38 Dakota Indians in 1862 in nearby Mankato, Minnesota.

The decision to destroy the work was announced after a three-hour mediation session attended by the artist, representatives from the Dakota Spiritual and Traditional Elders, the four federally recognized Dakota tribes, the Walker, and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. (The meeting was facilitated by Stephanie Hope Smith, a Minnesota registered neutral mediator who specializes in sacred sites.)

In a joint statement following the mediation session and a press conference today, the parties laid out a plan for the sculpture’s removal and ceremonial burning. A native construction company will be tasked with dismantling the piece, beginning Friday, June 2, in a ceremony overseen by Dakota Spiritual and Traditional Elders. The process is expected to take around four days.

The construction company is donating its services, and in exchange, the Walker will donate an equivalent amount to pay for elders to travel to the ceremony. The wood will be burned at Fort Snelling, where Dakotas were imprisoned following the 1862 US-Dakota War. As part of the final agreement, the museum and artist pledged never to reconstruct the work.

“I just wanted to apologize for the trauma, the suffering that my work has caused in the community,” the Los Angeles-based artist Durant said at the press conference, calling the resolution “hopefully a path for healing.”

The sculpture was first shown at documenta 13 in Kassel in 2012 and acquired by the museum in 2015. It was going to be shown publicly in the US for the first time as part of the Walker’s current renovation and expansion project.

“This is the first step for the Walker… to rebuild trust with the Dakota and native communities throughout Minnesota,” the museum’s executive director Olga Viso said at the press conference. “There’s no question that the Walker’s process in placing this structure in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden was flawed, and I apologize that we were not sufficiently… sympathetic to the pain and suffering that it would elicit.”

“This way forward that we’ve come to together allows for the work’s evolution, indeed its transformation, from one kind of platform to another one that’s related to oral history and archive rather than physical structure,” Viso added.

The decision to destroy the sculpture comes amid heightened discussion about who can and should make art about historical trauma and if and how institutions can responsibly present that work. The controversy over the sculpture by Durant, who is white, follows an uproar over the inclusion of Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in this year’s Whitney Biennial.

At the press conference, Lower Sioux elder Sheldon Wolfchild said, “How can a scaffold be erected without responding to our elders? It was beyond our comprehension that this could happen.” He blamed the education system for not teaching students the full story of the horrors of the US-Dakota War, and noted that the gallows were a horrifying symbol for a community whose children have the highest suicide rate in the country.

Toward the end of the press conference, Viso stressed that the museum selects and acquires works for the sculpture garden without any oversight or approval from the city’s parks department. A representative from the parks department suggested that this arrangement would likely change in the wake of the controversy. The sculpture garden’s opening has been postponed to June 10.

The sculpture began drawing protests from the Native American community last last week, after Viso posted a letter on the Walker’s website expressing regret for not previously engaging the elders in a discussion about the work. The state’s Dakota nations offered a joint statement expressing their disappointment in the sculpture’s exploitation of the execution. “This is a painful part of our history for the Dakota people… not something something to depicted in a sculpture garden with a giant rooster or a spoon with a cherry,” they wrote (a reference to other, more lighthearted works on view in the garden).

After participating in the joint mediation session, Durant said he had developed a new understanding of the considerable sensitivity surrounding the mass killing. “I never would have included the Mankato gallows in such a piece,” he said. “I don’t know if the piece would have been constructed in a different way; that’s possible.”

“As an artist going forward, I’ve learned that i need to do much more education, be much more proactive about making clear what I want viewers to think about it,” he added. “Difficult art that doesn’t tell you what to think about it is a real challenge.”

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