Bowing to a wave of criticism over a gallows-like work intended for its revamped Sculpture Garden, the Walker Art Center will dismantle the piece.
"Scaffold," a two-story-high sculpture, partly inspired by the gallows where 38 Dakota Indians were hanged in Mankato in 1862, prompted an outcry from the state's American Indian communities. It had been set to debut on June 3, along with more than a dozen new works at the Minneapolis center.
While its creator, L.A.-based artist Sam Durant, had intended to raise awareness about capital punishment and address America's violent past, critics and protesters called the work insensitive, saying it trivializes Dakota history and genocide. The outcry intensified Friday and Saturday, both on social media and at the Walker itself, where protesters gathered.
After consulting with Durant, Walker Executive Director Olga Viso said Saturday that she decided the best course of action was to take down "Scaffold."
"I regret the pain that this artwork has brought to the Dakota community and others," Viso said in a statement. "This is the first step in a long process of healing." She said that Durant told her he was open to seeing his work dismantled because "it's just wood and metal — nothing compared to the lives and histories of the Dakota people."
Viso, who on Friday had admitted that the work was controversial but defended it as an inspiration for dialogue, acknowledged in a statement that the work had elicited a response that Walker officials "did not sufficiently anticipate or imagine."
Exactly when and how the structure will be removed will be determined in consultation with Dakota elders at a meeting Wednesday with the Walker's staff, Viso said.
Graci Horne, an artist who is Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota/Hunkpapa Dakota, delivered the news Saturday to about 100 protesters who had gathered outside the Sculpture Garden's gates carrying signs demanding the work's removal.
The crowd erupted in shouts and applause.
"It's a small victory," Horne said. "It happened so fast. We were prepared to be in a marathon with this."
Before Saturday's decision, Indian leaders had promised to present a "unified response to these grave offenses," Horne said.
Now they are willing to open a dialogue with Walker staff and to invite Durant to visit for a discussion on "ending the appropriation of the indigenous narrative," she said.
Art or exploitation?
"Scaffold" — one of 18 new additions to the garden — at a glance looks like a viewing station or a wooden jungle gym, but the design is actually a composite of the gallows used in U.S. government-sanctioned executions, including the 1859 hanging of abolitionist John Brown.
The hanging of the "Dakota 38" after the U.S.-Dakota War in Minnesota was the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
Sheldon Wolfchild, a Dakota traditional elder who has strong family connections to the Dakota 38, said the decision to erect such a sculpture was proof that Minnesotans need to be reeducated on history — particularly the psychological and generational trauma endured by the descendants of the victims.
"It's maddening," said Wolfchild, who creates documentaries on Dakota history at 38 Plus 2 Productions in Morton, Minn. "How can a major institution not see that?"
In Friday's statement, Viso expressed regret for not engaging Dakota leaders in advance. That sentiment did not quell the outrage.
By Saturday morning, the hashtag #TakeItDown had swept social media with demands to remove the piece and messages that questioned its artistic merit.
For the second day in a row, protesters gathered Saturday afternoon outside the fenced outdoor exhibit, holding signs with messages such as "Not your story" and "Hate crime." Earlier in the day, messages that had been placed on the fence Friday were removed, exacerbating tensions.
Non-native artists also jumped into the fray. In a Facebook post, Minnesota author Marlon James noted that art has always responded to atrocity, but lately it has focused on the instruments of killing.
There is a fine line between depicting violence and fetishizing it, he said.
"Where do we end up? Art playing with violence that disembodies it, taking away humanity from the victim AND accountability from the perpetrator," he wrote. "This is a discussion that art needs to have with itself. Now."
When news broke on the Walker's social media pages that "Scaffold" would come down, hundreds applauded.
Viso said she hopes the moment will serve as a learning opportunity to "foster critical and productive conversations around the complex questions the artist brings forth" and help the Walker be more sensitive.
Others, saying the outrage was avoidable, said Viso's decision is only a start toward regaining public trust.
Kate Beane, who is Dakota and specializes in Dakota history at the Minnesota Historical Society, echoed calls for the Walker to commission a piece from a Dakota artist.
Others suggested that the gallows be destroyed or burned as a means of healing.
Beane, who first saw the structure while driving with her children down Hennepin Avenue, said she had a visceral reaction to it. "I wasn't prepared for the impact that it would have. I broke down in tears," she said. "Proper community engagement is not letting people know after the fact. We should have a seat at the table."
Rory Wakemup, a Minneapolis gallery director who specializes in contemporary native art, initially thought "Scaffold" was a ruse. He was shocked to hear that community leaders had not been consulted about it.
"Anything this heavy needs to have approval from a wide range of the community. There's no singular voice that can just do this," he said. "It's opened a wound and sets [Indian relations] back years."
Staff writer Alicia Eler contributed to this story.
Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648