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A statement on moving forward

Damage to artwork inside MMoCA is unacceptable and for this we are deeply sorry. MMoCA’s board recognizes that its apologies to date have offered little consolation; the board knows, understands, and recognizes the need for action. And action is a collective effort that has been and will continue to be stressed by this board to the artistic community. Appreciation for all and shared artistic values that promote care and concern for artists and communities, is a driving force of our work. For this reason, MMoCA has engaged in a professionally facilitated board and staff effort in truth and reconciliation. Through interview and observation, a visual anthropologist in residence will listen for a shared narrative around the pain that was prompted by the incidents that occurred during the Wisconsin Triennial presentation of Ain’t I A Woman? The artist in residence will also be looking toward the future and exploring ways to address institutional racism within MMoCA and root causes of this particular conflict; this will include examining current structural and governance issues and those which predate a majority of members of the current board and staff.

We believe a shared narrative – one based on interviews, investigation, and interrogation of assumptions – is an important step toward reconciliation for all stakeholders. We are hopeful that an in-depth journey of listening, learning, and engaging with museum and community stakeholders in Madison will spark healing opportunities among artists, staff, museum attendees, and the board that allow us all to build an anti-racist museum.

The truth and reconciliation project launched in September 2022 and may last as long as six months. Leslie Smith III and Chele Isaac are serving as lead project advisors and Tina Virgil leads public information sharing. Leslie, Chele, and Tina are MMoCA directors and, with the full support of their colleagues, are dedicated to the open dialogue made possible through contemporary art.

Statement from MMoCA Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees

By now, many of you have heard or read about the unfortunate incident that occurred on June 24, 2022 during the Wisconsin Triennial presentation of Ain’t I A Woman?. 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. For this we are deeply sorry. Lilada is a talented artist and an invaluable voice for Black women and girls. We were proud to have her and her artwork as a part of the exhibit.

Since the incident there has been a series of articles, e-mails, and letters criticizing the MMoCA administration and the Board of Trustees and leveling inappropriate and unfounded accusations of institutional racism for their handling of this unique situation. We do not take these allegations lightly—MMoCA, like all museums, is grappling with historic institutional racism. The Board of Trustees, on behalf of the entire organization, would like to re-enforce MMoCA’s commitment to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for everyone and address these harmful accusations.

First and foremost, we begin by clearly stating our full support of Executive Director Christina Brungardt and her entire staff. This is a team of dedicated individuals who are committed to, and have a proven track record of respecting all artists who exhibit at the museum and the artwork they entrust to us. We believe the actions taken by the Executive Director to address the incident, including actively rebuffing the efforts of local uniformed law enforcement officers to either forcefully retrieve the artwork and/or detain the mother who wrongfully appropriated the artwork, were a necessary and appropriate means of de-escalating a tense situation involving young children. What is more, at no point during the incident did the Director intend to allow the mother to keep possession of the artwork; rather each of the Director’s actions were meant to safely and methodically negotiate the work’s rightful return to the museum and artist. We stand by Ms. Brungardt and are grateful for her leadership, professionalism, and vision for growing MMoCA as an impactful, globally recognized institution that prioritizes equity and inclusion.

Allegations have also been made that the museum was ill-equipped to host the exhibition and that “unfilled promises” were made. This unfortunate narrative 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. To disregard the multiple conversations that were held to ensure the exhibit’s success along with the flexibility of museum staff in addressing special requests and changing needs does a disservice to the communication and trust that was built as part of this process. We have the utmost respect for the artists and all involved in bringing this exhibit to life. We are deeply saddened that some artists have chosen to remove their works from it before its October conclusion. We also remain steadfast in our commitment to 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.

Regarding security for the exhibit, the artwork in the Wisconsin Triennial was held to the same standards of care as other exhibits in the museum. The brief lapse in security was an anomaly, not the rule. The 16-minute period during which hired gallery attendants were not in one part of the exhibit space does not equate to disrespect for the Black artists or guest curator of the exhibit, nor does it point to institutional racism. Leadership and staff worked closely with the guest curator and the featured artists to create an environment that delivered on our mission of providing transformative experiences that educate, reflect, and inspire us as individuals and a community. One unfortunate incident should not dismantle all of the positive work achieved through this invaluable exhibition, and it most certainly should not be cause for individuals to impugn the reputations of MMoCA or its staff.

Out of respect for those involved and for the important mission which we pursue daily– and that this exhibition represents – we have not interfered with the public narrative that has been sparked by this incident before now. We recognize that this lack of public comment may be viewed as disrespectful, or may be misinterpreted as signaling agreement with the accusations made against museum staff and directors. Our sincere intent, however, was 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. We are the first to admit that this approach did not bear the collaborative fruit that we had hoped.

MMoCA will continue to provide a forum for people to be challenged by, reflect on, and make connections between art and the world around them. We support the staff, artists, and others who helped bring the Wisconsin Triennial to life. And we remain ready, willing and able to engage in the difficult exchanges that will help us create more social justice in our community and our world and better ways to elevate art as a means to achieving those outcomes.

Executive Committee, Board of Trustees
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art