The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art apologized to artist Lilada Gee for damage caused to her artwork at the 2022 Wisconsin Triennial. (photo courtesy Portia Cobb)

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) apologized to an artist whose work was damaged, with parts of it taken home by visitors, during the museum’s 2022 Wisconsin Triennial. However, the museum rebuffed allegations made by the majority of participating artists in the exhibition, accusing the institution of “racist violence” and “shameful mistreatment of the Black artists, contractors, and staffers.” At least 12 participating artists withdrew their work from the exhibition and demanded the resignation of MMoCA Director Christina Brungardt.

The triennial’s theme, Ain’t I A Woman?, represents one of the first exhibitions in Wisconsin to feature primarily Black women and nonbinary artists, and is the first triennial in MMoCA’s history to bring in a guest curator. An open letter authored by a coalition of artists in the exhibition under the name “FWD:truth” decried two incidents involving the same artist, Lilada Gee: one in which she was verbally attacked by the former employee of an adjoining arts center, and another in which her art was damaged by visitors. Following the second incident, the museum director allegedly intervened to “de-escalate” the situation by asking Gee if those same guests who had just marred the work could keep it, heightening artists’ frustrations that leadership was acting unprofessionally and disrespectfully.

In a statement by the executive committee of MMoCA’s board of trustees to Hyperallergic yesterday, August 24, the museum expressed that it was “deeply sorry” about the defacement of a participating artist’s work and called the lapse in security that permitted the damage “an anomaly.”

“The damage to Lilada Gee’s artwork inside the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) is unacceptable and we know the situation has caused her pain,” the statement reads.

The withdrawal of 12 artists from the Wisconsin Triennial left entire walls empty at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. (photo courtesy Emily Leach)

The museum’s leadership also explained their near-silence on the brewing controversy as a result of their “sincere intent … to work privately, outside of public view, with those directly impacted to resolve the issue and ensure Ain’t I A Woman? achieved the positive impact originally envisioned by the guest curator and the artists.” But the leadership’s response also called the collective’s accusations of institutional racism “inappropriate and unfounded,” and reaffirmed its support of MMoCA Director Christina Brungardt, expressing gratitude for her “leadership, professionalism, and vision for growing MMoCA as an impactful, globally recognized institution that prioritizes equity and inclusion.”

“We are disappointed in this response, and to call it inadequate would be an understatement,” the collective of artists responded to the museum’s statement. “We regret the continued impact on featured artists, the guest curator, the community of Madison, and the credibility of Madison’s contributions to the arts.” They continued that “the overwhelming documentation provided on fwdtruth.com stands in clear contrast with your claims that our experiences and concerns are unsubstantiated or disproportionate.”

In an email sent by the exhibition’s guest curator Fatima Laster to leadership in response to their latest statement and shared with Hyperallergic, she alleged that leadership had been propagating a “newly conjured up lie” that she ordered the security and gallery to be unstaffed, leading to the damage and theft of Gee’s work. She countered that she alone had requested full security for the life of the exhibition. “Please remember you chose to supply minimal security for the opening reception only because you didn’t want to pay for the fully requested security and staff needs or value the work and people most vulnerable in the space,” she wrote.

“I told you from the onset, when organizations talk about DEI and being anti-racist, I sigh as it’s usually a mask for the strong undercurrent discord and racism already being practiced,” Laster wrote. “Needless to say, you failed the DEI test.”

“It’s an incredibly unsatisfying response,” said Emily Leach, a participating artist who had up until yesterday kept her works on show, adding that it was “dismissive.” Unconvinced that she can meaningfully communicate with leadership following this response, she decided to withdraw her contributions from the triennial. “I feared that withdrawing might encourage the museum leadership’s choice not to engage with the featured artists, but now I see the institution and its leadership treat that decision to remain with as much care as the rest of this exhibition,” she wrote in an email to leadership on Wednesday afternoon that she shared with Hyperallergic.

Leach scoffed at the implication that leadership had been prioritizing open communication through private channels, explaining that, in her view, leadership had been intentionally isolating artists from one another in their discussions. She is baffled by her perception that leadership has been indifferent about artists’ withdrawals. “I think if one or two artists are dropping out every week, why would you not do everything within your power to make the collective of artists understand what their decisions are?” she asked.

LaNia Sproles, another participating artist who withdrew her works shortly after the second incident in June, called the response “all defensiveness.” She questioned why Brungardt herself hasn’t spoken directly on the accusations being levied. “Trying to give us receipts on why they weren’t being racist is perhaps not the way to persuade us you’re not racist,” Sproles said. She added that “just because this happened to one individual, doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect everybody else. Everybody is disappointed and concerned about the safety of their own work.”

Sproles connected MMoCA’s missteps with a broader sea change in the kinds of exhibitions museums are programming in efforts to diversify. She argues that although the museum’s mistakes have been inexcusable and many, similar disparate treatment has been prevalent at other institutions, too, which are falteringly grappling with their historic emphasis on predominantly White, predominantly male artists. Sproles, who says she knows “pretty well what disrespect looks and smells like,” stresses that a lot of these issues can’t be solved with just one exhibition.

Portia Cobb, who is now a three-time alum of the Wisconsin Triennial, saw the response as “patronizing.” She withdrew from the triennial a week ago — a decision, she says, that was not an easy one to make. “A lot of the younger artists were saying, we don’t need to be here, we have other places we can show our work. For me, I don’t always show at museums, so I wanted to remain because that could also be a statement: You can’t force us out.”

Beyond the two flagrant incidents of negligence, she reports that her multimedia work was not installed properly ahead of the opening and that they didn’t outfit it with speakers as specified. As guests streamed in, her work couldn’t be played. On another date during the show, the sound on her piece was turned down and inaudible. She contrasted it with the treatment Mel Chin’s exhibit upstairs received, where she felt like she was “being followed around every corner by attendants.”

“I don’t know that there’s anything that they could do now that would change how I feel about what’s happening,” Cobb said. “The response now is basically underscoring their own supremacist and patriarchal standards. But I’m really proud to be part of this collective voice — it’s motivated us to understand what our power is, as individuals and as a collective.”

MMoCA contests these allegations, saying they present an “unfortunate narrative” that “negates the months of collaboration, communication, and relationship-building among the artists, guest curator, museum administration, and museum staff to develop and bring to life the vision for the Ain’t I A Woman? exhibition.”

“We are deeply saddened that some artists have chosen to remove their works from it before its October conclusion,” the museum’s board of trustees said in its statement, promising to continue “encouraging artists to express their independent views through their art, including the choice not to display their art, even when doing so courts controversy or confusion.”

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Jasmine Liu

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