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“Is Black art safe at MMoCA?” Lilada Gee’s exhibit defaced, and museum officials aren’t talking

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Lilada Gee (Photo supplied)

For beloved Madison artist Lilada Gee, being a featured artist in the Wisconsin Triennial titled “Ain’t I A Woman?” at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) in downtown Madison was a dream come true, and her time to shine at a major art institution in the city where she grew up. The exhibition, which opened in April and runs until October, explores the intersection of race and gender as well as the underrepresentation of Black women artists in Wisconsin.

However, three months in, the dream continues to be a nightmare.

Back in March, in a story that Madison365 broke first, Gee was verbally assaulted and belittled by a physically aggressive Overture Center for the Arts employee as Gee tried to re-enter the building where she was working on her art. “It was so shocking that it took my breath away,” Gee told Madison365 at the time. “The woman was extremely aggressive. I’ve never seen treatment like that in my years working here.”

The employee was subsequently fired.

Gee was too distraught and traumatized to finish her artwork. She read “An Open Letter to All The “beths” Who Interrupt Black Girls” at the opening of the Ain’t I A Woman exhibit back in mid-May.

For more than a month after the opening, Gee’s unfinished exhibit was visible along with all of the other artists’ works at MMoCA. Until last Friday, when Gee got a call from Christina Brungardt, the director of MMOCA.

“She said she just wanted to let me know that there has been an incident at the museum. She said there was a misunderstanding and a mother and her children thought that they could interact with (the) exhibit and they’ve painted some of the canvases and they want to know if they can take the canvases that they painted home with them,” Gee tells Madison365.

Apparently, they had already taken some of the canvases, which were eventually retrieved. The timeline of that allegation is not clear, as MMoCA officials have declined to discuss details.

Brungardt sent Gee pictures and security video of the destruction.

“I absolutely couldn’t believe it. And it was worse than I thought. And then actually I got the videos of the woman and the children when they stole the canvases,” Gee says.

All of the canvases were eventually retrieved. But the damage and the vandalism remained.

“On one canvas it looks clear that they painted a penis on it and they painted all over the board. There was paint on the floor. They open up a can of glitter and dumped that all over the table. They painted or drew on the faces of some of the girls that I had there. They f*cked it up,” Gee says, bluntly. “And so I’m watching the video and they had almost 30 or more minutes alone with my exhibit during which time they had their absolute way with it. 

“And as I was watching the video, I see a janitor walks right past them … and I’m talking about inches away. He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t do anything in it. And when he walked past them, they’re opening up the cans of paint. They’re pulling off the canvas on the table,” Gee continues. “And it’s 15 or 20 minutes after the janitor walks past and sees them doing this to my exhibit that someone comes in the room. So he took no immediate action. Additionally, they were supposed to have someone monitoring the rooms during open hours to avoid exactly what happened and I will tell you that they had a half-hour to 40 minutes alone with my exhibit.”

Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
(Photo by David Dahmer)

Gee says that she paused for a moment before responding to Brungardt’s call late Friday afternoon.

“Wait a minute. You’re calling me to tell me that someone vandalized my exhibit. And you want to know if they can take home the canvases that they vandalized? I said, ‘why are you calling me and asking me this?’ She says, ‘Well, I promised them that I would ask.’ And I said, ‘This is so disrespectful. I cannot believe you have called me to ask me this question. I’m getting off this call.’ She says, ‘Can I call you back?’ I said, ‘No, do not call me back.’”

Madison365 had several questions about this incident and reached out to talk to Brungardt, who responded late Tuesday afternoon.

“There are some things I can’t really discuss just because of the nature of things,” Brungardt tells Madison365. “I can say that we are truly saddened that this has happened and we deeply apologize to Lilada for what’s transpired. Honestly, it’s entirely against everything we hoped for with this exhibition and our engagement with artists in our protection of art. But out of respect for the artist and the feedback we’re waiting on from her, as well as the investigation, we really can’t discuss it in any further detail at this time.

“My heart goes out to her. We absolutely adore working with Lilada and I cannot imagine the amount of trauma this is causing,” she adds.

Later that day, MMoCA emailed a statement to Madison365:

“The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art staff and Board of Trustees are saddened
and deeply concerned by the incident on Friday, June 24, 2022, when an adult visitor
and two children caused damage to an installation by artist Lilada Gee. The Museum
would like to issue a heartfelt apology to Lilada Gee for what has transpired.

The incident is particularly troubling in light of the fact that the 2022 Wisconsin Triennial,
Ain’t I A Woman?, an exhibition in which Gee joined 22 other Black female and femme
artists with ties to Wisconsin, has been so well received by visitors from Madison and
around the region.

The Museum has been in communication with Gee and the Guest Curator of Ain’t I A
Woman? about the incident, but cannot make any further public comment while the
the incident is under investigation.”

Gee tells Madison365 that she remains unsatisfied in her quest to find out who vandalized her exhibit and why they were able to vandalize it so easily.

“And the director took it upon herself to decide she wasn’t going to press charges and then sent a message to me asking: Do I want to press charges? And I’m wondering why is that being put on me to decide since I’m not the director,” Gee says.

“This is a major museum in a capital city in which someone walked in and vandalized and demolished my exhibited piece, stole elements of it and then I’m being asked if I want to press charges,” Gee says. “So they are essentially abdicating any responsibility. So is art safe at MMoCA? I should even clarify that: is Black art safe at MMoCA?”

Gee says there were about two dozen artists that were part of the “Ain’t I a Woman” exhibit. No other incidents of vandalism have been reported.

“The original intent of this piece was to tell the stories of silenced and invisible Black girls. The original intent of that was interrupted by the first incident with the Overture Center employee,” Gee says. “Now I’m telling the story of what too many Black women face ourselves about being interrupted — the micro and macroaggressions and all of these things that happen to us that lend themselves to all the stress-related diseases that Black women top the list of. So now this is the story I’m trying to tell with this piece. And then this is destroyed and treated, in my opinion, without honor by the director by calling and saying this to me and by not pressing charges.

“What if this was a piece on loan from some well-known national artist? What would they do then? I don’t put myself on the same level as that, but I love my art as much as they do,” she adds.

Ain’t I A Woman?, which highlights an intergenerational group of Black women artists working across different disciplines, including murals, printmaking, sculpture, painting, performance, textiles, and more, runs until Oct. 9 at MMoCA. Gee says that as far as she knows, her piece is still there … vandalized.

“It’s ludicrous. I was floored,” she says. “To see how long these people were able to be with my exhibit unsupervised and to see what they were allowed to do to it and the fact that one of their employees saw them do this and did nothing. It gets worse and worse.”

Beyond being a beloved Madison artist, Gee is the founder and president of Defending Black Girlhood and Black Women Heal, a Madison-based nonprofit that educates, empowers, engages and equips Black women and girls in the healing from and the prevention of sexual abuse in our communities.

“Ain’t I A Woman?” was supposed to be a very special time for her to work among other Black women artists in a safe space where she would be able to show off her talents to the greater Madison art community. Instead, she has been traumatized.

Twice.

“I really want people to understand the attack that Black women are under and the stress that we are constantly inundated with and the disrespect and the ridiculousness and the harassment that we face. This is the headiness of what it means to be a Black woman who tries to do anything positive, even just painting,” Gee says. “I’m not marching. I’m not vandalizing anything. I’m not attacking anyone. I’m just trying to live my best life. And this is what we have to constantly face. So now I’m trying to find the balance of dealing with this situation and keeping myself in a place where I’m not going to harm my own health because I’m so stressed out.”