Walker expected to announce 'Scaffold' fate Wednesday

The sculpture stands behind a fence covered with banners and posters.
The scaffold sculpture now stands behind a fence covered with banners and posters demanding its removal from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, seen here on Tuesday.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Walker Art Center representatives are expected to make an announcement Wednesday afternoon about the fate of "Scaffold," the controversial artwork that prompted protests at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden over the weekend.

The Walker and the Minneapolis Park Board have postponed the Sculpture Garden's reopening by a week to June 10.

"Scaffold" is one of the new pieces added to the garden during its multimillion-dollar renovation. Conceived as a commentary on capital punishment by the artist Sam Durant, the sculpture comprises elements of seven different hangings in U.S. history.

But one of those events — the execution of 38 Dakota men following the U.S.-Dakota war in 1862 — remains a subject of special pain in Minnesota. It was the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The large, boxlike frame of "Scaffold" recalls the gallows erected in Mankato for the hangings a century and a half ago.

Members of the Dakota community reacted harshly to the sculpture and to an apology Friday by Olga Viso, the Walker's executive director. Viso and Durant both acknowledged that the community should have been consulted about a piece with such a clear connection to a painful chapter of Dakota history. They said they are open to remedies that might go as far as the sculpture's removal.

In meetings Tuesday and Wednesday, officials were seeking the opinions of Dakota elders about the best option. A few protesters kept watch over the scene Tuesday afternoon.

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Protest banners line the fence outside the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.
Protest banners lined the fence outside the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden left by people opposed to the scaffold sculpture.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"There's not going to be no middle ground," said Sam Wounded Knee, a Crow Creek Dakota. "They just take it down and then that'll be it. There's better ways of putting a point out there without disrespecting the people of Minnesota."

Wounded Knee said there had been lots of people coming by to support what the protesters were doing. But there had also been some who drove by and shouted racist slurs at them.

A person representing the Dakota elders told MPR News that they were meeting both with officials of the Walker and people from the Minneapolis Park Board, the agency that actually runs the garden. Also attending the meetings was a neutral mediator, Stephanie Hope Smith. She has worked extensively on situations involving sacred sites, and spent six months at Standing Rock during the recent pipeline protests in North Dakota.

The elders were planning to meet privately Tuesday night and then return to the Walker on Wednesday for what everyone hopes will be the final discussion. Depending on the outcome, an announcement was set for 2 p.m.

Dakota activists have indicated their goal is that "Scaffold" be removed, pure and simple. But Olga Viso left some ambiguity, saying that "the best way to move forward is to have "Scaffold" dismantled in some manner." So the extent of that dismantling could be a point of discussion.

Viso has explained that she first saw "Scaffold" at an earlier installation in Europe. At one of those European venues, the Jupiter Sculpture Park in Scotland, Durant explained to a film crew that he intended the sculpture to get people talking.

"It's been really exciting and interesting to see how effective, and how different from my original thoughts about it, but how effective it is in generating conversations" he said.

However it's clear that bringing the piece back to the U.S., and closer to the places depicted by "Scaffold" the conversations have become a backlash.

Whatever else the episode has done, it has certainly taken the wind out of the sails of the Sculpture Garden's grand reopening.

Just last week, Walker staff were giddy about the installation of "Hahn/Cock," the giant blue rooster that had been expected to command attention as the garden's new centerpiece. On Tuesday, the Walker was a quieter place, with fewer people about and no one available for comment.

Meanwhile, construction crews continued working hard to get the garden ready to reopen — although, thanks to the postponement caused by the "Scaffold" controversy, they now have an extra week in which to do it.