After an agreement was reached at a meeting between representatives of the Dakota Nation, the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and Los Angeles–based artist Sam Durant on Wednesday, May 31, Dakota tribal elders will oversee the dismantling and the ceremonial burning of the artist’s controversial work Scaffold, 2012, starting Friday, June 2.
The two-story sculpture—a composite of representations of seven historical gallows that were used in the US between 1859 and 2006—was to be installed in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden by June 3. This newest addition to the Walker, which was partially inspired by the gallows where thirty-eight Dakotas were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, in 1862—the largest mass execution in the history of the United States—incited a major outcry on social media, with people calling the work “a monument to genocide” and a “hate crime.”
The controversy surrounding the piece escalated on Friday and Saturday, when approximately one hundred Native Americans gathered at the Walker Art Center to protest and demand its removal. The institution swiftly responded, with executive director Olga Viso issuing an apology. She said, “I regret the pain that this artwork has brought to the Dakota community and others,” adding that the piece had elicited a response that Walker officials “did not sufficiently anticipate or imagine.”
After learning of the reaction of the Dakota community, the artist issued the following statement: “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. It has been my belief that white artists need to address issues of white supremacy and its institutional manifestations. Whites created the concept of race and have used it to maintain dominance for centuries, whites must be involved in its dismantling. However, 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. I should have reached out to the Dakota community the moment I knew that the sculpture would be exhibited at the Walker Art Center in proximity to Mankato.”
Both Durant and Viso expressed that they were willing to take the sculpture down and work with the Dakota people to ensure the institution took the appropriate action to resolve the matter. The plan to burn the work in a ceremony at a site in the Fort Snelling area, where Dakota people were imprisoned after the 1862 US-Dakota War, was proposed by a Dakota committee during Wednesday’s three-hour meeting. Viso called the agreement “the first step for the Walker in a long process to rebuild trust with the Dakota and Native communities throughout Minnesota. We’re grateful to the Dakota leaders for their wisdom and patience.”
Durant has also committed to not re-create the Dakota gallows again and has transferred his intellectual property rights to the Dakotas. In an interview with the Star Tribune, the artist called the meeting a “powerful and moving experience.” He added, “I would say that what we have negotiated is a path forward and hopefully a path of healing.”
Critics claim the dispute over the piece could have been avoided if the Walker Art Center engaged the Dakota Nation before it decided to install the sculpture. Viso admitted that this contributed to the institution’s misstep and said that the Walker will begin to hold public forums, increase its outreach to Native communities, and commission work by Native American artists.