Northampton Arts Council issues formal apology for cancellation of 2021 Biennial exhibit

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NORTHAMPTON — Looking back to an incident that sparked controversy in fall 2021, the city’s Arts Council board has issued a formal apology for abruptly canceling its Biennial art exhibit days before it was set to open.

At the time, some local Indigenous artists complained of a lack of outreach to them for the exhibit and about the manner for selecting the art: a blind admissions process in which art was assessed by a three-judge panel. One artist also said a specific work selected for the exhibit had depicted Native Americans in a harmful way.

The Arts Council board, by a 4-2 vote with one abstention, decided to cancel the entire exhibit, which included about 60 works by regional visual artists and poets and was slated to open in Forbes Library. The exhibit had been staged every other year since about 2006.

That decision, though, sparked a backlash by others in the community, who said the Arts Council was censoring the artist, Doris Madsen of Easthampton, whose work had been criticized, and essentially punishing all the others who had spent time creating work for the show.

Some board members who disagreed with the decision resigned from the panel.

In a statement recently posted to the Arts Council website and released on social media and to artists — though not to the media — the board said it was apologizing “to all of those impacted by the cancellation of the 2021 Northampton Biennial and to those we excluded by failed outreach attempts, especially our local BIPOC communities.”

More specifically, the council said it regretted that “artists, jurors, and Forbes Library” had been invited into “a flawed process. To the artists, we apologize for taking away the opportunity to have your work on view. We acknowledge the time, effort, and expenses you put towards your participation in this event.”

“To the jurors and Forbes Library,” the post continues, “we’re sorry that we didn’t find a way to include you in the planning and the conversation around the cancellation. We regret that our practice was not inclusive of your experience, expertise, and voices.”

As they did previously, board members said their decision was driven in part by their belief that preparation for the exhibit did not meet the goals of an equity statement the council had previously adopted, which says in part “We affirm the need to redress historical inequities in the arts and cultural sector and commit to supporting equitable and inclusive practices through all aspects of our work.”

In some past meetings over the last year and a half, the board had discussed releasing an apology, though they said doing so would take time given the complexity of the issue and the volume of comments members had received from the public.

But an apology was also delayed for months in part because no meetings were held for a time last year, as there were not enough members to form a quorum.

Madsen, who has followed the Art Council’s Zoom meetings since fall 2021, said she was disappointed with the board’s response, both because it had taken so long for an official apology to be released, and because she had hoped the board would hold a larger public forum to discuss the issue.

“In Northampton it seems people will talk about almost anything, but I guess not in this case,” she said.

At the board’s March 14 meeting, members went over the succinct statement, hammered out over the past several months, and discussed continued goals outlined in the apology, such as ensuring future arts programming is built around “transparent work processes and communication” and that outreach is “equitable and diverse.”

“So, gut check — have we checked all those boxes tonight?” asked Danielle Amodeo, the board chair.

“I think we have,” said member Jo Ella Tarbutton.

The board’s statement also says members are committed to having “continued conversations around the issues raised by this Biennial process.”

Amodeo did not respond to an email asking if the Arts Council has discussed replacing the Biennial with another exhibit or event based on submissions of art from the public.

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