​​“When feminists acknowledge in one breath that black women are victimized and in the same breath emphasize their strength, they imply that though black women are oppressed they manage to circumvent the damaging impact of oppression by being strong—and that is simply not the case. Usually, when people talk about the “strength” of black women they are referring to the way in which they perceive black women coping with oppression. They ignore the reality that to be strong in the face of oppression is not the same as overcoming oppression, that endurance is not to be confused with transformation.” ― bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism

AN OPEN LETTER TO THE MADISON MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, ITS LEADERSHIP, AND OUR COMMUNITY

We, the collective of artists from the 2022 Wisconsin Triennial, write in response to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s (MMoCA) shameful mistreatment of the Black artists, contractors, and staffers throughout the exhibition.

In the 43-year history of the Wisconsin Triennial, the 2022 “Ain’t I A Woman?” exhibition sought to break the mold by presenting the first Black Woman guest curator, by being the first triennial to focus exclusively on Black women, femmes and Gender Nonconforming (GNC) artists, and by being the first to compensate participating artists. This curatorial project was an unapologetic commitment to the artistic vision and world-building of Black women.

MMoCA describes the Wisconsin Triennial as a “cornerstone of MMoCA’s programming.”

However, well before the works of these artists rested in their designated places at MMoCA, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s leadership has failed to demonstrate meaningful care for this exhibition and its participants by both failing to secure against outside harm and repeatedly perpetrating internal institutional harm.

Precipitating Events

During the installation of her work on March 9, Wisconsin Triennial artist Lilada Gee stepped outside of the museum to gather art supplies. Lilada Gee called Annik Dupaty, MMoCA’s director of events and volunteers (also a Black woman), to let her back into the museum. Upon their entry, a white employee of the Overture Center for the Arts verbally accosted and physically intimidated both women to bar them from reentering the building.

This was an attack on two Black women from a person (formerly) employed by an adjacent cultural institution, the Overture Center  for the Arts. The attack, institutional response from both MMoCA and the Overture, and the persistent security concerns that followed are clear examples of institutional racist violence.

In the aftermath, Lilada Gee (and the 22-additional artists) elected to remain in the Wisconsin Triennial. Rather than complete her mural as intended, Lilada Gee staged an installation reflecting the state of her work on the day of the assault. In addition to her installation, Lilada Gee wrote and performed “An Open Letter to All The ‘beths’ Who Interrupt Black Girls” at the exhibition opening.

On June 24, despite MMoCA’s promises of vigilance and increased security, museum guests were left unattended in the Shop gallery of the Wisconsin Triennial exhibition for 18 minutes. During this time, they defaced Lilada Gee’s installation with paint and glitter staged with the installation. A museum attendant eventually intervened, raised attention to the ongoing situation to leadership, and the guests left the museum with the defaced work.

To “de-escalate” the situation with the offending museum guests, Christina Brungardt contacted Lilada Gee to ask whether the museum guests could keep the artwork that had been vandalized and taken from the museum. Lilada was simultaneously informed of the incident and asked with limited context whether museum guests were allowed to have her work. The other artists were not contacted by the museum until June 29.

Surrounding Context

We offer the following as context to consider the compounding impact this has had on the careers, work, and wellbeing of the artists; and whether MMoCA’s messaging, understaffing and repeated negligence made the vandalism and theft possible on Friday, June 24:

  • On April 12, Christina Brungardt promised the Triennial artists that the Overture Center would “offset security costs, understanding the concerns for safety that have arisen out of this incident.” This message indicated an increased presence of security and awareness around the Wisconsin Triennial artists and artwork.
  • In the days leading up to the events of June 24, MMoCA promoted their summer series of Art Cart events: free community engagement programs for children and families. Children were prompted to “complete the art project” in response to a related onsite artwork using glitter, paints, and found objects.
  • In May 2021, the former museum shop was reformulated as the Shop: an interactive gallery for contemporary art experiences which committed to a series of programs centering Black voices. Through March 20, 2022, MMoCA presented The Fundred Project in the Shop: an interactive art project to create alternative currency inspired by Mel Chin’s exhibition in the Main Gallery upstairs. 

Christina Brungardt, the director of the museum, made the decision to “de-escalate” the situation by contacting Lilada Gee to ask her whether the museum guests could keep the artwork they had defaced. This action by Brungardt is appalling! The director’s decision does not demonstrate reverence for and commitment to artists exhibiting in her own museum.

In the loan agreement contract signed by Christina Brungardt, artists were each promised that “MMoCA will exercise the same care in respect to artwork loaned to it, as it does in safekeeping of its own artwork.”

If the artwork in the upstairs “Main Gallery” was defaced and stolen, would Christina Brungardt have called Mel Chin to ask the same question? Could museum guests be left unattended for 18 minutes in the Main Gallery? Would museum leadership allocate only one museum attendant for multiple multi-level gallery spaces? Mel Chin gave a Steven Fleischman lecture, sponsored by Paula and David Kraemer, with additional support from Southern Graphics Council International, in addition to support from the Wisconsin Arts Board. As it concerns the “Ain’t I a Woman?” exhibition, the artists are unaware of any paid programming — that wasn’t canceled — held in conjunction with the Wisconsin Triennial. 

This is not a criticism of broadly recognized artists who have been offered more security, documentation, programming or paid opportunities by MMoCA. Rather, this illustrates and condemns the museum’s lack of respect for, conservation of and investment in the Black women, femmes, and GNC artists of the Wisconsin Triennial.

Speaking to the 2022 Wisconsin Triennial, there have been multiple violations of both contract and convention. These include: a lack of condition reports delivered to artists upon the museum’s receipt of artwork; multiple works installed unsafely, incorrectly, and damaged upon installation; and valuing included pieces at significantly below artists’ appraisal on insurance paperwork.

The last message to all of the artists on behalf of the museum addressing our responses and concerns regarding the theft and defacement of Lilada Gee’s work and the institution’s (mis)management was sent on July 7.

For more information on the events surrounding the 2022 Wisconsin Triennial, and a thorough examination of communication steps and lapses, visit the Timeline.

Compensation for Artists

For the first time in the history of the Wisconsin Triennial, the museum paid an honorarium to the invitees. Artists were offered $250 to participate in a six-month exhibition.

W.A.G.E. is an artist-run organization that has worked for over a decade to establish a sustainable economic relationship between artists and the institutions that contract our labor. While there is not a commonly-held standard for artist compensation, W.A.G.E. recommends that artists’ payment should follow a fixed percentage of their hosting institution’s total annual operating expenses. For a group exhibition of 6-plus artists, W.A.G.E. recommends that institutions offer .03% of their total annual operating expenses.

For museums with comparable operating budgets, W.A.G.E. suggests that honorariums for group exhibitions at MMoCA should range between $917 and $1068 per artist in 2022.

Compensation for Guest Curator

MMoCA’s open call for curators stated the selected applicant would receive a stipend of $7500, along with staff guidance, support, and mentorship. At a rate of $17.52/hr, according to MIT’s Living Wage for the city of Madison, this stipend would equate to 10-weeks compensation at minimum livable income.

Fatima Laster was unquestionably undersupported and undercompensated by MMoCA. This is clear based not only on common sense evaluation, but also in accordance with the CAA’s guidelines for the productive and ethical hiring of guest curators which recommends following a sliding-scale model based on in-house salaries.

We can assume that MMoCA is familiar with the CAA, as its neighbor the Overture Center posted a call for submission for “Justified Art!” in 2014. Notably, this 2014 exhibition was also created in response to systemic racial inequity and institutional failure in Dane County, especially as it violently and lethally impacts Black citizens, inspired by an article written by Rev. Dr. Alex Gee — the brother of Wisconsin Triennial artist Lilada Gee.

Lack of Support for Guest Curator and Exhibition

Even in September 2021, as invitations to artists were being prepared to send, there was significant internal opposition to the exhibition. This resistance motivated artists and curators to write an explicit and enthusiastic endorsement of Fatima Laster’s mission and vision for the Wisconsin Triennial, addressed to director Christina Brungardt.

In addition to championing Laster’s vision, this letter to MMoCA asked for comprehensive support to ensure that she would not be their last guest curator of color. These suggestions explicitly called for: cross-departmental support, support from the board, and extensive documentation of the exhibition.

Historically, MMoCA has provided extensive documentation of exhibitions for press coverage, public access, and institutional record. The collective is unaware of any documentation of the Wisconsin Triennial made available to the press or the public by the museum.

There was conspicuously little promotion on social media or elsewhere and no event programming since the exhibition opening (that hasn’t been canceled.) 

Similarly, the artists of the 2022 Wisconsin Triennial were met with remarkable institutional failures and oversights at every turn including:

  • Contract failure re: delivery of condition report upon receipt
  • Erratic communication
  • Limited exhibition catalog run (and reported contention re: the publication of exhibition catalogs) 
  • Unsafe, destructive, and diminishing installation

For more details on the lack of institutional support, including compensation, promotional negligence, and programming disparity, visit Museum Failures.

Concerns About Offloading Responsibility

There were immediate and systemic issues with the museum’s handling of communications, artworks, and artists that include the offloading of blame and decision-making to unsupported outside contractors, marginalized staff members, and guest curator Fatima Laster.

We anticipate that the museum may select to put the brunt of responsibility on staffers and we reject it. We anticipate this because the museum and its leadership have demonstrated an acute and consistent pattern of offloading blame onto, up to the point of misrepresenting communications with, the show’s curator and minoritized support staff.

In addition, the artists were contacted by a Black Board Member, Leslie Smith III, on behalf the museum to smooth over and minimize the harm caused by the museum’s director. Further calling on Black people to do the laborious work of dismantling racism that must be done by the white people who inflicted harm, made poor decisions, and continue to demonstrate a lack of accountability is a running theme in our experience with MMoCA.

It is the institution’s responsibility to support artists and protect their artwork; we attribute these failures exclusively to the direction and distribution of resources as determined by MMoCA’s leadership.

MMoCA is a predominantly white institution that was unprepared, unwilling, and misrepresented its ability to exhibit the work of the artists in the Wisconsin Triennial, as reflected by the mismanaged, harmful, and lacking institutional response to the events of June 24. It is not our responsibility to fix this situation, bear these insults, or offer our artwork to endorse and uphold an institution that has harmed us.

Accountability

We, the collective of artists from the 2022 Wisconsin Triennial, call for the following needs to be met swiftly and completely as a first step towards rectifying the mismanagement of this exhibition; the harms done to the community and individual artists; and the historical injuries of this institution:

  • Individual and collective apologies, both public and private, from leadership individually (i.e. Christina Brungardt, the Museum, and the Board) directed to:
    • 2022 Wisconsin Triennial Artists;
    • Fatima Laster, Guest Curator;
    • Lilada Gee, whose work and person have been repeatedly violated and damaged;
    • Black MMoCA staff;
    • the Wisconsin arts community;
    • the public;
    • and exhibition sponsors and members, for use of their good faith donations to traumatize, disempower and cause damage to Black artists and their work.
  • Thorough review of artists’ contracts and museum policies, and acknowledgement of Museum’s breach of contract and policy including:
    • Unsafe installation (destructive to artwork, intent of the work, and public/viewer), resulting in emotional distress, multiple instances of destruction of property, incorrectly installed work, and incorrectly displayed work
    • No delivery of condition report upon unpacking art, questions on timeframe re: delivery of payment, lost and damaged art policy, security policy, misrepresenting museum actions relative to safety of work and artists, etc.
  • Acknowledgement of and addressing unfulfilled promises and expectations relative to the exhibition, opening reception and related programming
  • Recognition by leadership of MMoCA acknowledging that the museum was ill-equipped to host this exhibition and identifying repeated failures to secure the confidence and wellbeing of the artists

Transparency

We, the collective of artists from the 2022 Wisconsin Triennial, call for the following response to the harm done to the larger community:

  • We ask MMoCA to share a plan of action, identifying the name of the third-party consultant firm being consulted, and to share what steps are being taken to ensure that the public and artists are safe within this institution
  • We ask MMoCA to name and substantiate their commitment to establishing and sharing earnest inclusivity efforts for future generations, particularly for Black women, femmes and GNC artists, within their programming
  • We ask MMoCA to commit to publish and share a publicly available DEI/IDEA audit of the museum

Amends

We, the collective of artists from the 2022 Wisconsin Triennial, call for the offering of following amends by MMoCA and its leadership in response to the mismanagement of this exhibition:

  • Financial restitution, in recognition of emotional and professional damages, with priority given to Lilada Gee
  • Termination of Christina Brungardt, and all others in leadership directly responsible for decisions on communications
  • An immediate written promise of no retaliation (employment, financial, legal, etc.) against Fatima Laster, Annik Dupaty, or Charlotte Cummins, or any artists involved in this exhibition
  • A commitment from the museum to work with artists interested in drafting any next steps as paid consultants, including an open-to-the-public conversation with artists regarding their work and experiences

Ain’t we human and to be respected,

The collective artists of the MMoCA 2022 Wisconsin Triennial

To read individual statements from the artists of the MMoCA Wisconsin Triennial, visit Art, Artists, & Impact.

To read MMoCA’s response and FWD:truth’s reply, visit the Updates page.