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Saturday, May 25, 2024
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‘There is no justification:’ Black artists confront Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s handling of artwork destruction and theft

After repeated racist treatment of Black artists and curators, MMoCA issued a statement that denies calls for them to make changes.

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) is facing allegations of racism after allowing the artwork of local artist Lilada Gee to be defaced and stolen.

The incident

On June 24, a woman and her children visited the “Ain’t I a Woman” exhibit.

Using the art supplies around as part of the exhibit, they proceeded to paint and glitter over Gee’s piece. When a museum attendant found the family and went to inform museum leadership, the mother and children left with the art.

Gee received a phone call from MMoCA’s director Christina Brungardt that simultaneously made Gee aware of the incident and asked if it was alright for the family to keep Gee’s vandalized and stolen art. The security footage was shared with Gee who, upon viewing, said it was “clear that they painted a penis on [the artwork].”

Brungardt’s question was described as an effort to “de-escalate” the situation which the museum’s statement calls an “anomaly.” They add, “at no point during the incident did the director intend to allow the mother to keep possession of the artwork,” which was retrieved and returned to Gee in its vandalized state not long after it was stolen.

Since then, at least half of the 23 artists involved in the exhibit have pulled their work.

The Daily Cardinal spoke with one of these artists under the condition of anonymity as well as Rhonda Gatlin-Hayes who decided to leave her artwork in the museum.

The anonymous artist highlighted how “challenging” this experience and incident have been. In discussion with the Cardinal, they emphasized interactions with MMoCA — going all the way back to the beginning of the exhibit — were “troubling” and marked with “slights and oversights [MMoCA] was comfortable making.”

“It was a mess from the beginning,” shared Gatlin-Hayes.

Additionally, in response to the vandalization of Gee’s work, the website FWD: truth was established by some of the artists as “an open letter and living archive made in collective (re:)action.” It goes into detail regarding how the MMoCA has failed Black women, femmes and gender non-confirming artists at most every step in this collaboration.

The timeline assembled at details these interactions and makes clear the destruction and theft of Gee’s artwork was not an anomaly but a scarily inevitable symptom of much larger issues with the museum.

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The timeline

In April 2021, the museum announced the Wisconsin Triennial, a state-wide survey of contemporary art occurring every three years, would be curated by someone outside the museum’s staff for the first time in their history. They later announced the guest curator would be Wisconsin artist, owner and curator of 5 Points Art Gallery in Milwaukee’s north side, Fatima Laster. However, this decision carried an amount of “internal dissent and uncertainty.” 

In September 2021, a “collection of artists, curators, art advocates, and citizens” wrote to Director Brungardt and the MMoCA board to “formally applaud the selection of Fatima Laster as guest curator for the Wisconsin Triennial” and “urge MMoCA to continue to do the work of supporting Laster's appointment and continuing to center inclusion in [MMoCA’s] exhibition programming.” 

Most importantly, this letter included a list of actions the museum needed to take to ensure the exhibit’s success and avoid “the traps that often come with hiring a person of color to join a predominately white institution” because of “a lack of institutional support.” These included having the full support of the museum, a lack of “institutional gatekeeping” and “cross-disciplinary documentation of the exhibit so that this historical moment is available for future artists.”

Fast forward to March 2022, the artists had been announced and Brungardt agreed in the art loan contract between the museum and the artists to “exercise the same care in respect to artwork loaned to it, as it does in safekeeping of its own artwork."

A week later, the first major offense occurred. During the installation of the exhibit, Lilada Gee stepped out to get more supplies. She called Annik Dupaty, another Black woman involved in the exhibit, to let her back in. However, a white employee of the Overture Center for the Arts not only prevented their reentry but “verbally accosts and physically intimidates” them. Gee decided to pause the installation of the exhibit, letting it stand as a reflection of its state on the day of this incident.

In response to finding racism among their staff, the Overture Center fired the offending staff member while keeping them anonymous. 

MMoCA then set up a time to speak with the artists to discuss “desired reconciliatory actions and accountability measures.” In addition to requesting a formal apology, the artists asked for increased security at the museum.

“I specifically remember stating three times the importance of security for the opening and for the duration of the exhibit,” Gatlin-Hayes noted. 

The aftermath

The aforementioned destruction and theft occurred in June. The museum contacted no other artists to inform them of the security failure until five days after it occurred.

Referring to the mother and kids, the anonymous artist said, “It’s not unreasonable for someone to [make this] mistake.”

As both FWD: truth and MMoCA shared, the location of this exhibit was called “the Shop” because it had previously housed the museum’s gift shop. It was restructured after being broken into during the summer of 2020 and turned into “a space to provide interactive contemporary art experiences and educational workshops to the community.” Additionally, the museum hosted “Art Cart” events during the summer to engage local children in art projects.

The anonymous artist said the problem was instead the “lack of an attendant,” an oversight fully owed to MMoCA’s pattern of negligence  in caring for this exhibit in particular. They also expressed that if Gee’s artwork was unsafe, all their artwork was unsafe.

“I am fearful that something might happen to my work,” Gatlin-Hayes told the Cardinal. “But I want it to be there. Our work is a part of our soul.” 

“[When our art is destroyed], it’s like a part of your life is being destroyed,” Gaitlin-Hayes said. 

Additionally, Gatlin-Hayes called attention to the lack of artist events, saying they were excited to interact with the community.

“There was no programming scheduled … How can you not have programming for a six month show?” she asked.

FWD: truth found, as of late August, June 9 was the last day the museum’s Instagram, Twitter or Facebook accounts promoted the exhibit which would be open until October. This is minimal compared to the promotion of simultaneous exhibits. 

They added that while there are virtual tours of other current exhibits as well as high quality images of work from the previous triennial in 2019, there is no virtual tour or gallery of “Ain’t I a Woman.” This is in spite of that being core to the artists’ requests of the partnership.

As further detailed by FWD: truth, the artists were compensated $250 each, which is one fourth the fair market rate for an exhibit of this nature. Meanwhile, they point out that Brungardt’s salary is upwards of $260,000. This is 9% of the museum’s expenses as of 2019 and 15 times the museum’s entire allocation for honorariums — which are the payments made to thank artists for loaning their work.

“I made two pieces for this, and it takes me six to eight weeks to make a piece,” added Gatlin-Hayes. “I worked hard on that. [My contributions] were particularly made for this.”

The museum issued a statement in August declaring the allegations of institutional racism to be “inappropriate and unfounded.” 

“We stand by Ms. Brungardt and are grateful for her leadership, professionalism, and vision for growing MMoCA as an impactful, globally recognized institution that prioritizes equity and inclusion,” the statement reads. “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.” 

The anonymous artist described the statement as “insincere and rude.” 

“I struggle to understand if they believe this demonstrates respect,” they said. 

FWD: truth’s statement wrote, “to call [MMoCA’s response] inadequate would be an understatement… To have failed to have met that moment, pro-actively and with dignity, is offensive.”

MMoCA’s Director of Communications Marni McEntee provided the following statement on behalf of the museum to the Cardinal Tuesday. 

“The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art has the utmost respect for the Black artists and all involved in bringing the Wisconsin Triennial presentation of [the] ‘Ain’t I A Woman?’ exhibit to life. We are deeply saddened that some artists have chosen to remove their works from it before its October conclusion. We also remain steadfast in our commitment to encouraging artists to express their independent views through their art, including the choice not to display their art, even when doing so courts controversy or confusion.”

For Gatlin-Hayes, this issue remains as a matter of integrity:

“The museum failed in their part of the agreement. I support my fellow artists who removed their work … but I’m going to stand my ground. I made a commitment [and will] uphold my end of the bargain,” she told the Cardinal. 

She added, “[MMoCA] allowed us in this space, but didn’t really want us there … I’m staying because we have a right to be there. We shouldn’t have to continuously fight to have a presence.”

As for the current state of the relationship, the anonymous artist said the museum saying ‘we hear you’ would be “new and welcome.” 

“All you had to say was ‘we apologize’ [in a public manner],” Gatlin-Hayes emphasized. “I’ve been Black my whole life. I know what it feels like to be discriminated against.”

FWD: truth exists on Instagram as well as this open letter by fellow artist Anders Zanichkowsky. The latter includes the link for alumni, students and faculty from the Art & Art History Departments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to sign a petition to MMoCA. The demands include removing Brungardt from her position as director and providing financial restitution for Gee.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 4:50 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, to correctly reflect that it was a staff member of the Overture Center who prevented the artists from reentering the building in the spring of 2022, not a staff member of MMoCA. Additionally, it was the Overture Center who fired their staff member after learning of the incident. This story was also updated to include that Gee's stolen artwork was returned after being taken from the exhibition.

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Jeffrey Brown

Jeffrey Brown is a former Arts Editor for the Daily Cardinal. He writes for The Beet occasionally and does some drawing and photography too. He is a senior majoring in Sociology. Do not feed him after midnight.

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