The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has agreed to remove a controversial outdoor “gallows” sculpture following protests by local Native Americans. The large work includes design elements of seven different historical U.S. gallows, including one used to hang 38 Dakota Indians in the state in 1862.
“I regret the pain that this artwork has brought to the Dakota community and others,” museum executive director Olga Viso said in a statement announcing the decision that was posted on Facebook Saturday. “This is the first step in a long process of healing.”
The two-story structure entitled “Scaffold,” created in 2012 by Los Angeles artist Sam Durant and inspired by a dark history of American hangings, was intended as a criticism of capital punishment. But many in the local community considered it insensitive. The hanging of the “Dakota 38” after the U.S.-Dakota War in Minnesota was the largest state-sanctioned mass execution in U.S. history.
The artist now supports dismantling his exhibit, Viso’s statement said, and has told the museum’s executive director: “It’s just wood and metal ― nothing compared to the lives and histories of the Dakota people.”
“I am in agreement with the artist that the best way to move forward is to have Scaffold dismantled in some manner and to listen and learn from the elders,” she added.
Viso said she had hoped the choice of the work would trigger a valuable dialogue and increased awareness about capital punishment and violence. “I regret that I did not better anticipate how the work would be received in Minnesota, especially by Native audiences. I should have engaged leaders in the Dakota and broader Native communities in advance of the work’s siting,” she wrote in an open letter last week.
The details of how the work will be dismantled will be determined in meetings this week with tribal elders.
The large work ― with steps for visitors to climb to the gallows ― was to be one of 18 new works in a renovated Minneapolis Sculpture Garden at the Walker Art Center to be unveiled June 3.
Protesters on the scene applauded the decision when it was announced, but many plan to camp out at the space until the exhibit is removed. And anger has still been running high, with some on the scene brandishing signs reading: “This isn’t art; this is murder.”
James Cross, who identifies as Anishinaabe and Dakota, told the Pioneer Press that the decision to erect the scaffold without any input from the Native American community was a “slap in the face.”
“Scaffold” was praised by critics when it was shown in 2012 in Germany and in Scotland.