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Artist Sam Durant and indigenous groups agree to the dismantling of his sculpture Scaffold


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Sam Durant’s sculpture Scaffold was due to be featured at the renovated and expanded Minnesota Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis, originally scheduled to reopen this Saturday, June 3. The sculpture, first shown in Germany in 2012, resembles a wooden gallows and is intended, in the words of the artist, to address “the difficult histories of the racial dimension of the criminal justice system in the United States, ranging from lynchings to mass incarceration to capital punishment.” Among other executions throughout US history, the piece references the 1862 lynching of thirty-eight Dakota Indians in nearby Mankato, the largest mass execution in US history.

But last week, Native American protesters and allies began raising serious concerns about Scaffold. As reported by Sarah Cascone in artnet news, protesters assembled outside the Walker Art Center, which owns the piece and organized its installation in the Minnesota Sculpture Garden. They also raised objections in the media. As Sasha Houston Brown, a Dakota protestor, told the StarTribune, “It’s really traumatizing for our people to look at that and have it just appear without any warning or idea that they were doing this. And it’s not art to us.”

As a result of the outcry, Sam Durant issued a public statement, saying in part,

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.

On Wednesday, May 31, Durant met with representatives from the Dakota Spiritual and Traditional Elders, representatives from the four federally recognized Dakota tribes, the Walker Art Center, and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. An agreement was reached to dismantle the sculpture. Here’s the statement that resulted from that meeting, as it appears in the Walker Art Center blog:

This is a report regarding the mediation process that has taken place to address the Scaffold structure.

The artist Sam Durant has committed to never create the Dakota gallows again. He commits to transferring the intellectual property rights of this work to the Dakota Oyate (people).

The Walker Art Center agrees that it does not intend to construct this artwork again. Collectively the work will be dismantled during a ceremony beginning Friday, June 2 at 2 pm led by the Dakota Spiritual Leaders and Elders. It takes at least four days to remove the wood. It will be removed by a native construction company, and the wood will be placed in a fire pile near the remaining steel understructure with signage explaining the mutually agreed upon process until the wood is removed. This native construction company is donating their services, and in exchange the Walker has agreed to match that value to support travel for elders to the ceremony.

The wood will be removed and taken to the Fort Snelling area, because of the historical significance of this site to the Dakota Oyate, where they will ceremonially burn the wood. The location logistics will be determined in a meeting with Steve Elliot, executive director of the Minnesota Historical Society, and the Spiritual and Traditional Dakota Elders The date of this ceremony will be announced as soon as it is confirmed.

During the ongoing consultative process, the remaining understructure of steel and concrete will be removed, which should take several days. Because the Garden is still under construction, modification to the perimeter construction fence will be modified to allow space for the ceremony at the site of the artwork. Space will likely be limited, however the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board will assure that there is adequate space for attendees to the ceremony on June 2.

The existing signs that are near the artwork will remain until the entire structure and construction fence are removed. The Walker will collect and distribute the signs as requested by their creators. The grand opening of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden will be June 10.

Updates will be provided to the press as this mediation process continues, which will be held at a neutral site.

Image: Sam Durant, Scaffold. Via artnet news.