Guest columnist Stephen Petegorsky: Time for Arts Council to ‘walk the walk’

Published: 10/22/2021 4:07:31 PM

Recent letters and columns have raised many issues regarding the Northampton Arts Council’s decision to cancel their Biennial exhibit. The crisis began when Jason Montgomery formed an interpretation of a particular piece by Doris Madsen that was to be in the Biennial. That became the basis of his demand that she remove the piece from the show, for his attempt to get the Arts Council’s Biennial and Equity committees to withdraw the piece, and later for his addressing the entire Arts Council.

His apologies in a recent column are appropriate. In watching that entire Arts Council meeting, I heard much to apologize for. His comments were broadly offensive and insulting. The apologies and excuses do not erase the fact of his denigration of older white women, Asian women, the Biennial committee, the jurors for the show, and Madsen.

The situation worsened when the Arts Council accepted his opinion as fact, decided that “flaws in the process” of the Biennial rendered it “harmful” to allow the show to go on, condemned the entire enterprise, and used Montgomery’s language in calling her work “genocidal” in their statements about the cancellation.

Montgomery has every right to his opinion. But I don’t feel that he has the right to impose that view on others. Nor do I think that anyone has the right to tell artists what they can or cannot include in their work. Let them accept responsibility for a range of possible responses to their work. Madsen was reflecting on a history of our country that belongs to all of us, not just to Montgomery.

Native Americans have indeed been subjected to historical and ongoing wrongs. White supremacy exists; efforts to improve equity, inclusion, and diversity are vitally important. Nobody is arguing otherwise. But the jurors for the Biennial did what they were asked to do. They looked at the artistic value of the submitted works. They were not tasked with developing a show that included all “voices of the community.”

What exactly were the flaws in the process of the Biennial? Their outreach efforts apparently reached the person they see as a spokesperson for Indigenous people in the region; he submitted work. If the Arts Council feels that it is better to have a show whose intent is to include or highlight the voices of those in marginalized communities, why not design an exhibit with that goal from the beginning?

If they believed that work selected for the show was objectionable, they could have had a press release acknowledging that. They might well have had a statement in the exhibit. They could have invited any who shared that opinion to present and discuss their views at a forum. Instead, they chose to cancel the show, silencing the voices of the 60 artists whose work had been selected. Those voices may well have included BIPOC artists.

The Arts Council has yet to explain why it would have been more harmful to let the show go on than to cancel it, and their denials that the decision involves censorship ring hollow and disingenuous. In spending time formulating statements about ethics, mission, and equity, the Council has bent over backward figuring out how to “talk the talk.” But in doing so, it appears that no effort was put into determining how they might “walk the walk.” To do one without the other is to ignore much of what really needs to be done. It amounts to little more than virtue signaling.

Watch the virtual reception for the “In This Together” show in which Madsen talks about her work. From the very beginning of her remarks she notes that Easthampton stands on Nonotuck land. She goes on to recognize the Native tribes and people who once or now lived to the north, south, east and west. She talks about how her work was inspired by an embroidery of the Mayflower her that mother made decades ago. She notes that she was inspired by the events of the summer of 2020, including incidents of racial inequity and white supremacy, and mentions the background ghost-like figures as representing Indigenous people.

She describes her intent to reflect on the history of our country and to embrace what it was built upon. Nowhere does she describe Native Americans as a dead people who no longer exist.

What if Montgomery had considered her as an ally? He admitted that her heart was in the right place. What if instead of condemning her work as “genocidal,” he saw her as a white person who had made progress in becoming aware of the harm and violence that is and has been perpetrated against Native peoples?

Shouldn’t the Arts Council stand for the rights of artists to express themselves freely, and for the right of those viewing artwork to have their own interpretations? Were they unable to see that by canceling the show, they might lose the support of a large percentage of the community they are supposed to serve? It is too cheap and easy to simply dismiss opposition to their decision as white supremacy, white privilege, or a colonialist mindset. That misses many important points.

Many from BIPOC communities have said that they should not have to do the work of white people for us (white people) to evolve in our understanding. Of course they should not. It is ours to do, and clearly there is much to be done. But if progress is to happen sooner rather than later, it will certainly help me increase my awareness if I have input from those in BIPOC communities. My thoughts in this do not stem from “white fragility” or “white tears,” but rather from a sincere effort to be open to learning, to seeing things from perspectives other than my own.

It might help if the Arts Council offered a full account of the events that gave rise to their decision in a statement that was free of such lingo as “we invite you to sit with your discomfort.” They certainly didn’t sit with theirs; they went into moral panic and acted in a way that is likely to haunt them.

Stephen Petegorsky is a photographer who lives in Florence and is a former long-serving member of the Northampton Arts Council.

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