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Sunday, March 03, 2024
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MMoCA announces ‘truth and reconciliation project’ in response to Triennial artist concerns, distrust

Artists involved in the recently concluded “Ain’t I A Woman?” exhibit at the MMoCA express continued disappointment in the museum’s misconduct.

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) continues to receive criticism regarding their response to the vandalism and theft of an art piece in the 2022 Wisconsin Triennial entitled “Ain’t I A Woman?” The artists involved do not feel the museum is paying attention to their calls for change.

“It seemed like this resolved multiple times, but that’s just not the case,” said Triennial artist Emily Leach. “This seems like a reaction to press coverage.”

This exhibition — which ran for six months and ended on Sunday, Oct. 9 — was the first in the museum’s history to be curated by an external party and feature all work from Wisconsin artists who identify as Black women, femmes and gender nonconforming individuals. After the museum went months without events such as panels with the artists, and neglected to promote the triennial on their social media at the same rate as other exhibits, the artwork of Lilada Gee was defaced for over 15 minutes before being taken from the museum premises.

While the artwork was returned, it was the last straw for many artists featured in the exhibition. Many removed their work from the museum, and some compiled a list of their complaints under the label FWD: Truth.

MMoCA published “A statement on moving forward” in mid-September as an amendment to their original statement. The statement first apologizes and takes responsibility for the damage to the artwork. From there, the museum provides their plan for moving forward in “truth and reconciliation.” 

The truth and reconciliation project is led by board members Leslie Smith III, Chele Isaac and Tina Virgil. It will bring “a visual anthropologist in residence [who] will listen for a shared narrative around the pain that was prompted by the incidents that occurred during the Wisconsin Triennial presentation of ‘Ain’t I A Woman?’” at MMoCA. 

“We believe a shared narrative – one based on interviews, investigation, and interrogation of assumptions – is an important step toward reconciliation for all stakeholders,” the museum said. “We are hopeful that an in-depth journey of listening, learning, and engaging with museum and community stakeholders in Madison will spark healing opportunities among artists, staff, museum attendees, and the board that allow us all to build an anti-racist museum.”

When asked about their communication with the artists in their efforts toward reconciliation, MMoCA said, “two designated MMoCA Board of Trustees members reached out to the collective via email on August 11, 2022, inviting the collective to meet to discuss their concerns.”

This email the MMoCA Board of Trustees members sent to artists over two months ago has not been enough for the Triennial participants, according to the three who spoke with the Daily Cardinal.

“In order for you to move forward, you have to get the truth of those involved in the situation … I asked [other triennial artists] — no one had been contacted [more recently than the Aug. 11 email],” said Rhonda Gatlin-Hayes, a Milwaukee artist featured in the “Ain’t I A Woman?” exhibition.

At least 16 of the 23 total artists involved in the exhibition removed their work from the exhibition before it concluded. Gatlin-Hayes was one of the last to do so.

“This is really significant for artists — to choose not to show their work — and is indicative of massive institutional failure and harm,” Leach said.

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In a previous conversation, Gatlin-Hayes said the reasons she stayed were her principle of keeping her word as well as the belief in the statement made by continuing her presence in a space that she was not welcome. But Gatlin-Hayes went on to share another factor in her decision to keep her art on display was the hope someone from the museum would reach out to her to get her feedback on the situation.

“I’m just disappointed they did not reach inward [to the artists who remained] to try to heal some wounds and go about this project transparently,” Gatlin-Hayes added. “I don’t think they’re being transparent.”

MMoCA has not publicly stated the name of the visual anthropologist and artist they brought in to conduct the “truth and reconciliation” project.

When asked why they had not publicly stated the anthropologist’s name and if they could do so, MMoCA said “[t]he best person to reach out to is Board of Trustees member Tina Virgil.” 

Virgil was not available for comment at the time of publication.

The Triennial artists who spoke with the Daily Cardinal believe the visual anthropologist and artist to be Marlon Hall. 

Hall’s Instagram bio defines him as an artist, visual anthropologist, salon dinner curator, yogi, Tulsa artist fellow and Fulbright Specialist — in that order. His education in anthropology seems to be a joint Bachelor of Arts degree in Anthropology and Political Science in 1996. He holds no graduate degree in Anthropology, and while not having any anthropological publications, in Hall’s book, “Unearthing You: Discover the Rituals, Values and Practices that Make You, You,” he promises a 21-day “journey” to “[h]elp you learn to become an anthropologist of you.”

As an artist, he has worked multiple times with the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, where MMoCA Director Christina Brungardt was Deputy Director from 2016 to 2020. Hall said that he did not know Brungardt prior to being called into this situation.

"My art is about going into spaces where there's dissonance and bringing about trust," Hall told the Daily Cardinal. "I am an artist [and there's] nothing more than ... the power [art] has to heal."

His previous work includes using sculpture, photography, film, poetry, and more to tells stories in and of communities. He says that while he holds no higher degree in anthropology, he bring his anthropological background into his art, which he describes as "speaking for itself." One of these entitled "Dear Black Future" took place in Tulsa, Okla. and aimed to "reimagine the possibility of black history month." 

Neither the museum nor Virgil were available to comment on how the above qualifies Hall to address concerns of institutional racism within MMoCA.

“There’s this idea in the community that we’ve overblown the situation or that we’re making it up or that we’re making [MMoCA] out to be like the KKK,” shared “Ain’t I A Woman?” artist and organizer of the Oct. 9 protest, Portia Cobb. “But we’re trying to get them to be accountable not just to us but to any artist going into that space going forward. That means there has to be a complete diversity, equity and inclusion review of that space and not be a cultural anthropologist artist that already has a relationship with the director.”

The Triennial artists are not alone in this effort toward accountability from the museum.

Wisconsin State Assembly Rep. Francesca Hong appeared in support at the protest outside MMoCA on Sunday, Oct. 9.

“Our office is disappointed that instead of uplifting and honoring the power of Black artists, harm was done during the Triennial Exhibit,” Hong said in a statement  “We urge those accountable to internally and publically hold themselves to the right standards in ensuring BIPOC artists are protected with a strong sense of belonging, respect and proper compensation.“

Local artist TetraPAKMAN is working on the ground in support of the Triennial artists. He first distributed lollipops labeled “MMoCA sucks” then hung flyers saying “I [heart] MMoCA.” Both of these contained a QR code linking to a petition for a “real apology” from MMoCA

“I cannot see something going wrong in my community and ignore it,” PAKMAN told the Daily Cardinal. “My work in all directions is about justice. Whether it’s about reproductive rights, women’s rights, environmental rights —  I’m there. It’s the same justice.”

When asked why his flyers that link to a petition for accountability from the museum state love for MMoCA, TetraPAKMAN said, first and foremost, they stay up longer on State Street than when they said “MMoCA Sucks.” 

Second, he said, “I love the museum; I hate what they are doing. The people there are not the museum.”

“You cannot think of justice just when it’s convenient,” he continued. “That’s the problem with white privilege and racism. There are people protected in this situation and those who aren’t. There’s a lot more artists keeping quiet. They like justice when it’s convenient for them.”

Despite saying he was “well-treated” when he worked with MMoCA in the past, TetraPAKMAN said he no longer feels comfortable submitting his work there.

“Why can’t we have accountability from those in power?” PAKMAN asked. “There’s no crime, but what they did was unacceptable … What MMoCA is showing is they care about themselves … They have a right to do what they’re doing but then don’t say you’re here for the community.”

Portia Cobb noted, “I think [MMoCA] believes because they will continue to program Black artists that they are solving the problem in some way or that they never had a problem.”

“This is breaking a lot of people apart very quickly,” TetraPAKMAN added. “My small art community is being hurt by this.”

The Triennial artists remain hopeful the museum will eventually do what it takes to restore the museum to what it could mean for the Madison art community.

“If you look at our response as something that is destructive and not constructive, you will not [grow from this],” said Leach. “It’s something that can be addressed and lead to a healthier institution that MMoCA and Madison deserve.”

“In order to get the truth, you have to talk directly to the person [affected],” Gatlin-Hayes concluded. “If they wanted to move forward in trying to eradicate this type of behavior, they would have reached out to at least one person … but they didn’t reach out.”

Editor's note: This article was updated to accurately reflect Marlon Hall's role at MMoCA and include more details regarding his previous work as an artist at 4:15 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 14, 2022. He is not serving as a consultant of the museum. In Hall's own words, he is "in the research phase of a possible artist residency with the museum." This article was also updated on Monday, Oct. 18 at 9:30 a.m. to replace the citation of the American Anthropological Association with a more straight-forward description of Hall's credentials.

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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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