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Lessons from Scaffold

What are arts leaders taking away from the controversy surrounding the sculpture?

Lessons from Scaffold

What are arts leaders taking away from the controversy surrounding the sculpture?
Walker Art Center sculpture garden

No trace of Scaffold remained by Friday, as the Walker Art Center finished preparing for the sculpture garden to reopen on Saturday, June 6.

Elizabeth Ryan

What are arts leaders taking away from the controversy surrounding the sculpture Scaffold at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis?

We’ve been considering the lessons the controversy holds. Like many organizations, we at the American Craft Council are a work in progress when it comes to equity, inclusiveness, and diversity. But, as we’ve witnessed the pain surrounding Scaffold, installed just 2 miles from our office, we’ve been reflecting on our own understanding.

The people of the Walker, along with artist Sam Durant, have had a tough, if enlightening, couple of weeks. Durant is the creative force behind the wood-and-steel sculpture inspired by the gallows used in seven hangings ordered by the US government – including the 1862 execution of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, Minnesota, the largest mass execution in US history. The Walker intended to permanently display the work that debuted in 2012 in Europe. Now it has been dismantled after days of protests at the museum and fierce online condemnation.

Scaffold was designed to be climbed, like a jungle gym. Durant has said he intended for the structure to spark serious conversation about capital punishment. And there is plenty to discuss. The Mankato executions followed the US-Dakota War, begun when a local agency refused to deliver food that had been promised to starving Dakota. The legal process that led the Dakota men to be sentenced to die has been widely described as unfair – as “sham trials.” It’s easy to see why the descendants of those killed or traumatized in 1862 – amid countless other incidents of brutality by whites toward Native Americans – staged protests as soon as the structure was installed in the museum’s sculpture garden.

The lessons the Walker has learned recently, along with Durant, are painful and public. “I hold the Walker and myself accountable for really misunderstanding the context and impact [Scaffold] would have on the Dakota people,” executive director Olga Viso told the New York Times Monday. “My ignorance of the meaning of [the] Mankato gallows for the Dakota people caused this problem,” Durant said in the same interview. He’s told several sources that he wished he’d consulted some members of Dakota communities when he began his research, way back in 2006.

Why didn’t he? The protesters were stunned to see their history reinterpreted without their knowledge and input. “It is beyond our comprehension that this could actually happen,” Dakota elder Sheldon Wolfchild said at a May 31 press conference.

The need to consult people who may be affected by an artwork is just one lesson hitting home among museum directors and artists who want to explore the struggles of communities that are not their own. And, as they are learning, many of the rest of us are learning alongside them. At the American Craft Council, we’ve been discussing for months what we need to learn about equity, inclusiveness, and diversity. Why? We’ve wanted to publish an inclusiveness statement, particularly in light of last year’s polarizing election. And we’ve wanted to do a good job with the August/September issue of American Craft, focused on the barriers people face in the craft field – some more than others.

So, as we reflect on the furor around Scaffold and the need to consult stakeholders before making a bold statement, here’s what we are taking away.

  1. Learning to be more inclusive and equitable can be uncomfortable work. Do it anyway.
  2. Some of the discomfort comes from fearing you’ll make mistakes and appear insensitive. Proceed anyway. Be vulnerable, admit your mistakes, take your lumps, and learn.
  3. Stating your intentions and publishing your statement is not enough, not by a longshot. Becoming more inclusive and equitable is a process without end. It’s about continual learning and improvement.
  4. Be specific about goals. In American Craft magazine, for instance, we’ve long strived to feature artists from all walks of life. Now, we also include at least one writer outside of our usual demographic per issue. Our revised editorial checklist requires us to ask who the audience is for each story – and who’s telling it. Is it fair and appropriate?

What are you taking away?