After interviewing artist Fred Wilson, whose controversial “slave” design for the Cultural Trail has engendered much discussion and controversy, I have a better understanding of what he’s trying to do.
Interviewed the day after an abysmally facilitated meeting at the Madame Walker Theatre, Wilson came across as a principled artist with a particular vision he wants placed in Indianapolis’ downtown.
The problem is Wilson’s vision is totally unrealistic, given the longstanding problems the Indianapolis cultural community has with its largest minority community.
In our exclusive, unedited interview on WTLC-AM (1310’s) “Afternoons with Amos,” Wilson said he hoped his work would be the catalyst for encouraging more African-American oriented public art in Indianapolis, whether downtown or in our neighborhoods.
The problem is 108 years after the only African-American statue image (of a slave) was placed downtown, our African-American community believes it’ll be another 108 years before more Black public art will be financed here.
Wilson’s visit also exposed the hypocrisy, insensitivity and borderline bigotry of Indy’s mainstream cultural community.
The Indianapolis Cultural Trail invited Wilson to explain his artistic vision at a public meeting at the Walker. Trail officials knew the deep feelings Wilson’s vision had generated in our community, especially after teacher and former IPS Board member Leroy Robinson’s letter was published in this newspaper.
So, adding fuel to the fire, the trail officials hired a Black total stranger to our community, a professional facilitator from Minneapolis, to facilitate the meeting.
It was a train wreck. The trail’s hired gun couldn’t handle those who wanted a fair opportunity to articulate their views in opposition to Wilson and the Cultural Trail’s leadership.
Trail officials also disrespected Wilson by giving him a cursory introduction. Never has any African-American “celebrity” or “renowned” individual received such a shabby introduction in such a historic theater.
In our live interview, Wilson said that the Cultural Trail approached him to create art for the trail. Wilson’s E Pluribus Unum “slave” idea was his only proposal. A trail committee signed off on Wilson’s idea; offering no objections or pushback.
Two of the 12 members of the committee are African-American. (A poor representation in a 27 percent Black city).
At the Walker event and in an interview in September, the Cultural Trail’s biggest cheerleader, Brian Payne, and trail curator Mindy Taylor Ross continued to insult our community by repeatedly refusing to say who are the African-Americans on the trail’s committee that oversaw and OK’d Wilson’s proposal.
Let me tell you who they are. One is Jay Parnell, described by the trail as “an individual artist.” Parnell was made available to talk to media last week; but not Black media.
The other is Fred Shields, co-founder of Primary Colours, a “local non-profit artist collective and art organization.”
Parnell and Shields may be African-American, but they have no connection to our African-American community, especially our Black cultural institutions. In fact, no one from any Black cultural institution is represented on the Cultural Trail’s committee. The only Black organization listed as a “community partner” is the Urban League.
It’s that elitism and disdain towards our African-American community by mainstream arts organization that’s fueling our community’s distrust of Wilson’s proposal.
Another recent example concerns the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA).
Recently, the IMA laid-off 55 security guards and gallery attendants. The attendants were those friendly men and women in blazers and ties you saw in the museum’s galleries over the years. For many, those attendants and guards were the only “color” Blacks saw at IMA other than the artwork.
IMA officials, citing a need for “better security” terminated the guards, replacing them with outside security guards to patrol the IMA grounds and tried to replace the attendants with IUPUI work-study students.
But after IUPUI got cold feet on the deal, IMA officials offered to rehire the laid off attendants, in new positions called “visitor assistants” with some different skills sets, like foreign language knowledge, which IMA had never bothered to train the gallery attendants for.
What insults me and many in our Black community is that 73 percent of the laid-off gallery attendants were African-American; with a disproportionate number over age 40.
So, the same institution that has several of its employees knee-deep in trying to ram an insensitive artwork down our community’s throat is the same institution that badly treated loyal Black IMA employees.
Despite gaining new respect for Fred Wilson’s career and work and vision, I remain unalterably opposed to having his vision placed on the Cultural Trail in front of the City-County Building. Put it at IMA or the many galleries on Mass Avenue or Fountain Square, places reflecting the majority community’s culture, because Wilson’s work doesn’t reflect the culture of our Black community.
The only way I would relent in my opposition is if 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.
As local artist Sonny Bates eloquently said at the Walker, it’s time local artists and local people have their artwork showcased in their own city.
And since the Cultural Trail plans more community discussions, they can begin with having local facilitators, instead of paying a fortune for insensitive out of towners.
Then take the cash they save and start that fund for local African-American public art. Then I’ll know the majority arts community is serious about respecting Fred Wilson’s vision; and not using him as cannon fodder.
What I’m hearing
in the streets
Like a fungus, Republicans are resurging and things politically may be bleak for a while. But, you have the power to continue to make Indianapolis a shining island of blue in a sea of tea party-flavored red. By doing one thing – voting! Let’s overcome our fears and our divisions and get out and vote Election Day Nov. 2!
Our African-American community could surprise Tuesday with your vote. And begin the march to restore some sanity to the City-County Building. Because the race for the mayor’s office starts Wednesday, Nov. 3!
See ‘ya next week.
You can e-mail comments to Amos Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.