Tomorrow afternoon, a group of alumni, faculty and students from UW-Madison’s art and art history departments will read an open letter outside the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.
They’ll be there to protest the mistreatment of artists during this year’s Wisconsin Triennial exhibition, which was the first Triennial in the museum’s history to focus exclusively on the experiences of Black women, femmes, and gender non-conforming artists.
The letter was written in support of a statement from a collective of artists who participated in the exhibition, some of whom have pulled their work from the exhibition early.
It’s in support of an ongoing campaign from Forward Truth, a collection of artists in the exhibition and allies who are calling for amends, transparency, and accountability after a series of incidents during the Triennial. Incidents, the artists say, which show the “shameful mistreatment of the Black artists, contractors, and staffers throughout the exhibition.”
In an open letter and public archive published in August, artists list numerous instances where they say they did not receive support from the museum. These include allegations that the museum promoted other events over the exhibition, that they failed to sufficiently advertise the exhibition through social media, and that they did not hire enough staff to protect the exhibition and its artists. The artists also say that MMoCA has underpaid the exhibition’s artists and its guest curator, Fatima Laster, who is a Black woman.
The artists also point to two separate incidents involving the same artist as examples of the museum’s failure to provide proper support.
In March, before the exhibit even opened, community leader and artist Lilada Gee and a Black employee were verbally assaulted by a white employee as they entered the Overture Center building. The Overture Center conducted an investigation and terminated the staffer responsible, but they also promised Gee that they would increase security.
Gee turned that incident into an art piece on the Triennial’s opening night, reading her poetry and reflections on what had occured. Her mural was exhibited unfinished, a testament to being interrupted as a Black woman.
Three months later Gee’s work was defaced and stolen by a museumgoer who was left unattended in the exhibition for more than 18 minutes. Here she is on WORT in July, talking about the incident:
“I received a call from Christina [Brungardt], the executive director [of MMoCA]. She started the conversation by saying ‘Lilada, there’s been an incident at the museum, and I wanted to let you know that a parent and her children misunderstood and thought they could interact with your exhibit. They have painted on some of the canvases, and they wanted to know if they could take the canvases home with them that they painted.’ I said ‘Wait, you’re telling me someone came to the museum, vandalized my exhibit, and you’re now calling to ask me if they can take it home with them? Why are you calling me and asking me this?” She said ‘Well, I promised them I would ask.’ I said ‘this is so utterly disrespectful, I’m not going to continue my conversation with you’ and got off the phone,” said Gee.
The artists are calling on MMoCA’s board of trustees to take responsibility for these and other incidents, which they say show the “shameful mistreatment of the Black artists, contractors, and staffers throughout the exhibition.” Their letter includes demands that MMoCA acknowledge and publicly apologize for the harm that the exhibition has done to the local community. It also calls on the board to terminate the Museum’s executive director, Christina Brungardt, and to publicly promise not to retaliate against employees who raised concerns regarding the exhibition.
Last month, MMoCA’s board of trustees responded in a written statement. They said that the board is deeply sorry for the trauma caused to Lilada Gee, but they also referred to accusations of institutional racism against the museum as “inappropriate and unfounded.” The board also professes support for the artists who choose to leave the exhibition, although it refers to their decision to do so as “court[ing] controversy or confusion.”
Forward Truth described the response as “inadequate” and “offensive” in a reply which reiterated the artists’ collective demands.
Tomorrow’s public reading will take place at 4pm, outside of the museum on State Street. And in related news, the Madison Arts Commission will convene a community conversation with a panel of five Black women artists next Tuesday at 6pm, at the Madison College South Campus.
Reporting for W-O-R-T, I’m Andie Barrow.