NORTHAMPTON — When members of this city’s arts council logged into a meeting in late September, few could have imagined a retired librarian’s artwork was about to torpedo their upcoming biennial, a popular juried show at the local library.
But then artist Jason Montgomery joined the meeting to voice his concerns about the upcoming exhibition, which was to showcase work by scores of artists from the four counties of Western Massachusetts. Montgomery, who is of Chicano and Indigenous descent, said he was particularly concerned about a print by Doris Madsen, whose work “400 Years Later, no. 4” portrays the Mayflower as it floats through a fog of spectral figures she’d previously described as Indigenous “ghosts.”
What unfolded over the next 100 minutes was a distinctly American drama, vintage 2021, that in the following weeks has riven this deep-blue enclave, pitting liberals against progressives amid charges of censorship, white supremacy, privilege, and moral panic.
Speaking to the arts council via Zoom, Montgomery launched his broadside: Not only had its members failed to notify BIPOC artists about the biennial, he charged, but the selection process excluded Indigenous artists. To include the racially charged work by Madsen, who is white, was a “worst-case scenario,” he said, where the biennial would instead elevate “a piece of genocide art from a white artist.”
“The idea that you would disregard Indigenous voices and Native voices, especially now, in favor of old white women who want to discuss this because suddenly it’s become something they’ve had to learn about — it’s reprehensible,” said Montgomery, 43, whose own work was not selected for the show. “You should cancel this event and go back to the drawing board, because you have neglected entire populations, and you are letting white people speak about the Native experience, and that is patently unacceptable.”
Within minutes, a white arts council member named Jesse Hassinger presented a motion to “postpone” the biennial, saying, “We as an arts community have done wrong.” Arts council members discussed other options, such as removing Madsen’s work. But by meeting’s end, just days before the exhibition’s Oct. 2 opening at the city’s Forbes Library, the majority-white council voted to abandon the Western Massachusetts Visual Arts and Poetry Biennial altogether, releasing a statement that it canceled the show, in part, because it contained “harmful genocidal art.”
“There’s too many times when people just kick the can down the road and say, ‘We’ll do it better next time,’” Hassinger said in an interview. “If I had not put that vote up, I would be complicit in silencing and not listening to the voices of the marginalized communities.”
It was an extraordinary turn of events, and in a community that prides itself on its social conscience and civility, the fallout has been dizzying.
Two council members have resigned in protest. Hassinger, who was running for City Council at the time, believes the vote may have contributed to his election loss. One juror has accused the arts council of endorsing Montgomery’s “racial stereotyping,” and Montgomery says he’s received threatening messages, been sworn at in public, and had people call his employer to demand he be fired for his demeaning comments about “old white women.” Meanwhile, the region’s arts community has taken to social media and the local newspaper, by turns criticizing the arts council for its knee-jerk censorship and praising its antiracist leadership.
“It was just outrageous,” said former arts council member Freeman Stein, who resigned after voting against cancellation. “These are not issues that are advancing the arts community.”
At a virtual meeting earlier this month, chair Danielle Amodeo said the arts council was still formulating an apology for its actions, but was hazy on the details: Would it be to BIPOC artists? To the judges, who volunteered their time in good faith? To artists who’d submitted work to the show? To the library, which was left with an empty gallery? To the artist whose work they’d called “genocidal”? Or would it be to the public, who’d been looking forward to the exhibition?
“We’re still in listening mode,” Amodeo said before opening the meeting to public comment. “We want to make sure that what we say next actually has meaning.”
In the meantime, Madsen, the 70-year-old artist whose work is at the heart of the dispute, said it’s been difficult to hear people describe her artwork as a form of violence.
“I don’t think it’s creating harm,” she said. “I feel like we’re on the same side.”
The cancellation is the latest in a series of decisions championed by a bloc of newer members of the volunteer arts council, a lively body that offers rich grant and programming opportunities. Hassinger characterized them as “progressives” who want to ensure “diversity and equity is something that is actualized rather than just spoken about.”
In April, the mayor-appointed arts council (where Brian Foote, the city’s director of arts and culture, serves in a nonvoting capacity as designated staff) voted to support a group demanding the city cut its Police Department budget in half to “stop police violence.” And in August, the arts council renamed “Transperformance,” an annual concert where bands “transform” into famous groups such as Toots and the Maytals, apologizing to trans members of the town’s sizable LGBTQ community “for any harm or negative impact using this name has caused.”
“It’s really become less of an arts council and more of a social justice council,” said Stephen Petegorsky, a former arts council member who’s been sharply critical of the cancellation. “The most horrifying aspect of this is the precedent that it sets — that it’s OK to cancel a show when somebody objects.”
But Amodeo, who abstained from the recent vote, said the move was part of the arts council “going above and beyond to correct past mistakes.”
“Redressing historical inequity doesn’t mean doing the minimum,” she said. “The arts council has been around for 40 years, so even if we had a 100 percent BIPOC-comprised biennial, it would not have been enough.”
Madsen, who started making art about 20 years ago, traditionally chose more anodyne subjects for her work, such as landscapes and maps. But that began to change about a year and a half ago, as the pandemic tightened its grip and the national discussion turned to race.
“The story of the Mayflower is a story of white supremacy,” she said in an interview, describing how she’d incorporated an image of the Mayflower embroidered by her mother into the contested artwork. “That was a story I wanted to tell.”
And there the troubles began.
Montgomery first encountered the print in late August at a virtual reception for the show “In This Together,” where Madsen discussed her artwork, noting it would be in the upcoming biennial.
Speaking via Zoom, she began by acknowledging the area’s Native groups before describing the work’s shadowy figures as “ghosts, which are Indigenous people.”
“They died,” Madsen said. “This is what happened. This is what our country was built upon.”
Indigenous artists and activists have become increasingly critical in recent years of white artists who portray Indigenous themes in their work, accusing them of cultural appropriation and treating Native cultures as vanished or frozen in time.
Montgomery, who took offense, approached Madsen privately to ask that she withdraw the print.
“I went to her as a colleague,” said Montgomery, who during an interview at his Easthampton studio wore a mask that said “decolonizer.” “Her take on the subject matter played into the idea of the historic savage.”
When Madsen, who now says she regrets using the term “ghosts,” refused, Montgomery took his concerns to the arts council, speaking with members of the equity committee and Ellen Augarten, the biennial’s lead organizer.
He also did his own research, talking to BIPOC artists such as Nayana LaFond, a First Nations painter whose Northampton studio is near the arts council’s office.
“I was completely unaware [the biennial] was even happening,” said LaFond, who cofounded Liberal Arts - Pop Up, a downtown-area gallery that shows work by some 50 local artists. “No one had even heard of it.”
For Montgomery, one of two poets laureate in Easthampton, the problem was clear: “Outreach wasn’t being done to communities of color,” he said. “They were being excluded.”
He also came to believe — erroneously, it would turn out — the jury consisted of just two people: an “Asian woman with an MFA from Yale” and a “white man.” At the arts council’s September meeting, he characterized the two as representing “the white art industrial complex.”
“When you choose white people, when you have them making the decisions, you end up with white people,” Montgomery said at the meeting, where he was joined by other Indigenous artists. “When you choose not to see color, you choose not to see us.”
In fact, as Augarten pointed out later in the meeting, it was a jury of three: a Latina, a white man, and an Asian American woman.
In the weeks since, critics have blasted the vote to cancel.
“The issue is censorship plain and simple,” said former arts council member Petegorsky. “When [Montgomery] went into his rant, I think it sent those council people into a moral panic.”
He added the arts council should have at least consulted with the jurors.
“They were charged with looking at the artwork and picking artwork that they felt had integrity, and that they did,” Petegorsky said, then paraphrased a friend: “Giving weight to oppressed voices is essential; treating them as infallible and automatically truth speaking is wrong.”
Montgomery has also come under fire for his dig at older white women and his mischaracterization of the jury.
“The insinuation is that I fulfilled the model minority myth and that I served in the interest of whiteness,” Asian American juror Jessica Tam wrote in a guest column for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where the row has stayed in the news. “It is extremely upsetting that a discussion of the misrepresentation of marginalized people included offensive views directed at another marginalized group at a council meeting, and the council allowed it.”
Montgomery has since apologized publicly to Tam.
Augarten acknowledged the arts council could have handled the jury and outreach process better. The region is home to diverse cities such as Holyoke and Springfield, and while nearly a quarter of the artists and poets selected for the show self-identified as being from a “marginalized group,” only a handful identified as BIPOC; most said they came from the LGBTQ community.
“Could we do better? Absolutely,” said Augarten, who noted there is no submission fee. But “over all these months of planning, nobody said anything about a problem with the process.”
Some newer council members disputed that claim, including Kent Alexander, an antiracism and workplace culture consultant who said the biennial had “been sticking in my craw.”
“When these complaints came up, it just confirmed my Spidey sense,” said Alexander, who is Black and called Madsen’s work offensive. “All I see is ships moving forward over a genocided people.”
Hassinger also pushed back, emphasizing he’d been concerned about flaws in the process. The decision is part of a broader cultural shift, he said, where some longer-serving members just “wanted to keep it light and airy and fun.”
“That’s fine for them,” he said, “but it’s not for some of us who are coming at this with a lens of, ‘We have had over 500 years of genocide.’ ”
Madsen sees the arts council’s response as out of proportion.
“It is very hurtful, and it’s unbelievable,” she said. “I mean, I’m not exhibiting at the Whitney or anything, you know, Northampton.”
Meanwhile, Montgomery says people continue to hurl abuse at him. He described an encounter at the laundromat where someone swore at him “as I was folding my children’s underwear.” He added that some visitors have left insulting notes at his art installation in Easthampton, a memorial to Indigenous children who perished in Canada’s infamous residential schools.
“They’re so concerned about [Madsen’s] feelings that they will desecrate a memorial to dead kids,” said Montgomery, pointing to a note that read, “Old white women count too!”
“I would face 1,000 Trump supporters rather than a roomful of progressives in Northampton,” he said. “At least I know where I stand.”