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Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis: Staff Member Verbally, and Nearly Physically, Attacked Following Kelley Walker Show Controversy

Kelley Walker, Black Star Press (rotated 90 degrees), 2006. Digital print with silkscreened white, milk, and dark chocolate on canvas. COURTESY THE ARTIST; PAULA COOPER GALLERY, NEW YORK; THOMAS DANE GALLERY, LONDON; AND GALERIE GISELA CAPTAIN, COLOGNE

Kelley Walker, Black Star Press (rotated 90 degrees), 2006, digital print with silkscreened white, milk, and dark chocolate on canvas.

COURTESY THE ARTIST; PAULA COOPER GALLERY, NEW YORK; THOMAS DANE GALLERY, LONDON; AND GALERIE GISELA CAPTAIN, COLOGNE

Amid an ongoing controversy surrounding the Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis’s Kelley Walker show, which includes works that some have alleged are racist and offensive, a staff member was verbally, and nearly physically, attacked Monday morning, according to the museum. CAM initially released the news in a vaguely worded statement on Facebook and Instagram on Monday evening.

Lisa Melandri, the executive director of CAM, told ARTnews by phone that the attack occurred Monday at a gas station. The staff member, whom Melandri identified as a woman of color, stopped to get gas when a woman came up to her and asked if she worked for CAM. The staff member, who was wearing a CAM T-shirt, answered affirmatively, and, after insults accusing her and the museum of racism, the woman threw a soda at her and “tried to take a few swings at her,” Melandri said.

According to Melandri, the police were not contacted because the staff member was able to peacefully disengage from the situation. (The woman continued to verbally insult her afterward.) Melandri declined to name the staff member or elaborate on her position at the museum, citing the fact that the museum has a relatively small staff.

“Something real happened to somebody on staff,” Melandri said. “It is my responsibility, as director, to care for the staff members. It simply was essential to share that something had happened, and that a different kind of escalation in anti-CAM [rhetoric] was happening.”

According to CAM, this is the first time a staff member has been physically attacked in relation to the Walker exhibition, but there have been instances in which others were verbally harassed. “Our staff members who published the open letter have also been victimized by threatening and/or hate speech as well,” Melandri said. “Many members of our staff, from the [show’s] curator to those who produced that letter, are receiving what I would characterize as intolerable reactions.”

Kelley Walker, schema; Aquafresh plus Crest with Whitening Expressions (Kelis), 2006, CD-ROM with color poster.

Kelley Walker, schema; Aquafresh plus Crest with Whitening Expressions (Kelis), 2006, CD-ROM with color poster.

COURTESY THE ARTIST; PAULA COOPER GALLERY, NEW YORK; THOMAS DANE GALLERY, LONDON; AND GALERIE GISELA CAPTAIN, COLOGNE

The cause for all of this has been the museum’s current Kelley Walker survey, “Direct Drive,” which opened on September 16. Curated by Jeffrey Uslip, CAM’s deputy director and chief curator, the show includes pieces from Walker’s “schema” and “Black Star Press” series. The controversial works feature appropriated images of black Americans, from magazine covers and from photographs of civil rights movement protests that Walker smeared with toothpaste, chocolate, milk, and other substances. In a statement released on September 21, Walker apologized for the works; his gallery, New York’s Paula Cooper, further explained the controversy and the works’ background in another statement, released on September 23, but countered that “The role of the artist, it has been said, is to ask questions, not answer them.”

For its part, CAM has erected a barrier around the criticized works, making it so that viewers are aware of potentially objectionable content within the show before entering, and so that visitors to the museum can supposedly no longer see the works from the street. (On Twitter, critic Tyler Green noted that this is not quite the case—the works are obstructed from view, but they still can be seen with mild difficulty from the street.) CAM has also placed printouts of Hyperallergic’s story about the controversy inside the show. Melandri said that the museum was “continuing to change where labels are and what that content is,” in order to create “choice and agency on the part of the viewer.”

Uslip was set to participate in a public discussion this Friday about the show, but in a statement, CAM said that because of “direct threats” against him he will not be involved. In his place will be Melandri, who will answer attendees’ questions about “Direct Drive.”

Damon Davis, a St. Louis–based activist and artist, took to Facebook to address the museum’s statement about the attack yesterday, noting that it was written with “extremely charged and coded language,” and that one person on Twitter had incorrectly implied that he was the attacker. “Those images on your walls are violence, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis,” Davis wrote. “This is a horrible, outdated and desperate play. We won’t be scared off or lied on or lied to. Think about your words, how and why you use them, because carelessness [is] what got us into this mess in the first place.”

Asked to respond to Davis’s statement, Melandri said, “This was a chance to say that actions like that don’t allow for dialogue, don’t allow for an ability to continue to speak about the actual issue at hand. We just wanted to let people know that that took place, and because of it, we were making a slight program change.”

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