In an exclusive interview with Modern Art Notes, Central Indiana Community Foundation president Brian Payne [right] explained why he suspended fabrication of Fred Wilson’s E Pluribus Unum and how the process toward moving forward with the piece would continue. Payne did not rule out terminating CICF’s support for Wilson’s sculpture, but emphasized that CICF is committed to fully enabling a community conversation about the work. Payne said that CICF will spend at least $20,000 to hold a series of conversations about the sculpture and that he would go back to his board to ask for more money if necessary.
Titled E Pluribus Unum (below left), Wilson’s sculpture was commissioned by the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, a city-neighborhood-connecting pedestrian and bicycle path. CICF is the sole funder of E Pluribus Unum. Last week MAN examined the story (brief intro here too) of Wilson’s sculpture and the sometimes-contentious, sometimes-illuminating community reaction to it.
Wilson, who describes describes himself as being of “African, Native American, European and Amerindian” descent, is best known for creating installations that engage and question the traditional display of art and artifacts. In 1999 he was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ grant and he is a trustee at the Whitney Museum of American Art. CICF is a major Indianapolis-area foundation. In 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, CICF made $36 million in grants to Indiana charities and is the steward of $480 million in assets.
“Here’s the tricky thing,” Payne said in a phone interview. “This is now not seen as just a piece of public art, something that people like or don’t like. It has become a catalyst for a more complex conversation around race, identity and racial conflict over the generations. It has kind of stirred something up. In a way, as a former theater producer, I celebrate any piece of public art that has the power to get the community thinking and talking — and that doesn’t happen enough in our community. It’s not just about whether this is a public art piece that people like or don’t like, or is boring or not or love or don’t love. It’s not a ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ piece of public art. It’s a symbol for race and identity, and that’s a much bigger conversation that has to happen.”
“We hope it will,” Payne said. “We don’t want to put a piece in which becomes this huge focus of racial unrest. We’d rather have this conversation happen beforehand and, by the time the piece comes up, it gets celebrated for creating a possibility for positive conversation rather than a symbol of rage and unhappiness.”
Payne may be overstating things a bit: The phrase “racial unrest” is typically used to describe tension or conflict between two different racial groups. Nothing of the sort is in play in Indianapolis: As I wrote about last week, Wilson’s sculpture has re-ignited a long-standing conversation within African-American communities about how African-Americans should be depicted and whether mining America’s slavery era (or the immediate post-slavery era) for imagery is constructive.
So far the two major venues for that conversation have been Indianapolis’ Madame Walker Theater, where attendees say that an event last month was effectively taken over by hooligans who shouted down Wilson, Payne and an event facilitator, and on the Amos Brown radio show, where Wilson, Brown and callers engaged in a smart, expansive conversation on art and the depiction of African-Americans. (Payne told me that he thought callers to Brown’s show ran roughly 3-to-1 in favor of Wilson’s project, which sounds about right to me. Perhaps even more importantly, the conversation on Brown’s show was substantive and thoughtful.)
This week the ICT and CICF began a series of smaller, 15-20-person meetings about the sculpture, meetings aimed at enabling thoughtful discourse about the sculpture and at discouraging the type of behavior that marred the 270-attendee community meeting at the Madame Walker Theater. Payne said that those smaller meetings will also determine how broad and deep opposition to the Wilson sculpture is in Indy’s African-American community.
“That’s the problem,” Payne said. “We don’t know how broad the opposition to the Wilson is. What we do know from what turned into kind of a ‘town-hall meeting’ — with the worst connotations of what town-hall meetings became in the political arena over the last year — is that there are a dozen or so people, maybe two dozen, who have become vocal, very vocal, very energetic, very passionate and somewhat organized in opposition. I just got off the phone with the leader of that opposition. I told him that what I do not want to do is let 20 loud people make the decision for the community. I will not do that. That’s why we think we need to have this series of conversations in a small group settings, places where a small group that hijacks a meeting to get on TV can’t do that. And then we can make an assessment.”
Payne refused to commit CICF to a timeline or to give a date by which a decision on moving forward with or withdrawing CICF funding from Wilson’s project would be made. He said that CICF would be having a series of internal meetings about the artwork today and that the CICF would announce more “next steps” over the next couple of weeks. If 400 people want to be heard and engaged in a conversation about E Pluribus Unum, Payne said CICF would create 20 community forums so that dialogue could happen in a civil way.
“We think that Fred’s project is the catalyst for all this and I celebrate the positive opposition we have in this community, its willingness to dig into some conversations that a lot of people think has needed to happen for some time,” Payne said. “I’m now seeing this as bigger than just Fred Wilson’s artwork. We now see this as a community conversation sponsored by the Central Indiana Community Foundation. It’s not an issue of this ‘blowing up the budget’ for Fred’s piece. I’ve committed to $20,000 for those conversations. If they’re longer and more expensive, then I’d need to make the case to my board that we need to make this a priority.”
Related: If I was a high school civics teacher or if I taught at a college or art school, I’d devote my next class to playing this Amos Brown radio show with Fred Wilson for my class. It’s the conversation we all say we want art to initiate and sustain. [Update: There seems to be an audio file error on the page. When it's fixed, I'll remove this update and I'll post an update via Twitter and Facebook.]
Recent media coverage: The Indianapolis Star has all but ignored the story, as has the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s blog. In the Indy alt-weekly Nuvo, David Hoppe takes a smart look at the controversy. In our interview, Payne referred to how the conversation about E Pluribus Unum has become about more than just Wilson’s artwork. Case in point: Talk show-host Brown has come out in opposition to Wilson’s art work… unless “the funders behind the trail commit, seriously commit, several million dollars over the next 10 years for grants encouraging local African-American artists and artisans to create positive works to be displayed on the trail, downtown and in our neighborhoods.”