Inclusivity in Contemporary Art: Assessing the Walker's Scaffold Controversy

Written by Susan L. Allen and Amy B. Weisgram Engstrom. Article overview written by Lukas Boehning.

In summer 2017, the Walker Art Center showcased Sam Durant’s Scaffold, a representation of the seven gallows used to execute 38 Dakota prisoners, known as the Dakota 38. After Dakota elders strongly opposed its display, the Walker removed the piece and the artist transferred his intellectual property rights to the Dakota people. In a forthcoming Law Review article, authors Susan L. Allen and Amy B. Weisgram discuss how the museum’s commission of Scaffold exposed the ongoing exclusion of Native people from mainstream art culture.

The article contextualizes the controversy of the piece by providing the historical background of the infamous hanging of the Dakota 38. In the 1800s, the Dakota ceded more than 100,000 acres of land to the United States for amounts well below the land’s value, and a rush of settlers to what is now central Minnesota displaced Native Americans to barren lands. These situations led to the Dakota War, which pitted a starving nation against white settlers. By the time the conflict had ended, more than 300 Dakota were sentenced to death, and the Dakota 38 were hung.

After providing this history, the authors then discuss how the State of Minnesota has begun to address inappropriate depictions of Native Americans on public property. Native people serving on the Minnesota State Capital Preservation Commission voiced concerns regarding art depictions of Native history in the state Capital, and many of the inaccurate and offensive pieces were either removed or relocated.

Many conversations around the Scaffold controversy focused on freedom of speech, specifically addressing whether removing the Scaffold was a form of government censorship. The authors say this discussion misses the mark because there was no first amendment issue to removing the Scaffold piece. The focus here, the authors contend, should be how the Dakota were excluded culturally and historically in the decision to commission and showcase Scaffold, not the constitutionality of a museum’s display. To that end, the authors argue the Walker should have engaged the Dakota before commissioning Scaffold, and provided education and a narrative framework guiding the perceptions of the visitor.

Moving forward, the authors highlight the need for institutions, such as the Walker, to commission more Native American contemporary artists. Artistic expressions of Native American identity are integral to preserving their cultural integrity, and Native American voices must be included in depictions of their story.

Full article available in Volume 44, Sua Sponte, Summer 2018