Northampton Arts Council cancels Biennial show citing ‘harmful’ art, flawed process 

  • This monoprint by Easthampton artist Doris Madsen, called “400 Years After no. 4,” was at the center of a decision by the Northampton Arts Council to cancel its Biennial exhibit. COURTESY OF DORIS MADSEN

  • Easthampton artist Doris Madsen created the monoprint “400 Years Later no. 4,” which was criticized by Jason Montgomery, also of Easthampton. For that and other reasons, the Northampton Arts Council abruptly canceled an exhibit at Forbes Library that would have included Madsen’s work. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Easthampton artist Doris Madsen created the monoprint “400 Years Later no. 4,” which was criticized by Jason Montgomery, also of Easthampton. For that and other reasons, the Northampton Arts Council abruptly canceled an exhibit at Forbes Library that would have included Madsen’s work. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Easthampton artist Doris Madsen created the print “400 Years Later no. 4,” which was criticized by Jason Montgomery, also of Easthampton. For that and other reasons, the Northampton Arts Council abruptly canceled an exhibit at Forbes Library that would have included Madsen’s work. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jason Montgomery, seen at his studio in Holyoke earlier this year when he and his wife, Alexandra Woolner, were appointed poets laureate of Easthampton. STAFF FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 10/5/2021 7:15:52 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The city’s Arts Council has abruptly canceled its Biennial arts exhibit at Forbes Library after an Easthampton artist objected to one of the pieces slated to be included in the show, which he called “genocide art.”

The objection came from Jason Montgomery, who along with his wife, Alexandra Woolner, was appointed poet laureate in Easthampton this spring. Montgomery, who’s originally from California and is of Chicano/Indigenous descent, said a print by another Easthampton artist, Doris Madsen, harmfully depicted Native Americans as “ghosts,” perpetuating a myth that they no longer exist.

In an email to the Arts Council last month, and in remarks at a Zoom-based meeting board members held Sept. 28, Montgomery, who’s also a visual artist, also said the council’s process for selecting work for the Biennial — a juried show, with art chosen by a three-member panel of outside art professionals — was flawed and that the board had failed to reach out to Indigenous artists in the area.

He called initially for removing Madsen’s artwork from the exhibit but then asked the Arts Council to shut down the show.

“You should cancel this event and go back to the drawing board because you have neglected entire populations,” Montgomery said at the meeting. “You are letting White people speak about the Native experience, and that is patently unacceptable.”

“The idea that you would disregard Indigenous voices and Native voices,” he added, “in favor of old white women who want to discuss this because suddenly it’s become something they’ve had to learn about … is reprehensible.”

After more than an hour of discussion, a majority of the council’s board members voted to cancel the Biennial exhibit, less than four days before it was due to open. The vote was 4-2, with one abstention.

Member Jesse Hassinger seemed to speak for the majority when he said the Arts Council needed a “recognition that we as an arts community have done wrong and how we can make things right.”

The council released a brief statement about that decision last Friday, Oct. 1, saying the Biennial had included “harmful genocidal art” and that the selection process for the exhibit “did not include the voices and the art of (the Indigenous) community.”

Censorship?

But some local artists whose work was to be part of the exhibit, and another who previously served on the Arts Council board, say they’re dismayed by the decision, calling it a case of censorship — or perhaps self-censorship — that sets a bad precedent for future shows. Altogether, the work of 60 visual artists and poets was slated to be part of the Biennial.

“Art is about expression, and the Arts Council should foster, protect and promote expression,” said longtime Florence photographer Stephen Petegorsky, a former board member. “Instead they’ve canceled an entire exhibit because of objections from one person about one piece of art.”

Petegorsky added that he believes the council should make every effort to include a diverse group of artists in any show. But in this case, he suggested the council could have used the concerns Montgomery raised to hold a series of public forums on the issue, or perhaps stage an exhibit devoted to Indigenous artists, while still hosting the work of the planned exhibit. It had been due to open Oct. 2.

“They squandered a teachable moment,” he said, adding that though the Arts Council has “a great track record and commendable goals,” the cancellation of the exhibit “represents a lack of judgment and a failure of leadership.”

Jaime Forsythe, a photographer whose work was to be part of the show, wrote on Facebook “I would like to know the following: What is harmful art?; what is genocidal art?; since when do we favor censorship?; will the NAC compensate me for my financial loss? I was notified of the cancellation within 24 hours of delivery (of my art).”

Artist ‘appalled’

For her part, Doris Madsen, the printmaker and collage artist whose work Montgomery objected to, says she never heard directly from anyone on the Arts Council about the board’s decision. She says she’s also appalled the council adopted Montgomery’s definition of her prints — “genocidal art” — in its public statement.

“That is not what my work is about,” Madsen said. “It’s about the violence that Native people were subjected to.”

Madsen’s piece is part of a number of prints and collages that she collectively titled “400 Years Later” and which were part of a virtual exhibit, “We’re in This Together,” held this summer at Forbes. The artwork juxtaposes a small lithograph of the Mayflower, the Pilgrims’ sailing ship, with other images, including abstract figures that Madsen says represent Indigenous people.

Madsen, a retired librarian, says she began the work last year during the pandemic, following the murder of George Floyd and other cases of police violence against Black men in the U.S.; she was reflecting on the continued problems of racism, white supremacy, and the struggles and suppression of Native Americans 400 years after the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts.

“This is what our country was built on,” she says in an online discussion held Aug. 31 about the exhibit. (Montgomery also had work in that show.)

In retrospect, Madsen told the Gazette, she probably should not have made any reference to the Indigenous figures as “ghosts” — some of those figures are in white, others in black — but she said her intent was to point to the violence Native Americans have experienced.

Montgomery, though, called Madsen’s work “very, very troubling,”; he believes it promotes the notion of erasure, that Native Americans have been completely wiped out.

As he wrote in an email to the Arts Council, “We become nothing but a thing to be mourned and forgotten all the while the violence of colonization continues. It continues the act of revictimization by freezing Native peoples in trauma and defining our existence by the violence done to us.”

In an interview, Montgomery said he asked Madsen, who he knows, if she would remove her piece from the exhibit; when she declined, he went to the Arts Council. He says he and other area Indigenous artists would have been satisfied initially had her print been removed from the exhibit, with some text left explaining why. But he adds that the council’s format for selecting art for the show then convinced him the exhibit should be canceled.

He also said he had submitted work to the Biennial exhibit that had been “rejected.” Another Indigenous woman, Ella Nathanael Alkiewicz of Northampton, who spoke at the Sept. 28 council meeting, said she felt “stung” when her poetry was not accepted for the show.

The Biennial exhibit, which has been staged every other year since about 2006, is open to artists from western Massachusetts and uses a “blind admission” process in which a three-member panel judges the work without reference to an artist’s background (a separate panel reviews poetry submissions).

“I’ve always been proud we have submissions that are blind,” photographer Ellen Augarten, a former Arts Council board member and the primary organizer of this year’s Biennial, said during last week’s Zoom meeting. “We’ve always been concerned the art should speak for itself.”

Montgomery maintains an arts community that’s mostly composed of white people, and that uses white judges, is invariably drawn to white-generated art. (Actually, one of the three jurors for the Biennial was a Latina artist and professor from Springfield, Alvilda Sophia Anaya-Alegria, and another was Jessica Tam, an Asian American and Yale University School of Art graduate who teaches at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.)

Asked by the Gazette if he thought the Arts Council should ask artists submitting their work to declare their ethnicity or racial identity as part of the application process, Montgomery said, “Of course they should.”

He added that he was pleased the council canceled the show and that he plans to work with members to try and improve outreach to Indigenous artists in the region.

Danielle Amodeo, the Northampton Arts Council chairperson, and Brian Foote, the council’s director, released a longer statement Oct. 5 outlining the decision to scrap the exhibit. “The Council did not cancel the Biennial to censor the artwork in question,” they wrote in part, “but rather to redress the harm done in the production process of this exhibition and to prevent further harm.”

“Canceling the show this year gives the Council the time we need to reflect and engage the community in conversations about improving our process,” the statement continues. “We hope you’ll join us for those conversations and the changes that follow.”

But Madsen, who watched part of last week’s Arts Council meeting, said she wanted nothing further to do at the moment with the organization. When Montgomery dismissed her as “an old white woman” in his remarks to the council, she said, “They just let that go right past. Nobody batted an eye.”

Still, she added, “I just hope something good for all involved comes from this.”

Petegorsky was even more pointed in remarks he posted to Facebook: “If you feel it is more important to select work for a show on the basis of artists’ identities rather than on the artistic merit of their work, that is your privilege. But that needs to be stated up front.”

He added, “The fact that you now feel that the exhibit was ultimately not representative enough of certain elements of our community should not cause you to flagellate yourselves and punish the other artists in the show, and slander the artist whose work you included. The actions you have taken appear self-righteous and virtue signaling; you and all of us are capable of doing better.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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