Supporters celebrate end of ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ exhibit, protest treatment of artists

Supporters celebrate end of ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ exhibit, protest treatment of artists

The sidewalk outside the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art was filled with flowers, posters and people on Sunday, the closing day of the “Ain’t I A Woman?“ exhibition — partly in celebration of the Black woman artists who were involved with the 2022 Wisconsin Triennial and partly in protest against MMoCA’s treatment of them.

Artist protest

Posters, flowers and pamphlets line the sidewalk in front of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on the closing day of the “Ain’t I A Woman? exhibition. The action was organized by Milwaukee artist Portia Cobb. 

“When our show goes away, the problem shouldn’t be forgotten,” said Milwaukee-based artist Portia Cobb, who organized Sunday’s event and was part of the Triennial. “We want accountability, we want transparency, and we want amends.”

“Ain’t I A Woman?” has been surrounded by controversy. In March, artist Lilada Gee was working on a mural for the exhibition. After leaving to retrieve art supplies from her car, she called the museum’s director of events to let her into the museum, but the two Black women were accosted by a white staff member from the Overture Center for the Arts when they tried to use an entrance not usually open to the public. The staff member was later fired.

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After that incident, Gee left her piece unfinished in the exhibition as a statement. Then in June, two children and their mother painted on Gee’s work and took it with them. The museum’s director, Christina Brungardt, called Gee to ask if the family could keep the canvas in an effort, the museum said later, to defuse the situation.

Madison police have released 18 minutes of surveillance footage, excerpted here, from inside the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art and at the top of State Street documenting an incident on June 24, 2022, in which a woman and her two children mistook an intentionally unfinished artwork by Madison artist Lilada Gee as an invitation to create their own work of art. Using paint and glitter, the three marked up several small canvases then took them with them, after two museum staffers tried to intervene. Museum staff confronted the woman again at the top of State Street and ultimately retrieved the works.

Ten artists pulled their work from the show in protest of what Gee experienced and demanded that Brungardt be fired. The museum’s board has supported Brungardt.

In response, the Triennial’s artists formed a collective called “FWD: truth“ and issued a list of demands that include a formal apology from MMoCA’s leadership, a diversity and inclusion audit, financial restitution and more.

Fatima Laster, the guest curator of “Ain’t I a Woman?,” said she came to Sunday’s action to lift up the artists and spur organizational change. Laster recalled communicating her concerns to the museum at the start of the exhibition process.

“I had very candid conversations with them early on saying, ‘People talk about being anti-racist and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), but we’ll see what happens if something really happens,’” she said. “And something really happened.”

As flowers filled the edge of the sidewalk, so did posters of support for the artists. Alexandria Gee, Lilada Gee’s daughter, held up a sign that said “Support us.”

Artist protest

Alexandria Gee, left and Trinity Stubbs, right, hold homemade signs in support of the artists involved in the “Ain’t I A Woman?” exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art.

“It’s disheartening and discouraging to see that such explicit bouts of racism and exclusion can happen,” she said. “Months and months later there’s still nothing happening. We shouldn’t be here protesting today.”

Artist Lilada Gee was also there. She described the recent series of events as one of the “most difficult times in my life.” Moving forward, Gee said, she wants the entire Madison community, not just artists, to take action.

Artist protest

Artists and community members gather Sunday outside the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art to support the artists involved in the “Ain’t I A Woman?” exhibition. 

“The top priority for me is for the greater Madison community to ask what needs to happen,” she said. “When one has been harmed, one should not have to ask for what they need.”

While the exhibition has come to a close at the MMoCA, FWD: truth and its allies say they still want their concerns and demands acknowledged and met by the museum’s leadership.

Artist protest

Flowers and posters are placed in front of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on Sunday’s closing day of the “Ain’t I a Woman?” exhibition in support of the artists involved in this year’s controversial Triennial Exhibit. 

“What we know as artists and what FWD: truth has made really clear is that this is the long game,” Madison resident Anna Campbell said at the protest. “We’re here to remember the work has been done, and we’re here to keep the pressure on as long as it takes.”

In an email to the Wisconsin State Journal, MMoCA said it “remains steadfast in its commitment to encourage artists to express their independent views, whether that be through their artwork or through a public gathering in front of the museum.”

Artist protest

A sign and flowers are left on the ground in front of MMoCA, as protestors decried the museum’s response to a series of recent events. 

The museum also said that officials reached out to FWD: truth on Aug. 11 and invited the collective to address their concerns. Currently, the museum is engaging in a “truth and reconciliation” process that started last month, led by Leslie Smith III and Chele Isaac. In a statement, MMoCA said it plans to bring in a visual anthropologist who will explore ways to “address institutionalized racism in MMoCA.” The name of the anthropologist has not been released by MMoCA.

The local arts nonprofit Communication will host Artists’ Night on Oct. 28. The event, which will feature the work of local artists at more than dozen sites across the city, is being promoted as an alternative to MMoCa’s gallery night on Nov. 4.

“It’s another opportunity for artists and it removes the putting energy and money toward MMoCA, who is not supporting Black artists,” said Jennifer Bastain, director of communication. “It’s about building infrastructure to continue supporting artists longer-term.”