Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

MAN exclusive: CICF’s Brian Payne on Fred Wilson

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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.”

I asked Payne if that wasn’t exactly what he’d want an artwork to do: to initiate and sustain community engagement and conversation.

“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.”

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  1. Tyler, There was coverage by the Indianapolis Star – please follow the link…. http://www.indystar.com/article/20101020/ENTERTAINMENT/10200328/Sculptor-crowd-face-off-at-meeting

    Reading the article suggests that the opposition came, at least in part from the African-American community. Wilson expressed surprise at the opposition to his conceptual design; the implication being that he was blind-sided by the black community – at least in part.

    Most of the folks depicted from the photo-documentation of the meeting do not appear to be hooligans in the seminal english soccer delinquent tradition.

    Wilson is also copying a portion of an existing sculpture down to the fingertips and supplicant posturing – likely originally created by a white male… In addition, he is being paid an extraordinary sum (compared to what I collect for original – one of a kind- no prints ever made… works of art, to make this copy. He is also merely embellishing on this portion of this work.

    I understand his desire to express his vision of the African diaspora, but should this not be in an original; rather than derivative fashion.

    Wilson responded to audience criticism of the concept with a rigid rejection of being asked to re-think what he proposed to execute in stone. If this is to be a community art piece – whether funded by public or private money, then perhaps the community should have a say in the concept and final design.

    I can create as I wish for works funded by myself – they are part of my vision and I can draw upon many sources and incorporate elements of historic visual art into them if I choose. Then the public decides if the works are worthy of payment for… the market deciding.

    However, art in a public place needs to have the smell test applied to it – much like the supreme court’s decisions on what is and isn’t pornography… The law of the land in this matter is based upon community standards. So it should be with publically funded art. If the black community is making the critical commentary citing the work as appearing like a lawn-jockey; obviously it offends them and additional discussion is required.

    And to compare the radio station conversation to the public forum is specious………. All callers were screened on the radio broadcast and had the potential to be bleeped or cut at any point decided by the show host or production staff. The radio conversation was another point of view, but so is Sarah Palin being interviewed on FOX News compared to an interview on NPR.

    I’d be glad to compete for the work at 1/3rd the fee mentioned and involve a community group of representatives in order to aptly capture how and what the community would like to see. Wilson said that the concept was complete and not subject to change. His artistic freedom should be balanced by the will of the people to fund it.

    Another perspective can be found here in a letter in a letter to the Indianaoplis Recorder from Mr. Leroy Robinson. It is very telling and perhaps a calm reflection of a community aspiration… http://www.indianapolisrecorder.com/articles/2010/09/20/opinion/letters/doc4c921b10e6546255668376.txt

    I admire Mr. Wilson’s ability to be paid, but not necessarily his ability to collaborate with the community to be served by the derivative work proposed.

  2. Chris Miller says:

    The scope of public participation is as much of an issue here as the proposed artwork itself.

    The Indianapolis Cultural Trail has a blog, so why doesn’t the organization use it to host online discussions of this issue?

    And why is the its board of directors so heavily weighted by artworld professionals — as if the trail project were intended to serve them insead of the community at large?

    The kind of hero-worship art that Leroy Robinson calls for may an anathema in the small world of contemporary art curators and college art professors, but it has had a very strong cross-cultural, trans-world appeal to humanity over the past 5,000 years.

    And isn’t the Wilson proposal already accomplishing it’s goal of getting people to cogitate various issues regarding race and American history? Is there still a need to pump a few millon dollars more into contructing it and damaging the aesthetic space of the historic monument on which it will sit?

  3. […] museum storage. Maybe it’s because this year I heard Fred Wilson speak three times about his much-discussed project for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, E Pluribus Unum, but when I turned the corner to see […]

  4. […] 8.) “E Pluribus Unum,” by Fred Wilson (proposed, at right). The most thoughtful work of public art proposed in years, Wilson’s sculpture kicked off a city-wide conversation from which art and artists too often shy away. Wilson’s engagement with the residents of Indianapolis should be a model for other artists. Look for an update on MAN soon. (On MAN: Introducing the project, talking with Wilson, talking with funder Brian Payne.) […]

  5. Marjorie Tucker says:

    This article clearly shows how Brian Payne is totally disconnected from the community he claims to serve, and especially shows his complete disconnect from the African American community in Indianapolis. For Mr. Payne to credit this artist with sparking any kind of racial dialogue in this city shows how unaware and uninformed he truly is. Conversations regarding the state of race relations in this city have been going on for years, before anyone here even metioned Fred Wilson. Mr. Payne’s comments speak to the real state of race relations in this city. The thoughts, concerns and feelings of the African American community is almost always an afterthought, just as the “slave” image that Mr. Wilson is “re-interpreting” from the city’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument was to the original artist, Rudolph Swartz, and is NEVER taken seriously. Mr. Payne and the Cultural Trail have sought input from those whom they thought were “leaders” in the African American community for over a year, and the response was overwhelming that this so-called, public art/sculpture/monument was not welcome, and that the image itself is sending the wrong message if it was placed on the “Cultural Trail”. Slavery is not “cultural,” it is a shameful part of this nation’s history, even in the “free state” of Indiana. The fact that we are even having this discussion, after the CICF and the Cultural Trail have heard from our community for over a year, speaks volumes regarding the paternalistic approach they continue to take toward this project.

  6. Marjorie Tucker says:

    just as the “slave” image that Mr. Wilson is “re-interpreting” from the city’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument was to the original artist, Rudolph Swartz, and is NEVER taken seriously.

    In my passion and haste, I listed the incorrect name of the original designer of the Indianapolis Solidiers and Sailors Monument. His name was Bruno Schmitz.

    Marjorie Tucker

  7. […] result of the apparent inability of the project’s supporters and funders to move forward with their own plans, opponents of the Wilson project are attempting to seize  the initiative with a potentially […]

  8. […] to the project has been in question for months. As I reported on MAN yesterday, nine months ago CICF president Brian Payne said that his organization planned to hold a series of public meetings in an effort to foster […]

  9. […] I don’t know if this is good news or not: Today the Joyce Foundation announced that it would give $50,000 to the Central Indiana Community Foundation to help realize Fred Wilson’s E Pluribus Unum (at right) in Indianapolis. (Background: Last October MAN examined Wilson’s sculpture and the conversations it has started in Indianapolis here, here and here.) […]

  10. […] about Wilson’s proposed sculpture. CICF first announced that it would hold these meetings last November, but in the 11 months since no meetings have been held. The original purpose of the public forums […]

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