A staff member at the Contemporary Art Museum St Louis (CAMSTL) was reportedly attacked in public earlier this week for her affiliation with the institution, where an ongoing exhibition of works by the artist Kelley Walker has sparked a public boycott of the museum. Direct Drive, his first solo exhibition at a US museum, includes appropriated images of black people smeared with chocolate and toothpaste that many visitors find racist and offensive, particularly since Walker, who is white, was unable to explain them at an artist’s talk on September 17. The news of the attack emerged on the museum’s Facebook and Instagram pages on Monday, a few hours after it occurred that morning.
Unrelated to the attack, but connected with the larger Walker controversy, a boycott of CAMSTL by many artists and activists has emerged because of what they describe as the museum’s lack of honest and open dialogue with the public .
CAMSTL spokesperson Eddie Silva told Hyperallergic that the employee, whom he described as a woman of color, was wearing a CAM t-shirt and had stopped at a gas station. There, a woman in her early 20s had asked if she worked at the museum, and when the staff member confirmed that she did, the woman called her racist, “threw a soda in her face, and took a swing at her,” Silva said. The museum worker did not file a police report, according to Silva, because she did not want the current situation at the museum to worsen.
CAM has always welcomed argument, dialogue, dissent, and debate about its exhibitions. In recent weeks, members of CAM’s staff have been harassed and personally threatened. Today, a staff member was attacked in public for wearing a CAM t-shirt. While we welcome debate, we cannot accept hate speech or violence. Because of direct threats to Chief Curator Jeffrey Uslip, we have decided that he will not participate in the public conversation on Friday. Executive Director Lisa Melandri will be answering questions from attendees regarding the role of CAM in the community, as well as furthering the discussion about the exhibition Kelley Walker: Direct Drive.
This is the first time the museum has posted about a staff member being physically assaulted in connection with Direct Drive, but over the past few weeks the institution has reportedly received a spike in phone calls, emails, and messages delivered through social media filled with “homophobic and racial slurs that included threats of violence and humiliation” directed at staff, Silva said. Hyperallergic was unable to find any public messages on social media that were direct threatens, but many did disagree with the museum’s handling of the affair.
One commenter (@nezombie) on the museum’s October 3 Instagram post (posted above) responded to the news with:
That’s horrible. Some dissenting artists have also received violent threats. If Jeffrey feels physically unsafe in the public talk, why not increase security during the talk? Does the threat prevent him from having a discussion with the public? I don’t understand the connection. What about Skyping Jeffrey in if he truly wants to be a part of the conversation, but doesn’t feel safe attending in-person? There are ways to make Jeffrey feel comfortable and still be a part of the dialogue Friday. Community members who have received threats will be ensuring they take steps to secure their safety but still engage in Friday’s dialogue.
Another commenter (@annwimsatt) offered her own thoughts:
CAMSTL puts up racist, ‘hate’ visuals in midtown STL, refuses to take them down, and is now shocked, (shocked!), that ‘hate’ speech is escalating at the center of Art + Life?
The museum, he added, chose to publicize the situation to show how it “had gone beyond just argument and sometimes overheated argument.
“That actually someone was attacked and also that the vitriol had increased,” he told Hyperallergic.
The works that sparked the controversy are part of Walker’s series Black Star Press, which uses photographs from the 1963 Birmingham movement, and schema, which incorporates provocative covers of King magazine that feature black women. Many visitors, particularly members of St. Louis’s black community — including CAMSTL staff — had called for the museum to remove the images shortly after the show’s opening; the museum eventually decided to keep the exhibition on view in its entirety, as taking works down “would violate the Museum’s core principles and end the productive dialogue this work has initiated,” as explained in a statement sent to Hyperallergic on September 26.
CAMSTL has since modified the exhibition space by erecting a wall around the contentious series, placing labels next to them that explain Walker’s intent, and printing out and displaying news stories (including Hyperallergic’s coverage) to provide viewers with information. It also organized a talk with Executive Director Lisa Melandri that occurred this afternoon to address any questions from the public regarding Direct Drive. Chief Curator Jeffrey Uslip was also supposed to participate in the public conversation, but he did not attend as he has received direct threats, according to Silva. Uslip, who was responsible for moderating the September artist talk, had instead shut down the conversation in defense of Walker.
While Uslip later apologized for doing so, many people — including museum staffers De Andrea Nichols, Lyndon Barrois Jr., and Victoria Donaldson — have since called for his resignation.
According to artist and activist Mallory Nezam, many protestors did not attend the talk, which attracted a mostly white audience. To her, the event represents “a false gesture of dialogue where Jeffrey is once again absolved of responsibility and the conversation is thwarted and diverted.” The curator, as she said, could have safely participated in the public dialogue, and she had even sent the museum recommendations on how it could have included him, from relying on Skype to hiring extra security for the event. Uslip, however, is scheduled to lead a tour of the exhibition on November 4 that has already been cancelled and postponed twice. The museum has also cancelled Art314, an annual fundraising auction scheduled for October 21 that sells donated artworks. Many artists have withdrawn their support in the wake of the Direct Drive controversy.
“In listening to the community’s concerns, CAM has chosen not to present the event this season,” the museum’s statement reads.
Direct Drive remains on view through December 31.
UPDATE, Saturday, October 8, 9:18am ET: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reporting 20 artists have withdrawn from the Open Studios STL event this weekend in St. Louis. The event is presented by the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. (h/t Tyler Green)