Black Women Artists Accuse Wisconsin Museum of Racism

Black Women Artists Accuse Wisconsin Museum of Racism

Organizers of the Wisconsin Triennial from the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art are currently facing scrutiny after a group of Black women artists participating in the exhibition have decried it as perpetuating “institutional racist violence.”

So far, almost half of the 23 artists featured in the regional art show have withdrawn their works in protest following the publishing of an open letter calling out the museum's “shameful mistreatment of the Black artists, contractors, and staffers throughout the exhibition.”

The allegations stem from an incident involving the vandalism of an installation by Madison-based artist Lilada Gee. After a white employee of the neighboring Overture Arts Center accosted Gee while she was being escorted into the museum, Gee left the work intentionally unfinished as a response to the incident. The incomplete installation was put on display, eventually being defaced with paint and glitter by a visiting family with children who mistook it as interactive.

Gee moved in July to take down the installation. Per the open letter, neither Gee nor any of the other triennial participants that withdrew have received support from the institution. Throughout the exhibit's lifetime, they allege that the museum failed to adequately promote it across their social media channels and neglected to organize any additional programming surrounding 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 reads. In the section addressing “Museum Failures,” the group of artists also claim that the $250 individual honorarium payment that has been paid to the participating artists is well below the suggested percentage of the museum's $3 million operating budget recommended by the artist labor group W.A.G.E.

This year's Triennial, which opened in April and is expected to run through October, is curated by Fatima Laster. The exhibit takes its name from bell hooks' seminal book Ain't I a Woman?, drawing on Black feminist writings, including Sojourner Truth and hooks. MMoCA has been running the Wisconsin Triennial for over four decades now, but this year's exhibition marked the first year it's been focused on highlighting the work of Black women artists in Wisconsin. Months prior to the Gee incidents, Laster's appointment as the independent curator for the triennial was the topic of another open letter addressed to Brungardt and the museum’s board of trustees from 20 artists, curators and activists voicing support after it was said that her involvement in the exhibition was causing "internal dissent."

The museum has so far denied the allegations, calling them “inappropriate and unfounded” in a statement. The executive committee of MMoCA’s board has since apologized to Gee, conceding that “the situation has caused her pain.” The committee still stood by Brungardt's handling of the situation saying that it was the only way to "de-escalate" the situation without involving the police. They also refuted that the museum mishandled the security for the show, saying that “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.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of the article stated the museum's director, Christine Brungardt, moved to deinstall Gee's installation; according to the museum, Gee asked for her work to be taken down.

Photo courtesy of Matt Venker/Shutterstock