The Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis will erect barriers this week to shield viewers from works in “Direct Drive” that critics are calling racially charged and exploitative.
Informational signs will also explain the objections to the work, so viewers can decide what they want to see.
The exhibition at the museum in Grand Center was called into question during an artist talk Sept. 17 at which some attendees said Kelley Walker, a white Georgia native who now lives in New York, was hostile to those who inquired about his appropriation of images featuring black civil rights activists and black women on magazine covers. The images were digitally altered to include streaks of whitening toothpaste and chocolate in a way that made viewers question the artist’s intent.
Both Walker and the museum’s chief curator Jeffrey Uslip bristled at questions during the talk. One St. Louis artist’s call for a boycott was echoed by hundreds more.
Soon after, the museum’s three black administrative employees — De Andrea Nichols, Lyndon Barrois Jr. and Victoria Donaldson — distributed a letter calling for the removal of four offensive pieces and for Uslip to step down. If their requests were not met, they said they would not perform duties related to the exhibit, including hosting tours of the work and otherwise supporting its promotion. (They were unavailable for comment Monday.)
A panel discussion of black artists and leaders of art groups held Thursday at the museum called for the offensive pieces to be removed and apologies made.
CAM executive director Lisa Melandri was in discussion with the board, her staff and local artists for days as the museum decided how to proceed. She said the decision was to make “modifications” to respect the pain and trauma reported by viewers who think Walker’s intent was malicious.
A statement from the museum reads in part: “Taking down the show would violate the museum’s core principles and end the productive dialogue that this work has initiated. CAM has a history of showing controversial artists; we have shown works that have challenged common sensibilities and presented work that has critiqued, in a difficult way, misogyny, patriarchy, homophobia and the military industrial complex, among other issues. Despite the debates and discomfort these exhibitions generated, we never removed them.”
Melandri later said by phone that she doesn’t take the situation lightly and wants to show all parties the proper respect and space for expression.
There will be no staff changes at the museum related to the exhibit. “I stand by my entire staff,” Melandri said.
She said the response and continuing discussion could ultimately do some good as the institution strives to make better and more inclusive decisions.
“I think we can really create opportunity from this — opportunity for something different and something new with renewed parity and equity. We can do better and do something really important here,” she said.
Melandri also acknowledges that critics may not be readily appeased, and she’s willing to keep working with them. Anyone with concerns can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Damon Davis, a St. Louis artist who originally called for a boycott of the exhibit, is troubled that the museum is using the controversy to attract visitors “who are very comfortable seeing us in pain.
“The response to us asking them to take something off the wall is to build more walls,” he said. “We asked for a simple gesture of respect and compassion, and this was the response — more walls. That was not what we wanted. This is not done. We are not done here.”
“Direct Drive” is scheduled to be on view through Dec. 31.
Debra D. Bass • 314-340-8236
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