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Scaffold: The Role & Responsibility of Artists

Posted on July 10, 2017 at 12:00 AM by Jami Milne


Image courtesy of Ashely Fairbanks

It is December 26th, 1862. Mankato, MN. The day after Christmas. There is snow on the ground but it is an otherwise crisp, clear winter day. Nearly 4,000 people have gathered to watch 38 Dakota men executed by hanging – what will become the largest mass execution in U.S. history. 1,500 soldiers surround the scaffold to keep the crowd from mobbing the prisoners and exacting their own ideas of punishment. Three drum beats, a single ax to cut a rope, and the scaffolding falls. 38 Dakota bodies dangle until a physician officially declares each man dead. The bodies are removed and buried in a mass grave on a sandy riverbank nearby. Later that night, the grave is reopened and 38 Dakota bodies are distributed among doctors. Cadavers are in high demand for anatomical study. Dead Indians are easy to come by.


It is May, 2017. Minneapolis, MN. Sam Durant’s sculpture, Scaffold, stands behind construction gates while the site is prepared for the reopening of The Walker Art Center’s Sculpture Garden. Durant’s Scaffold is a replica of gallows used in historic U.S. government executions – including the Dakota 38. There is a sign written by a protester that hangs on the gates surrounding the construction site that reads: “Not your story.”  To me, that says it all.


Art is always political and should challenge us and make us squirm and ask questions we didn’t really want to ask because it’s much easier to be on Facebook liking cute puppy pictures and posting selfies. That’s my position, anyway. And Sam Durant’s Scaffold was created to be an explicitly political piece, asking viewers to step out of their comfort zones, their complacency, and examine some of the darker chapters of our history.

Art, done correctly, can be a wonderful vehicle for opening up these kinds of dialogues that otherwise remain hidden from view or shut down by exclusion from textbooks and media.

But context is everything. Everything. And placing Scaffold on stolen Dakota land, creating a visceral reminder of the 38 Dakota men hung in 1862 in the largest mass execution in U.S. history was all the wrong kinds of political. The Dakota community was not even made aware that this sculpture would be featured at The Walker, let alone given a voice on whether or not its presence was appropriate. It was a traumatic experience for the local Indigenous population who happened to discover the sculpture before it was to be unveiled. The memory of the Dakota 38 is a living memory for Indigenous people, not something isolated that happened 155 years ago that is safely tucked away in the past.


Back to the sign, “Not your story.” This wasn’t Durant’s story to tell, not on his own anyway. But here’s an interesting observation I’ve made throughout my years in academia: a person of color can say the exact same thing as a white person - over and over - and not be heard, not be taken seriously, or quickly labeled “biased.”  So while the Dakota 38 may not have been Durant’s story to tell, he undoubtedly and unfortunately holds a position where people will listen to his voice. 

With such a position of privilege comes great responsibility. If you are going to tell this story, you’d better do it -- and the people to whom the story belongs -- justice.

After a meeting between Durant, Dakota elders, and members of The Walker administration, Durant decided to take the sculpture down and hand over intellectual property rights to the Dakota people. The National Coalition Against


Censorship argued against Durant’s decision in their press release from June 9th: “Cultural institutions and artists urgently need to develop creative ways to respond to such critique and controversy and productively engage diverse communities while taking seriously their responsibility for the artworks that are in their care.” What the NCAC completely missed is that Durant’s response is an act of responsibility and responsiveness and one that indicated he was actually listening to what the Dakota were telling him. This was not an instance of artistic censorship or the taking away of artistic freedom, as NCAC claims.


Durant himself said, in an interview with the L.A. Times, “You couldn’t have a better test case of white ignorance in one place.”  He further acknowledged that “the work no longer fulfilled my intentions.”  This is what humility looks like, people. And the evolution of an artist. Durant, when called out on his work by the community whose story was being told in his work, responded without ego. I am encouraged by this. I really am.


I do think, however, there was a missed opportunity here. Had Durant consulted with the Dakota elders, had The Walker engaged in meaningful ways with the local Indigenous population, had this sculpture become a collaborative effort towards educating the general public about this largely untold story, the outcome would have been what Durant was originally seeking. But white people have a long history doing exactly what Durant did with Scaffold: of wanting to be a good ally but acting in isolation from the communities they seek to positively represent and impact. 

Artists are not entitled to treat history, especially the histories of oppressed peoples, as limitless reservoirs of inspiration - even if their intentions are good, as I believe Durant’s were.

Using your privilege to bring awareness to these kinds of historical events can be genuinely useful; but how about inviting the people who suffer from the fallout of such events to the table for a robust dialogue and exchange of ideas? Even better, how about making space for their voices to be heard instead of speaking for them? I am hopeful that Durant’s responsiveness to the Dakota community will set a different precedence for future projects like Scaffold, one that will foster dialogue and learning and relationship-building.


Jen Coppoc is a a Senior Lecturer of American Indian Studies and English at Iowa State University. For this contributing article, she shared her perspectives on the controversial sculpture Scaffold, which was erected for the reopening of the Walker Art Center's Sculpture Garden. We're thankful for her contribution and are eager to continue dialogue regarding the role and responsibility of the artist -- a subject we're no stranger to at University Museums.

Thank you, Jen, for your thoughtful article. I appreciate the opportunity to learn about this artist and his response.
Carol Elbert | 7/10/17 at 10:34 AM
Well stated. This is an important perspective.
Jerome Thompson | 7/10/17 at 9:06 AM
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