Black women artists participating in this year’s edition of the Wisconsin Triennial, a regional exhibition organized by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA), have accused the museum of “institutional racist violence.”
Around half of the 23 artists featured in the show have withdrawn their works in protest. The allegations were published in an open letter that was signed by “the collective artists of the MMoCA 2022 Wisconsin Triennial.” The show opened in April and is expected to run through late October.
In the letter, which was published on August 19, they accused the museum of “shameful mistreatment of the Black artists, contractors, and staffers throughout the exhibition.”
The museum denied the allegations, calling them “inappropriate and unfounded” in a statement issued after the letter was published.
The exhibition, organized by independent curator Fatima Laster, is titled “Ain’t I A Woman?,” a reference to a book by bell hooks. The triennial draws on Black feminist writings, including works by Sojourner Truth and hooks. MMoCA has been running the triennial for more than four decades, but this is the first edition with a stated focus on the work of Black women artists in Wisconsin.
The accusations center around the vandalism of an installation produced by the Madison-based artist Lilada Gee. In June, the work, while installed in an unfinished condition at the museum, was defaced the work with paint and glitter that were available in the exhibition gallery. The museum claimed that the work was misinterpreted as an interactive piece by a family with children visiting the museum.
Prior to the incident, the artist said she and another Black worker at the museum were accosted in March during the installation period by a white employee of Overture Arts Center, a neighboring exhibition space. Madison365, a local publication, reported that the Overture worker was subsequently terminated.Gee, who was at the time of the altercation trying to gain re-entry to the building, decided to leave the installation unfinished in response to the attack.
In July, MMoCA’s director, Christina Brungardt, moved to deinstall Gee’s work and close the gallery space in which it was located. That gallery had also housed a number of other works by artists in the triennial.
The triennial participants who withdrew from the show claim that Gee and other artists did not receive support from the museum. They also allege that the museum did not adequately promote the exhibition across its social media channels, and that it did not organize any programming around the triennial.
“The attack, institutional response from both MMoCA and the Overture, and the persistent security concerns that followed are clear examples of institutional racist violence,” the letter says.
In a section titled “Museum Failures,” the artists also claim that they should have been paid more. The $250 individual honorarium payment paid to participating triennial artists is below the percentage of the museum’s $3 million operating budget suggested by the artist labor group W.A.G.E.’s guidelines for artist compensation. (Industry groups like the Association of Art Museum Directors and the American Alliance of Museums do not offer standards for payments to artists.)
This was not the first call for the museum’s leadership to address issues related to race and equity in the lead-up to the triennial. In the months prior to the incidents involving Gee and her work, a group of 20 artists, curators, and activists sent a letter to the museum in support of Laster’s appointment. That letter was addressed to Brungardt and the museum’s board of trustees, and revolved around allegations of “internal dissent” involving Laster’s participation as curator.
In a statement, the executive committee of MMoCA’s board apologized for the damage caused to Gee’s work acknowledging that “the situation has caused her pain.”
The committee said it stands by Brungardt’s handling of the incident, who they said was able to “de-escalate” the situation involving the alleged vandalism by not involving police force in the event.
The committee also refuted accusations that the museum mishandled security measures for the exhibition, saying, “The 16-minute period during which hired gallery attendants were not in one part of the exhibit space does not equate to disrespect for the Black artists or guest curator of the exhibit, nor does it point to institutional racism.”