Sunday, September 17, 2017

‘Scaffold’ Isn’t Over Yet

Olga Viso, executive director of the Walker Art Center. CreditMatthew Hintz for The New York Times
MINNEAPOLIS — The wooden remnants of “Scaffold,” the gallows-like sculpture that created so much controversy at the Walker Art Center this summer, will soon be buried in symbolic fashion. But the museum, one of the nation’s top contemporary art institutions, is still reckoning with the fallout and with questions about decision making.
The Walker’s board has hired a law firm to review its handling of “Scaffold,” by the artist Sam Durant, which evoked the macabre settings of seven executions — including the hanging of 38 Dakota Indian men in Minnesota after the United States-Dakota war in 1862.
Some Native American leaders who denounced “Scaffold” as offensive — which ultimately led to its demolition — are still troubled that the museum displayed the sculpture on former Dakota land, and that it also imported an exhibition this summer by Jimmie Durham, a celebrated artist whose past self-identification as Cherokee has drawn criticism from leaders of the Cherokee tribe.
Separately, over the past year, two dozen staff members have departed the museum, out of a total work force of just under 120. Interviews with several former employees reveal a mix of factors behind the staff changes, including practical reasons like reaching retirement age. But others described an environment of long hours and high expectations under the museum’s executive director, Olga Viso, and a few said that Ms. Viso was not always open to criticism or warnings — including over “Scaffold.” Most spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal affairs and conversations at the Walker.
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The issues at the museum have raised eyebrows in art circles nationally. “Obviously the Walker has a slight cloud over it right now,” said Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. “It’s a cloud; not a downpour, but it needs to get out of it quickly.”
Ms. Viso, in an interview at her office, compared the summer to a marathon — “we hit some rocky terrain in the beginning” — and said there was “a lot of humility around what’s happened.” But she said she was optimistic that growing communications with Native American leaders would allow the museum to repair the relationship going forward.
After protests over the sculpture “Scaffold,” Native American tribal elders held a ceremony before it was dismantled at the Walker Art Center. CreditJim Mone/Associated Press
In response to further questions by email this week, Ms. Viso said that only one staff member shared concerns with her about “Scaffold,” just a week before the controversy erupted Memorial Day weekend. She said she valued “all points of view” from the museum’s staff and board and gets their feedback regularly.
“As executive director, I have to make tough choices that will, of course, not please all,” she wrote.
For the Walker, known for its interdisciplinary collaboration, avant-garde first commissions and award-winning publications, any level of disdain is rare.
A reopening in June of the Sculpture Garden in which “Scaffold” was installed, after a $10 million renovation, drew record attendance. It was the final step in an overall makeover of the museum that has featured a new entrance, more exhibition space and the addition of a restaurant by a renowned chef that’s become a hot spot. A recent critically acclaimed exhibition about the artistry of the choreographer Merce Cunningham highlighted the Walker’s remodeling in seven different galleries plus the theater and cinema.
Ms. Viso is now in her ninth year as director of the museum, a post she took on after the former director, Kathy Halbreich, left in 2007. Regarded as an up-and-comer in her previous job as director at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, Ms. Viso has been credited by the Washington Post for her willingness to showcase “difficult” work.
“She stuck her neck out and spoke openly,” said Monica Nassif, president of the Walker’s board, complimenting Ms. Viso’s handling of the “Scaffold” controversy. Ms. Viso, for her part, said she supported her board’s decision to undertake the independent inquiry over “Scaffold.”
Yet the departures of so many staff members at the Walker is unusual — “a rather remarkable number,” as Mr. Eccles put it. Among those who left were Fionn Meade, artistic director; David Galligan, deputy director; and Cameron Zebrun, director of program services.
“The institutional knowledge that is important to museums is very difficult to replace,” Mr. Eccles said. “It takes time and it takes money.”
Mr. Meade said the departures of staff members were connected to “the ambitions of the institution.”
“People were stretched thin and chose to leave, found other jobs, or quit,” he said. “This is of grave concern for the future of what has been and will be again a leading institution committed to being a catalyst for artists and audiences.” Mr. Meade declined to discuss the reasons for his departure, saying that he had signed a nondisclosure agreement.
Ms. Viso said she could not discuss individual personnel matters, but that she viewed the departures as part of the museum’s natural attrition. Told of Mr. Meade’s comment, she noted that the past two years have been unusually busy because of the museum’s extensive renovations, and some chose to leave for that reason.
“The Walker is and always has been a place where people work hard and with great passion,” she said. “Together we have set and achieved ambitious goals under my leadership. I am not going to apologize for that.”
Ms. Viso’s history with “Scaffold” goes back years. She recalled first seeing it on exhibition in Europe and proposed the work to the Walker; the board signed off on the $450,000 purchase in 2014, according to minutes from the Walker board’s acquisition committee. Walker curators were aware that other work by Mr. Durant dealt with the Dakota war, and the museum has acknowledged that it should have engaged in a meaningful way with Native American leaders before mounting “Scaffold.”
“There’s understandably mixed emotion at a time like this, when we’ve been through a lot and there’s a lot of trust to rebuild, and I’m deeply committed to that, and to the staff and continuing to position the Walker as a platform,” Ms. Viso said.
Protests of the “Scaffold” installation prompted the museum to delay the opening of the refashioned Sculpture Garden, with 17 new pieces. Ms. Viso and Mr. Durant extended apologies. The steel from “Scaffold” was recycled. The wood was given to the Dakotas and will be buried under a plan reviewed by elders of the tribe.
The Walker has recently ramped up its diversity education initiatives, going on staff field trips to sites of cultural significance to the Dakota people and beginning to formalize a process to get feedback earlier.
The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. CreditMatthew Hintz for The New York Times
But a representative for a council created to respond to the issue said he had little confidence that some of the suggestions made by the group, such as adding a Native American member to the board of trustees, will come to fruition.
“We really haven’t gotten anywhere,” said the representative of the Native American group of elders, Ron Leith.
Kate Beane, a Dakota community member and historian, also was skeptical.
“The Dakota community hasn’t felt heard, hasn’t been reached out to or communicated with on this issue,” she said.
Among her concerns: the museum’s decision to bring in the exhibition by Mr. Durham, which began at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and is moving to the Whitney Museum of American Art later this year. Local Native American artists met with the Walker about the exhibition, and said afterward that they aren’t sure much will change at the Walker.
“We want to see ourselves reflected on the walls, the stage, the website,” said Rosy Simas, a choreographer who is Seneca and was among those who met with Walker officials. “The Walker’s track record of Native artists is pretty much nonexistent.”
Mr. Durham, who has said he is of Cherokee descent but is not registered as a citizen with the Cherokee Nation, said in an interview that he has no response to criticism involving his identity. A Walker spokeswoman said Ms. Viso has welcomed conversations about the Durham exhibition.
As for Ms. Viso herself, she said that provocative issues like cultural representation will continue to be tackled at the Walker.
“It’s an amazing community that really understands the importance of culture and art as a platform for conversation, for difficult conversations,” she said. “We’re living in a really challenging, difficult moment and art can open the door to conversations.”
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