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It’s Time for Museums to ‘Decolonize’ Says Former Walker Art Center Director

Olga Viso, who stepped down from the Walker Art Center last year, weighs into the tense debate sweeping the art world

Olga Viso. Courtesy: Walker Art Center

Olga Viso. Courtesy: Walker Art Center

Olga Viso. Courtesy: Walker Art Center

In an op-ed for the New York Times, former director of Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center Olga Viso argues that it is time for museums in the US to ‘decolonize’. Headlined ‘Decolonizing the Art Museum: The Next Wave’, Viso’s article asks how museums can reconsider their mission statements as more diverse audiences call for a voice and accountability.

Viso argues: ‘There are now two incompatible art worlds: one committed to inclusion, artistic freedom and change, the other driven by money and entitlements. When agendas collide, there are casualties.’ And she doesn’t think the commercial art market holds the key, saying, ‘the surging commercial art market has become another colonizing force’.

Viso discusses her experiences with a controversial wood-and-steel artwork by LA-based sculptor Sam Durant, titled Scaffold (2012), which went on view at the Walker last year. Drawing on the history of gallows used in US state executions, including the 1862 hanging of 38 Dakota warriors during the Dakota War, the work earned the ire of the local American Indian community and was later dismantled. ‘I apologize for any pain and disappointment that the sculpture might elicit’, Viso wrote at the time. Now looking back on the episode, Viso writes that it was a humbling experience ‘for a person whose career has been devoted to providing a platform for underrepresented histories.’

Viso’s call for museums to ‘stop seeing activists as antagonists’, warning that they risk becoming ‘culturally irrelevant artifacts’, follows protests at the Brooklyn Museum over the weekend in which activists led chants for ‘repatriation’ and ‘reparations’. Organized by the group Decolonize This Place, the protests followed on from the museum’s recent decision to hire a white woman as its new curator of African art, a decision which Deolonize This Place described as ‘tone deaf’. Writing in frieze, professor of African and African Diaspora Art at Princeton University, Chika Okeke-Agulu, argues that the outrage over the appointment has been misplaced, and fails to understand the nature of expertise.

Viso stepped down from the Walker at the end of 2017. In a recent interview for frieze, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, director of Castello di Rivoli, commented on Viso’s departure in passing, within the context of women’s experiences of working in the arts: ‘A disturbing fact is that in the past few months, most of the people being sacked or asked to resign from museums are women – Olga Viso from the Walker, Laura Raicovich at Queens, Beatrix Ruf from the Stedelijk, Maria Inés Rodríguez at CAPC Bordeaux and Helen Molesworth at LA MOCA […] It’s important to remember that there are a lot of men on museum boards.’

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