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Los Angeles Artist Sam Durant Under Fire for “Scaffold”

Photo: @mordecaispecktor on Instagram.

Over Memorial Day weekend, Los Angeles-based artist Sam Durant became a household name in Minneapolis, albeit in a very unflattering way. The controversy began brewing on Friday, May 26, when news broke that the artist’s contribution to the revamped Minneapolis Sculpture Garden at the Walker Art Center was based in part on a gallows used to execute 38 Dakota Indians in Mankato, Minnesota, during the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. The two-story structure is not only a grim reminder of the largest mass execution in American history but reportedly was going to double as a jungle-gym for children visiting the garden.

As locals took to social media decrying the structure with the hashtag #TakeItDown, the Walker Art Center’s executive director, Olga Viso, published an open letter titled Learning in Public: “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,” she wrote. “It is my hope that this moment will foster critical and productive conversations around the complex questions the artist brings forth. I also intend that it provoke discussion about how the Walker can strive to be a more sensitive and inclusive institution. This is a deep learning moment — and will not be the last — for the Walker and its relationship with Native audiences. ”

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This pseudo-apology failed to resonate with community members. On the morning of Saturday, May 27, #TakeItDown was trending on Twitter in Minneapolis. Anishinaabe artist Ashley Fairbanks published an essay on the City Pages arts blog titled Genocide and Mini-Golf in the Walker Sculpture Garden in which she railed on Durant and artists like him who use Native American tribulations as inspiration. “White artist. Dakota pain. Dakota genocide. White entertainment. I was filled with rage. It is such evil. It is such absurd violence. It’s a publicly-funded hate crime. I can’t even explain the layers of hurt,” she wrote.

Throughout the weekend, protesters gathered around the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. Signs attached to the construction fencing in front of Scaffold read “Execution is not art,” “Not your story,” and “$200 reward for scalp of artist.” An arrow and message written in chalk on the sidewalk directed people towards the structure: “Art celebrating mass murder of our ancestors and our families ahead.”

On Saturday afternoon, when the furor failed to subside, Viso went a step further and issued the following statement:

“Prompted by the outpouring of community feedback, the artist Sam Durant is open to many outcomes including the removal of the sculpture. He has told me, ‘It’s just wood and metal – nothing compared to the lives and histories of the Dakota people,'” Viso wrote. “I am in agreement with the artist that the best way to move forward is to have Scaffold dismantled in some manner and to listen and learn from the Elders. The details of how and when will be determined by Traditional Spiritual Dakota Elders at a meeting scheduled with the Walker and the artist on Wednesday, May 31 with the support of a mediator selected by the Elders. This is the first step in a long process of healing.”

But the story didn’t end there. On Sunday, May 28, the Star Tribune newspaper published a statement from Durant (who had successfully evaded the press thus far). “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,” he wrote. “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.”

One could object to many a statement made therein, but in particular, the idea that art is made for an audience of a single race is ludicrous. Yes, the Walker has an elitist air about it, but its Minneapolis Sculpture Garden is free and open to the public. School children frequent it on field trips. It’s a major tourist destination and a popular selfie spot. (Minneapolis has already worked itself into an anticipatory froth over Hahn/Cock, a giant blue rooster sculpture among the 18 new pieces acquired for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden during the museum’s $75 million renovation.) That the Walker felt that Durant’s homage to government-endorsed mass murder belonged in “one of the crown jewels of the city’s park system” is tone-deaf at best and blatantly racist at worst.

On Wednesday, May 31, Durant and Viso met with Dakota tribal elders in the presence of a mediator to discuss the fate of Scaffold. Ultimately, all parties agreed to a dismantling of the structure and a ceremonial burning of the wood. That process, which will take several days, begins on Friday, June 2. The Walker is delaying the reopening of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden one week, until Saturday, June 10.

Destroying Scaffold is the least the Walker and Durant can do in an attempt at making amends to the Dakota people and the Minneapolis community, but the museum’s leaders would be well-advised to take a step back and examine why this so-called piece of art was ever considered fit for public display in the first place.

As for Durant, one would hope he will examine his penchant for exploiting the oppressed for his professional benefit, not only in Scaffold but throughout his body of work.