Monday 17 October 2016

A month of protest at the Contemporary Art Museum St Louis

I'm publishing less here this year, and moving a lot of my regular writing to a weekly Tiny Letter email newsletter (you can sign up here) where I bring together a group of things I've read in the past few weeks that share a theme I'm interested in. This past weekend's newsletter was a bit different, so I thought I'd share it here

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On September 16 the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (CAM) opened the exhibition Kelley Walker: Direct Drive. Organised by their chief curator Jeffrey Uslip, the exhibition is a major survey of the New York artist's work, and takes over the entire museum.

Walker, born in 1969, is a white conceptual artist, whose work uses the forms of advertising and the techniques of screenprinting and digital reproduction to comment on political and social themes. Kelley Walker: Direct Drive includes a body of work from 2005 called Black Star Press. From the exhibition page on CAM's website:
A parallel to Warhol’s canonical 1964 painting Race Riot, Walker’s Black Star Press series comprises images of racial unrest that have been digitally printed on canvas, silkscreened with melted white, milk, and dark chocolate, and rotated in ninety- degree increments. These manipulations mask and partially censor the act of police brutality with a perishable material as well as alter the power dynamic between the image’s subjects. Similarly, in his series schema; Aquafresh plus Crest with Whitening Expressions, the artist scans smears of toothpaste directly onto a flatbed scanner. Digitally overlaying the scans onto a variety of images—including the cover of men’s hip-hop magazine KING—Walker creates gestural abstractions and alludes to consumption, objectification, and impermanence.
Works from the Black Star Press series are held by both the Saatchi Collection and MOMA (who have a sizable collection of his work).

On September 17, Walker spoke about his work in a talk at the museum. On Facebook, the black St Louis artist Damon Davis wrote about Walker's appropriation of black bodies, the display of these works in St Louis after Fergusson and in the current climate of race relations in America, and the artist and curator's lack of willingness to address this aspect of his work. Hyperallergic interviewed a number of attendees about the talk, and the subsequent call for the show to be boycotted.

On September 18, three black members of staff wrote to the museum's leadership, calling for Uslip's resignation, the removal of works, and stating the limitation they were placing on their working duties for the duration of the show.  Walker released a response through his dealer, Paula Cooper Gallery.

In late September, director Lisa Melandri said that removing the works would be censorship,but the museum would build a wall to conceal the works, and put warning signage in place. A press statement released by CAM stated:
Throughout our dialogue with community activists and leaders, we have listened to their requests to remove Kelley Walker: Direct Drive from the museum. In accordance with CAM’s steadfast commitment to free speech and freedom of expression, we have concluded, after lengthy and thoughtful deliberations, to keep the exhibition on view. Taking down the show would violate the Museum’s core principles and end the productive dialogue that this work has initiated. CAM has a history of showing controversial artists; we have shown works that have challenged common sensibilities and presented work that has critiqued, in a difficult way, misogyny, patriarchy, homophobia, and the military industrial complex, among other issues. Despite the debates and discomfort these exhibitions generated, we never removed them.
On September 29, the St Louis Post-Dispatch published an editorial stating that Walker and Uslip should have backed the exhibition and treated controversy as an opportunity for meaningful discussion.

On October 3, a CAM staff member was harangued at a petrol station while wearing a CAM-branded t-shirt: the museum released a statement that a number of its staff members had been harassed and threatened over the exhibition.

On October 7, a public event was held where Lisa Melandri took questions on the exhibition. (As a director of a contemporary art gallery myself, the idea of this fills me with fear, and also admiration.) At around the same time 20 local artists withdrew from a CAM-organised open studio event in protest over the exhibition.

At the beginning of this week, the resignation of curator Jeffrey Uslip was announced; CAM have said he is moving to another institution but chooses not to say which. Three days ago James McAnally wrote a piece for Hyperallergic titled A Call for a Collective Reexamination of Our Art Institutions:
What specific factors made the museum unable to appropriately address the community’s concerns and is the reason unique to this context or is it generalizable? Is it actually the museum staff or board members involved — their biases, their inability to act — or is it the complex relations between the museum and its many partners, supporters and collaborators at stake? Is it the maintenance of the museum’s reputation within the art world itself, defined here as the spectacle industry of art fairs and commercial galleries, biennials and trickle-out economics? Or perhaps we have to admit here that the art world and its institutions are in fact constructed of mutually exclusive communities — donors and neighbors, corporate supporters and those seeking alternatives, the demographics claimed in a grant report and those whom the exhibitions are actually organized for.
Watching this story unfold over the past month has filled me with questions. I can imagine the museum's leadership being sideswiped by what has happened. I can see a scenario where they believed they were bringing to their city an ambitious exhibition by a high-profile artist, containing works which were controversial but which could provoke meaningful discussion, in a move that would garner them national attention - if not for the reasons they thought. I can see a scenario where the leadership was bewildered as to why decade-old works were provoking protest when they hadn't previously. I can see a scenario where non-leadership staff looked at what was being planned by the people above them and were appalled by their choices but felt powerless (or simply chose not) to raise questions. I can see a scenario where staff on the floor had to soak up the community's response whilst they felt leadership was hiding in a bunker. I can see a scenario where board members, funders and other stakeholders lost their shit whilst collegial support melted away.

Most of all I have taken out of this how quickly our social contexts and social movements are changing. Artworks which ten years ago were judged valid and valuable for their political statements are now being decried and protested. It's a sobering (or perhaps an illuminating) thought as a museum professional.

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