Small Voices Made Big Overnight in Minneapolis

Small Voices Made Big Overnight in Minneapolis

By JULIA HOFFNER | June 3, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — The Walker Art Center has been instrumental in the development of artistic curiosity and exploration within the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Located in Minneapolis, the center serves as a popular spot for Minnesotans of any and all ages to find refuge from the harsh winter or bask in the summer sun with both indoor and outdoor modern art exhibits.

Frequently, new art exhibits open at the Walker that celebrate human achievement and history as well as showcase pieces representing current political and social struggle. The center has proudly displayed exhibits protesting gender inequality (Guerrila Girls, 2017), raised awareness for global poverty (Design for the Other 90%, 2008) and other exhibitions dedicated to historical and current events. Recently, the Walker demonstrated a turn from a praiseworthy art institution to an ignorant, embarrassing center that may never be looked at the same again.

The Walker was on schedule to open a highly-anticipated new outdoor sculpture garden on June third, which consists of eighteen new sculptures and a 33 million dollar bill, according to Minnesota Public Radio news. However, behind the literal fences of the project that seemed refreshing and revivalist on the surface, stood a physical representation of ignorance and insensitivity. 

One of the eighteen sculptures, titled “Scaffold,” has sparked protests from both local and national communities. Created by white Californian artist Sam Durant, “Scaffold” stands at nearly 52 feet high and almost exactly replicates the gallows of the United States’ largest mass executions: the murder of 38 Dakota men from Mankato, Minnesota in 1862. Complete with staircases on either side and a large wooden pole in the center, the sculpture is eerily resembles a children’s playground.

Protest spread like wildfire over several weeks. Objection to the erection of the display came from both Dakota and non-Dakota communities, with signs on the outer fences saying “Execution is not art,” and “They paid a white man $75,000 to replicate a weapon of genocide.”

The Walker Art Center is not but two hours away from the very location where the tragic execution took place nearly 150 years ago. Ironically, the soil the sculpture stands on was originally owned and used by the Dakota people. Next to the iconic “Spoonbridge and Cherry,” the sculpture seems less like a memorial and more like a mockery.

Artist Sam Durant responded to the protests almost immediately with a statement full of regret and apology. “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,” Durant writes. “Your protests have shown me that I made a grave miscalculation in how my work can be received by those in a particular community. In focusing on my position as a white artist making work for that audience I failed to understand what the inclusion of the Dakota 38 in the sculpture could mean for Dakota people. I offer my deepest apologies for my thoughtlessness.”

 Construction worker holds up a piece of "Scaffold" during its dismantling. Photos by Lorie Shaull.

Construction worker holds up a piece of "Scaffold" during its dismantling. Photos by Lorie Shaull.

Not a month after the sculpture’s fenced erection, Olga Viso, the executive director of the Walker, released a statement announcing the removal of the sculpture.” Prompted by the outpouring of community feedback, the artist Sam Durant is open to many outcomes including the removal of the sculpture,” Viso writes. “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.” Not only will the sculpture be removed, but the two-year long renovation of the sculpture garden will be delayed one week and will open on June tenth.

This is an underdog victory. This is when the little engine could. In a time of a tragic oppression of minority voices and stifling of the small, this is an outstanding example of power in numbers. A group of American citizens used their right and freedom of speech to directly change a horrific representation of a very real tragedy that occurred not far from its site. 

This is a reminder that the people do have a voice in the United States if it is loud enough. The only way to make it that loud is to unify and make many individual voices a strong one. The protest surrounding “Scaffold” can be applied to the national political and social chaos that we see in news headlines every day. As one voice, change will come. 

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