Guest columnists Brian Foote and Danielle Amodeo: On the decision to cancel the Northampton Biennial

Published: 10/8/2021 2:34:34 PM

On Tuesday, Sept. 28, the Northampton Arts Council voted to cancel this year’s visual art and poetry Biennial. The Biennial was created 15 years ago by several former arts council members as an opportunity for artists from all of the counties in western Massachusetts to submit their work without an entrance fee.

Entrance fees for exhibitions can be prohibitive for many; the founding of the Biennial was an early attempt at making the arts accessible and equitable. The Council’s decision to cancel this year’s Biennial aligns with that initial founding intention: to make the arts accessible and equitable for everyone in our community.

At our most recent public meeting, several local Indigenous artists voiced their concerns about one of the artworks selected for the Biennial. This intervention brought to the fore the ways in which the entire Biennial production process was not aligned with our mission as an arts organization. One Indigenous artist called for the Biennial to be canceled and redone more equitably. As a result, one of our council members moved to cancel the Biennial. The Council voted 4 yes, 2 no, and 1 abstention.

The Council did not cancel the Biennial to censor the artwork in question, but rather to redress the harm done in the production process of this exhibition and to prevent further harm.

To provide further context, the Council voted to cancel this event because the process by which the Biennial was produced did not align with our equity statement. We acknowledge that canceling the show is an imperfect solution and know that this will be disappointing to some in our community. However, the need for last week’s intervention from Indigenous artists is a symptom of racism within the Arts Council, within the Northampton arts community, and within our city. Letting the show go on as it had been designed would have caused further harm to BIPOC artists and others who have already been excluded and marginalized from the Northampton arts community.

Discussions and criticism around the planning process of the Biennial are not new. The Biennial subcommittee lost two members this year: one left due to work commitments and the other resigned from the subcommittee, citing hostility from the Biennial’s lead organizer. The Council should have moved to cancel the Biennial when the culture of the subcommittee was called into question and when it became clear that there might not be the people-power needed to produce an event of this scale responsibly. For these decisions, we sincerely apologize.

We know that there is no way to make everyone happy right now. As such, our purview is to do no more harm. To do that, we need to take pause, listen to those most harmed in our community, and call them into our processes moving forward. Our choice to cancel isn’t about censorship or being politically correct. It’s about caring for our community and holding ourselves accountable for the harm that this process caused to the Indigenous artists that came forward.

When it comes to calling off exhibitions with racist content, the Northampton Arts Council is in good company: the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Walker Arts Center have recently canceled exhibitions that community members have cited as causing harm, not only due to the content of the works on view, but also due to the process by which the exhibitions were created. Canceling the show this year gives the Council the time we need to reflect and engage the community in conversations about improving our process. We hope you’ll join us for those conversations and the changes that follow.

We apologize to BIPOC artists and other historically excluded artists; we will do better in the future. We apologize to the artists whose works were selected for this year’s Biennial for canceling on short notice. Several of you have written in support of the decision to cancel, and we thank you for your solidarity and understanding.

For those who are angered, confused, or disappointed, we hope you can find it in your hearts and minds to understand why the Council canceled the show. We invite you to sit with your discomfort, reflect alongside us, and try to respect this decision.

Artists, we appreciate the work you do for our community and hope that you’ll submit to future callings for work with the understanding and trust that we want to produce the best artistic programming possible. You are why we do what we do.

Brian Foote is the director of Arts & Culture for the Northampton Arts Council. Danielle Amodeo chairs the Northampton Arts Council.

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