On May 25, Walker director Olga Viso outlined the approach for selecting the 18 new sculptures to be unveiled in June in the reconstructed Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. One work by Los Angeles–based artist Sam Durant entitled Scaffold, which addresses the history of the death penalty, is raising questions among some local audiences for its reference, among others, to a specific event in Minnesota history related to the US-Dakota War. Here, in an open letter to The Circle, a publication devoted to Native American news and arts, Viso discusses Durant’s sculpture, as well as the artist’s and the Walker’s intents, and acknowledges potential communal concerns with the work’s reception, especially among local Native audiences.
For the last 30 years, the Walker Art Center has been responsible for selecting art for the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, adding new works by emerging artists working in diverse forms. During our process of choosing works for the newly reconstructed Garden opening this summer, we sought to engage artists whose works often explore complex questions about the times in which we live. One of these is Sam Durant’s Scaffold (2012). Constructed of wood and steel, this work layers together the forms of seven historical gallows that were used in US state-sanctioned executions by hanging between 1859 and 2006. These representations, assembled one on top of the other, intersect into a single, complicated structure. This composite forms what Durant intends as a critique—“neither memorial nor monument”—that invokes white, governmental power structures that have controlled and subjugated nations and peoples, especially communities of color, throughout the history of the US.
Of the seven gallows depicted in Durant’s sculpture, there is one specific to Minnesota history: the gallows design related to the execution of the Dakota 38 in Mankato, Minnesota in 1862. The Mankato Massacre represents the largest mass execution in the history of the United States, in which 38 Dakota men were executed by order of President Lincoln in the same week that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. It is one of the greatest atrocities in the history of our state and in the history of capital punishment. The artist has referenced this event along with the other six scaffolds that comprise the structure, which include those used to execute abolitionist John Brown (1859); the Lincoln Conspirators (1865), which included the first woman executed in US history; the Haymarket Martyrs (1886), which followed a labor uprising and bombing in Chicago; Rainey Bethea (1936), the last legally conducted public execution in US history; Billy Bailey (1996), the last execution by hanging (not public) in the US; and Saddam Hussein (2006), for war crimes at a joint Iraqi/US facility.
Durant’s sculpture raises complex questions about how contentious moments in history are remembered. It raises deeper questions still about how, why, by whom, and for whom. As an institution that champions the work of living artists, we also champion the freedom of expression extended to artists and audiences alike. We recognize, however, that the siting of Scaffold in our state, on a site that is only a short distance from Mankato, raises unique concerns. 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.
As director of the Walker, 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. 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. I knew this could be a difficult artwork on many levels. This is invariably connected to national issues still embedded in the psyche of this country and its violent, colonialist past.
Yet despite my and the Walker’s earnest intent to raise understanding and increase awareness of this and other histories in our American democracy, the work remains problematic in our community in ways that we did not sufficiently anticipate or imagine. There is no doubt that what we perceived as a multifaceted argument about capital punishment on a national level affecting a variety of communities across the US may be read through a different lens here in Minnesota. We also acknowledge that the artist’s intent to create a work meant “as a space of remembering” may be misread. Because the structure can serve as a gathering space, which allows visitors to explore it in un-ceremonial ways, we realize it requires heightened attention and education in all of our visitor orientation and interpretation.
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. I pledge that we will continue to learn actively, and in public, and to create pathways for listening and supporting the full range of conversations that this work will engender as they evolve in the weeks and months ahead.
Our next steps will be decided in consultation with community members who elect to be involved in this process; we will look to their feedback in shaping the framework for this process. As part of our active learning we recognize that our work moving forward must be done with the guidance of the Dakota community. To start our listening process we invite your feedback to this email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.