Guest columnist Silas Kopf: No winners in the Biennial saga

Published: 10/12/2021 3:48:08 PM

I have followed the controversy surrounding the cancellation of the Northampton Arts Council’s Biennial with some interest. I’ve read all the op-ed pieces and letters to the editor of the Gazette to try and get up to speed on the issue. I even watched the entire Arts Council Zoom meeting on YouTube.

I’m a visual artist and have been on both sides of exhibition jury decisions — thrilled when accepted, stung when rejected. When the number of applicants exceeds the number of spots available then some cuts need to be made.

I have also served on several art juries. There are many different ways these juries can make decisions. Scoring can be blind, with totals added, and then the chips fall where they may. Others allow discussion between jurors and decisions are hashed out.

It would be interesting to know what instructions the jurors were given in the case of the Biennial. Was there a search for certain criteria or was the decision process open wide with the jurors simply looking for the pieces they found the most compelling?

After the jurying was done and the pieces selected for the show, local artist and poet, Jason Montgomery objected to the work of Doris Madsen. As an Indigenous person he suggested her print was “genocide art.” He raised the issue that the problem was that jury itself lacked diversity. I would note that there were only three jurors and inevitably group exclusions had to be made. It looks like the three jurors were probably chosen with diversity in mind. A white male, an Asian-American woman, and a Latina. I would note that Mr. Montgomery didn’t know that there was a Latina in the pool and he seemed to dismiss the Asian-American because she had a degree from Yale.

Saturday’s Gazette had a guest column by Brian Foote, the Arts Council director and Danielle Amodeo, a board member. Their attempt to explain the decision to cancel the show left me with several questions.

There were to be 60 pieces exhibited. I believe that only one was objected to. I can imagine that many of the 59 were let down. They had no doubt told friends and family that their work was in the show. How about the jurors? I imagine they either volunteered their time (or only received a small remuneration), did the best they could to select the best work, and now have been told it was all for naught. And finally, the community loses the opportunity to see the creativity of their neighbors displayed.

The hint in Mr. Montgomery’s dissent suggests that only those who are part of a given ethnic group ought to be allowed to make an artistic comment on that culture. This seems like a troublesome bit of censorship. I could characterize myself as an “old, white man.” I was outraged by the murder of George Floyd and would hope that I could make a Black Lives Matter statement in my art. According to Ms. Madsen she was not attempting to belittle the tragedy and shame of colonization. She was in fact pointing it out.

Who were the winners in this saga? Obviously not the artists. Not the jurors. And certainly not the Arts Council members, who come off as feckless. Mr. Foote and Ms. Amodeo say that this was not censorship. I beg to disagree. If the Arts Council now thinks that the process needs to be more inclusive, then that should be addressed the next time around and not blown up at the last second as it just was.

Silas Kopf lives in Northampton.

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