Northampton Arts Council working on an apology for Biennial exhibit: Issue continues to simmer after abrupt cancellation

  • Doris Madsen holds her piece “400 years later #4,” which became the subject of criticism and resulted in the cancellation of the Northampton Arts Council Biennial show which was scheduled to open at Forbes Library in October. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 11/11/2021 1:08:24 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Six weeks after they set off a firestorm by abruptly canceling their Biennial art and poetry exhibit at Forbes Library, saying it contained harmful “genocidal art,” members of the Northampton Arts Council say they’re preparing to issue a formal apology — but they’re not quite there yet.

The council, which met Tuesday via Zoom, had prepared an agenda for the meeting that included the item “Biennial: Apology Statement from the Arts Council.” But Danielle Amodeo, the board’s chairperson, said the panel is still conducting a careful review of how the exhibit was put together — how it was planned, how the jurors for it were selected, how the art was chosen by those jurors — and until that assessment is complete, any apology would be premature.

“We have to provide clear steps for what we’ll do to redress harm and how we can change,” Amodeo said. “Until we do that, if we put forward an apology, it’s not going to mean much for any of you — to BIPOC artists or other artists, or to folks who just wanted to attend” the show.

“We’re being really slow and intentional about the process,” she added. “We’re confident that by following this process, we’re going to be able to produce the best possible arts programming for our community that we can.”

The cancellation of the Biennial exhibit has continued to simmer, with people weighing in, both pro and con, on social media, in the letters section and op-ed pages of the Gazette, and in other forums — and in messages sent directly to Arts Council members.

It may also have been a factor in a recent city election: Arts Council member Jesse Hassinger, who introduced the motion to cancel the exhibit, was defeated for Ward 4 City Councilor by Garrick Perry, who called the council’s decision a mistake and a “failure of leadership,” saying the panel missed an opportunity to host a broader discussion on equity issues.

And last week the cancellation also drew the attention of the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), a New York-based coalition of nonprofit groups that support freedom of expression, which sent a letter to the Arts Council condemning its decision.

Origin of controversy

The issue began in late September when Easthampton artist Jason Montgomery, in a Zoom-based Arts Council Meeting, called for canceling the show, raising objections to a print by Easthampton artist Dorothy Madsen. In an earlier email to the council, Montgomery called the work “genocide art,” saying it depicted Native Americans in a harmful way. 

Montgomery, who is of Chicano/Indigenous descent, was joined at the Sept. 28 meeting by three other Indigenous artists who raised concerns about their voices not being heard. Montgomery, citing a poor selection process for the art, then called for the whole show to be canceled, and the Arts Council voted 4-2, with one abstention, to scrap the show three days before it was to open.

The exhibit would have featured work from about 60 visual artists and poets.

Some people called the council’s decision censorship, a charge the panel has denied. Jessica Tam, one of the three jurors for the exhibit, wrote a letter to the board decrying its failure to notify her or the two other jurors about the cancellation of the exhibit; she also faulted the council for allowing Montgomery to make what she considered derogatory remarks about her without comment.

At its next meeting, on Oct. 12, two members of the Arts Council did offer an apology to the Biennial jurors for not involving them in the cancellation decision. Madsen, meanwhile, whose print had been the lightning rod for the ensuing debate, told the board that Montgomery had demanded — “He told me, he didn’t ask me” — that she remove her print from the exhibit.

“I was censored by him, and you repeated that censorship,” Madsen said.

But JuPong Lin, an Amherst artist who said she’s been following the story, added that she supported the Biennial cancellation; she also suggested the definition of censorship needed to be re-examined within the larger context of America’s colonial past and the broader issue of white supremacy.

“Indigenous artists have been censored for hundreds of years,” Lin said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the debate continued along similar lines. Ellen Augarten, an Arts Council volunteer who was the chief organizer of the Biennial, said no one on the board had raised any concerns about the exhibit with her during its preparation, which left her feeling blindsided by the Sept. 28 vote to cancel the show.

“We started work on the Biennial in October 2020,” she said. “We put in a full year. Yet no one (on the Arts Council) acknowledged or thanked us for our months of work, and that’s just plain rude and lacking in compassion.”

Augarten, a former Arts Council member, also said she felt dispirited by the atmosphere of board meetings, which she said have become increasingly polarized, something that may be aggravated by everything taking place online; she noted that there are eight current vacancies on the council.

“I’m concerned about the direction (the Arts Council) is going in,” she said. “Our meetings used to be enjoyable, and recently they’ve become painful, at least to some of us.”

Some people who typed in comments to Tuesday’s meeting, though, said they believed many of the complaints directed at the Arts Council have been from whites, who are missing the bigger picture of BIPOC artists being historically excluded from exhibitions.

“I hope that the white people who feel upset and defensive about the show cancellation can muster the courage and humility to switch gears and step out of superiority mode and into learning mode,” wrote Ya-Ping Douglass.

Meantime, the National Coalition Against Censorship, in its letter to the Arts Council, said the cancellation of the Biennial could conceivably expose the city to legal liability.

“If the main impetus to cancel the event was to remove from view a piece because it is offensive to one or several individuals, the Arts Council would be in violation of its responsibilities under the Constitution,” the letter reads in part. “As a government agency, the Arts Council cannot discriminate against viewpoints, no matter how disagreeable it finds them.”

The NCAC acknowledged the difficulty art institutions face in overcoming “historically-entrenched systems of inequity.” But even as they seek greater inclusion, the NCAC letter states, groups like the Northampton Arts Council “need to allow for open exploration of ideas, for experimentation, even for mistakes. Equity and inclusion will not be accomplished through censorship.”

Though the NCAC letter was not discussed at Tuesday’s Arts Council meeting, Amodeo spoke about the difficulty of tackling those equity and inclusion issues, saying the conversations council members are having mirror those taking place in many parts of the country.

“We’re not going to get everything right,” she said. “We’re not alone in this struggle to make out arts more equitable, because it hasn’t been done before. It’s supposed to be messy.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at
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