The nearly empty walls of the exhibition Ain’t I a Woman? at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art after 11 artists withdrew from the 2022 Wisconsin Triennial (photo courtesy Emily Leach)

A triennial in Wisconsin — organized by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) with historic ambitions of being among the first in the state to explicitly feature Black women and nonbinary artists — is fraying under the weight of criticisms of negligence and “institutional racist violence.” At least 11 of 23 exhibiting artists have withdrawn their works in protest. An open letter published online and co-signed by a collective of artists associated with the triennial accused MMoCA of “institutional racist violence” and “shameful mistreatment of the Black artists, contractors, and staffers throughout the exhibition.” The artists ask for leadership to issue a formal apology, offer financial restitution to injured parties, and terminate MMoCA Director Christina Brungardt.

For artists, signs of disarray appeared as early as September 2021, not long after they were invited to participate by Fatima Laster, the show’s curator. Laster’s proposed theme for the exhibition, Ain’t I A Woman?, was inspired by the Black feminist thought and work of Sojourner Truth and bell hooks. Her aim was to spotlight the underappreciated contributions Black women artists have made especially in Wisconsin to art, something she said was “seldom done.” Laster, a Black woman and the owner of an art gallery in Milwaukee, is the first guest curator the triennial has brought on in its 43-year history, a move that organizers made with the intention of bringing “an innovative, inclusive vision and a transformative approach to a cornerstone of MMoCA’s exhibition programming.” 

But artists and community members caught wind of the possibility that there was internal disagreement over Laster’s appointment among board members. In September last year, they penned a letter to leadership in support of the guest curator. “Laster’s selection is groundbreaking because she is a self-identified Black woman who is unapologetically committed to the survival, adoration, and historical acknowledgment of BIPOC people (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), especially Black women,” a group of 20 people wrote.

With Laster’s role in the exhibition applauded by many in the community, preparations were underway and many artists excitedly anticipated the opening. According to Emily Leach, a participating artist who spoke with Hyperallergic, it “was made out to be a really historic moment for the museum. It was the first time that the triennial was organized by a guest curator, and it was the first time that it was curated by a Black woman, and it was the first time that it was focusing exclusively on Black women in Wisconsin — Black women as inclusive of gender non-conforming folks as well.”

Lilada Gee’s unfinished work was left unattended and damaged by visitors, who took parts of the artwork home. (photo by Portia Cobb)

But on March 9, an upsetting incident put many participating artists on edge. Lilada Gee, a beloved artist in Madison and one of the 23 artists who participated in the triennial, says she was installing her work at the museum when she — upon reentering the premises after collecting her art supplies alongside a MMoCA employee who is also a Black woman — was verbally attacked by a White employee of the Overture Center. (The Overture Center shares a building with MMoCA, including entrances and exits, even though they are independent institutions.) That employee then proceeded to attempt to prevent them from entering, according to Gee. In the aftermath of the incident, MMoCA and Overture leaders were notified, but the artists received no official response from them for weeks. Press coverage of the attack began on March 18 but the artists say that leadership did not get in contact with them about what had taken place until March 25. They added that in an email communication from Brungardt, the director specified that the Overture Center had agreed to match artist payments and offset security costs for the triennial as restitutive measures, and that the employee in question had been terminated. But the Overture Center did not issue a public apology to those impacted nor released security camera footage from the incident, as some artists asked.

MMoCA has not responded to Hyperallergic’s repeated requests for comment and the Overture Center declined to comment.

Gee, disheartened by what had happened, elected to keep her work unfinished, a conceptual testament to the violence that she had borne as an artist.

The triennial opened in late April. Artists’ wariness around organizers’ attention to the exhibition grew, even as they celebrated their inclusion in the show. Some of the work was unprofessionally installed at risk to viewers; other work was damaged upon installation. MMoCA did not produce a virtual tour for the triennial, even though it has done so for many other exhibitions since 2020, such as a retrospective of artist Mel Chin’s work which was on view concurrent to the triennial until the end of July. And, according to artists, MMoCA did not provide high-resolution downloadable images of exhibited works for the press, even though they posted similar images online for the 2019 edition. All of these actions signaled to participants that their work was not being treated with the same care as other work the museum has showcased.

Withdrawals from the exhibition have left whole walls barren of work. (photo courtesy Emily Leach)

On June 24, yet another blunder by museum leadership precipitated widespread anger. For unexplained reasons, an exhibiting room for the triennial was left unattended, and Gee’s work, which had been put on display in an area of the museum typically associated with interactive art, was defaced with paint and glitter that was available for a related work. According to the open letter released by the artists, when Brungardt was informed that this had taken place, she confronted the guests who had done so — and who were now carrying parts of Gee’s work out of the museum to take home. They said that they did not realize that the piece was not meant to be interactive, and insisted on taking the artwork back with them. Brungardt then allegedly “de-escalated” the situation by contacting Gee to ask if they could indeed keep the work.

“This action by Brungardt is appalling!” the open letter reads. “The director’s decision does not demonstrate reverence for and commitment to artists exhibiting in her own museum.”

“My understanding is that it was done to de-escalate the situation; it wasn’t necessarily a sincere question,” Leach interpreted. “But it’s hard to imagine receiving news that my work had been debased and having a capacity to be generous in that moment relative to the situation.”

Again, leadership was slow to respond. Artists received no communication from MMoCA leadership until July 7, when a Black board member reached out urging them to continue to participate in the show with “solutions,” as Leach offers, “that should have been in place prior to all of this happening.” 

Unhappy with how her work had been handled, Gee withdrew from the exhibition. Her withdrawal prompted others to reconsider their participation in the triennial as well. Ariana Vaeth, who has also withdrawn work from the triennial, told Hyperallergic: “It’s really not the same show without Lilada Gee. Her art was sabotaged. Lilada is a hometown artist in Madison. I think the show is really not the same without her.” Despite the fact that almost half of participating artists have withdrawn their work from the show, there has been no collective communication between artists as a group and the museum’s leadership.

“There has been no communication really recognizing the surrounding conditions that made this possible, or that reflect on the fact that how the museum responded to this was in and of itself undesirable,” Leach said.

Additional complaints beyond what the artists perceive as these two most egregious offenses include that MMoCA rarely promotes the exhibition on social media and that there is little associated programming attached to the exhibition. In their open letter, artists ask for MMoCA to conduct an independent audit, provide reparations to Gee and others affected, make a no-retaliation promise, and host a public dialogue featuring artists and their work.

“I continue to remember that museums are nothing without artists. Artists are literally commodities within these spaces,” Vaeth says. “It’s not my responsibility to uphold a contract that was broken.”

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.