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Director of Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis Responds to Critics of Decision to Wall Off Kelley Walker Exhibition

Since the opening of artist Kelley Walker’s exhibition “Direct Drive” at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis in September, the institution has come under fire for including the artist’s appropriated images of the 1960s civil rights movement, police brutality against African Americans, and covers of KING magazine, which feature women of color.

An artist talk hosted by the museum on September 17 exacerbated the situation when Walker and chief curator Jeffrey Uslip failed to satisfactorily answer the audience’s questions regarding why the artist chose these images. The talk sparked protests at the museum, while activists called for a boycott of the exhibition and critics demanded that the works be taken down. The exhibition has even caused divisions between the institution’s staff: Three black employees wrote an open letter to the museum asking for an apology and for Uslip to step down. There have also been threats of violence against museum employees.

In an unprecedented move, CAM decided to wall off the show, keeping the works on display, but shielding them from immediate view.

In an interview with Lauren Cavalli of artforum.com, museum director Lisa Melandri addressed the community’s concerns, the rationale behind the wall, and the museum’s direction from here on out. She said, “As is true with all sensitive or difficult art, viewers should be able to have the agency to make a choice about whether to view the works or not. . . . We felt that a reconfiguration of the gallery would allow for greater sensitivity. Before, a viewer saw these works upon entering the museum from the front door; now, they can enter the museum, be given information about those works, and choose if they wish to enter the gallery.”

Jeanne Vogel, a photographer who decided against participating in the museum’s annual Open Studios event, which kicked off last weekend, told St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the museum’s response was “disappointing.” She said the decision to erect the temporary walls “doesn’t address the issue, it just puts up another barrier—literal and symbolic—between people. The last thing we need in St. Louis is more barriers.”

Melandri explained that she had worked with the staff, the board, and the artist to determine the next course of action. They considered removing the works, but decided against it. “We weighed our duty as an institution, where freedom of expression is essential, against our duty to our local communities and their pain,” Melandri said. “With great consideration, it was determined that it was essential for the work to remain on view, but to make some adjustments to the viewing experience so that viewers have the choice to view the works or not.” She said that people who have seen the walls have responded positively, many of them choosing to walk through the show.

Plans to dedicate the entire museum to Walker’s oeuvre were spearheaded by Uslip when he joined the institution three years ago. Said Uslip, “He is the one contemporary artist of our generation that is thinking through history, race, identity, and their lasting evolving and rotating implications. Kelley is not telling us what to think—one way or another—what he is allowing his practice to help us think through the issues of our time.” CAM announced that Uslip has resigned from his position at the museum and has accepted a new position at a yet-to-be-announced institution.

Melandri, who views Walker’s works as a statement about the injustices to African Americans perpetrated by mass media and by the erasure of civil rights struggles, said that she and Uslip agreed to stage the exhibition because “we thought that many of Walker’s critiques were salient and germane to our local community.” Moving forward, Melandri stressed that the museum will begin to reassess and adjust its curatorial policies and develop a set of best practices for sharing and receiving feedback on curatorial decisions.

“Certainly there are people who feel frustrated, angered, disappointed, and upset with us. If I can take something positive out of that—it means that we matter. CAM has provided a space for people to be engaged with contemporary art that is truly invested in issues—large and small—that are directly related to their humanity. We have always presented art that some people have found distressing, discomforting, or obscene. That is of the nature of contemporary art, especially if it’s doing its job. We will continue to do that. I don’t believe that anyone who truly cares about the museum wants us to discontinue our mission. Our job is to stay, to reimagine, to reengage.”

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