Ten years after Olga Viso began as executive director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the museum announced Tuesday morning that she has decided to step down at the end of 2017. Though no reason was cited for her departure, the announcement came in the wake of controversy surrounding the installment and ultimate dismantling of Scaffold, a public artwork by the Los Angeles–based artist Sam Durant that incited waves of protest over the past six months.
Acquired by the museum and meant to be presented as a marquee work in an ambitious new sculpture garden operated by the Walker and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Scaffold turned instead into a subject of fervent debate over what some Native Americans and others perceived as insensitivity on the part of the museum and the creator of the work, which alluded to gallows used for historic executions by the U.S. government—including that of 38 Dakota men in nearby Mankato, Minnesota, in 1862.
After concerns about a lack of engagement with local tribal leaders were raised, Viso and Durant together entered into a series of conversations and meetings with opponents of the work, in a closely watched undertaking that played as a sort of public atonement and an attempt to address interpretations that differed from professed intents. After deliberations, a collective agreement was struck to dismantle the work and give it to Dakota elders, who in September said they would bury the wood from the large playground-like sculpture in an undisclosed location with spiritual significance for the tribe.
‘Olga showed tremendous courage and risk-taking’
While the complexities of the situation and the timeline for various overtures and interactions tended to blur under the intense glare of a public spotlight, fellow museum directors and close watchers of the Scaffold affair reached by ARTnews largely empathized with Viso’s management of the episode after initial flaws with its presentation were recognized. So did Durant. “There were definitely shortcomings,” Durant told ARTnews, after the announcement of Viso’s departure. “The museum did not establish contacts with the Dakota community in advance of installing the sculpture, nor did I. That was a huge mistake. Both myself and the museum have apologized, and I don’t think it’s a mistake I will make again, nor will the Walker.”
As for how the situation played out in the days and weeks after the controversy first flared, Durant was less contrite. “Olga showed tremendous courage and risk-taking—not foolhardy risk-taking but positive, constructive, alternative ways of looking at a controversy around an artwork,” he said. “For an institution, I think it represents an example in terms of being responsive and listening to the community in which a museum is embedded. We all wish the outcome had been different, but she really spearheaded something that I think is moving in the right direction.”
Though he emphasized he has not been privy to communications between Viso and the Walker’s board about her departure, Durant said, “If the reason Olga is leaving is because the board is in some way upset about the way she handled the situation with Scaffold, that would be a shame. What she did is the way forward, and I think she should be supported for what she did.”
The Walker declined to make Viso or any members of the museum’s board available for comment, and pointed instead to comments included in a press release about the change in leadership. “The board and executive team are 100 percent focused on staff for the near future,” a spokesperson for the museum said.
Though the Walker’s official announcement suggested a friction-less decision agreed upon by all involved, sources suggest that troubles with the museum’s board relating to Scaffold may be among the reasons for Viso’s exit happening on the timeline that it has assumed. It has been reported that the board had hired an outside law firm to review the museum’s response to the Scaffold controversy.
Ralph Burnet, a former member of the Walker’s board, who was on the committee that hired Viso away from the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, in Washington, D.C., said, “I’m sorry to see her leave. She’s been a fabulous director for the last decade and has moved the Walker in a positive direction. Obviously it’s somewhat painful.”
Lyndel King, director and chief curator of the city’s Weisman Art Museum, said of Viso, “She was a wonderful colleague. She was open and brought the Walker into the community in a way that hadn’t been done for a long time.”
‘An increasingly fraught time to lead a museum in America’
Fellow museum directors who have met with their share of controversy, and others who have been watching recent controversies unfold, were quick to sympathize with the intensity of the reaction to Scaffold once news of it spread.
“There have been in the last year-plus a number of extremely volatile situations,” said Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “They’re not all the same, but the outcomes are similar, whether it was Kelley Walker in St. Louis, Dana Schutz at the Whitney, or Sam Durant at the Walker. People are agitated, and communities that have felt disadvantaged or marginalized are particularly agitated because they feel vulnerable, and rightly so.”
It is not a new phenomenon, but the nature of such situations has intensified, Lowry said. “It’s not that there haven’t been similar controversies in the past, but suddenly it feels like they’re coming much faster and more frequently. And while it’s easy to see them as all related, one has to treat each as a separate issue—but recognize the sense of concern and agitation among different communities that feel exposed.”
Michael Govan, the director at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said, “When it emerged that [Scaffold] was in conflict with voices in the locality, I thought the artist and Olga did a very good job in addressing that audience and saying, ‘We should look at a different approach.’ Museums are used to artworks being discussed by the art press and art historians, and it’s all considered safe and isolated from politics and the real world. With social media and growing awareness, these artworks are coming up against the real world. It is not clear that institutions are equipped to deal with that.”
Lisa Phillips, the director of the New Museum in New York, said, “Museum directors today must be expert at riding the wild pendulum swings of the new culture wars. Criticism can come from the left, right, and center—sometimes all three at once—and that criticism finds an echo chamber on the internet. Museums are now daily facing such questions as ‘Who has the right to speak for certain disenfranchised groups?’ and ‘Does removing a contested work from view automatically qualify as censorship?’ As we find ourselves on a battleground for the contest of values in an increasingly polarized nation, museums can also be a place to bring people together for discourse, to work on healing or at least to bridge some of the divides.”
Lowry spoke of the challenges that directors face when negotiating leadership space with boards that might have different ideas relating to who is ultimately in charge, particularly in the midst of a crisis. “In difficult and complicated circumstances, there has to be a great deal of trust between the board and the director and the director and the staff, because decisions are being made under enormous pressure and there aren’t right answers,” Lowry said. “There are just appropriate actions that ultimately perhaps lead to a better place. These are complicated situations in which all parties need to be respected, and where the institution has to act simultaneously in the best interests of the artists it represents, the communities it engages, and its own mission. You’re balancing all of these delicate situations, and when the trust starts to erode for whatever reason, you create a condition that is difficult. It doesn’t matter who’s at fault at that point—it’s that people stop working well together.”
From his vantage as president of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker said, “I think it is an increasingly fraught time to lead a museum in America and, as we as a nation come to grips with the fullness of our identity, that will challenge institutional norms.” As for prospective solutions for museums in the future, Walker said, “The first thing they have to ask themselves is: are their boards diverse? One reason these crises happen is you don’t have people with the sensitivity and understanding to ameliorate these situations.”
Another priority, Walker said, is opening lines of communication. “If you have structures to communicate with diverse communities in a sustained way, you have authentic voices that can help ensure there is no problem or to defuse a problem if one occurs. Museums have not been structured to sustain ongoing relationships with diverse communities. Their engagement is on the basis of crisis, and that is never a way to engage a community with whom you don’t already have relations. What happens is museums make superficial attempts to engage with diverse communities and think they have done their job. They have to understand that it takes more than a superficial community day to make a museum truly inclusive.”
No simple solutions
Cheyanne St. John, the tribal history preservation officer for the Lower Sioux Indian Community in Minnesota, said that, once the controversial aspects of Scaffold and the way it was presented became public, Viso and the Walker had acted to work with the community. “She’s been more responsive and reactive after the fact, and the institution has been very accommodating of some requests that the Dakota community has made,” St. John said. “She seemed to be sincerely and genuinely apologetic. I think she understood her mistake and over the last couple of months has been accommodating in trying to rectify it.”
The complexities of the situation, however, have not made for simple solutions. “I was hoping we could have used it as a teaching moment and a learning moment to collaborate,” said Rory Wakemup, an activist-artist and director of All My Relations, a gallery in Minneapolis focused on contemporary American Indian artists. “We have plenty of resources and a lot of native leaders here in the area who were ready to step up and help remedy the situation. But, for lack of better terms, it fell short. They were interested in ideas when in the midst of taking the gallows down and deconstructing it. But then, after a few emails and a couple meetings, it seemed like it fell on deaf ears.”
Managing the relationship between the museum and the native community will now fall to new leaders. (The museum has said it will form a search committee for a new director; in the meantime, various top museum staffers are heading the office of the executive director.) “There’s going to be some slack that’s going to have to be picked up once the tribes are back at the table,” St. John said, “because Olga has this comprehensive understanding, from beginning to end. Who now is going to work with us?”
Durant, speaking with hindsight months after Scaffold was buried in the ground, said, “Olga showed incredible courage, first of all to purchase a work like that—a work that is a difficult, challenging piece of public art. For that, I’ll always be grateful to her, for taking a risk where many would not. We’ve acknowledged the mistakes we made in the way we installed the work, and those mistakes led to taking the work down.”
As for the bigger picture, Durant added, “Olga accomplished a lot in her ten years at the Walker. I would hate to see this controversy overshadow all the things she got done.”