Northampton Arts Council to revisit cancellation of Biennial exhibition in fall 2021

Published: 9/21/2022 9:02:39 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The city’s Arts Council board is planning to revisit an issue that spurred controversy just about a year ago: the abrupt cancellation of its Biennial art exhibit.

On Sept. 13, the board, via Zoom, held its first official meeting since December 2021, as until recently it did not have enough members to form a quorum. The board now has 10 members; there are five vacant positions.

The board had planned to discuss the Biennial exhibit at its recent meeting but, because there were several other items on the agenda, decided it needed to schedule a separate forum to revisit the exhibit.

“It’s a complicated issue and it’s something we need a lot of time to discuss, not at the end of a … meeting,” said Danielle Amodeo, the board chair.

The issue cropped up late last September when some local Indigenous artists raised objections to the Biennial exhibit, saying they felt excluded because the Arts Council had failed to reach out to them for the show. One artist had also previously raised objections to a print in the exhibit for its depiction of Indigenous figures.

The Biennial had been a regular feature for the Arts Council since about 2006, a blind-juried exhibit featuring work from regional artists and poets. About 60 artists and poets were represented in the 2021 exhibit.

By a vote of 4 to 2, with one abstention, the Arts Council board decided to cancel the 2021 show just days before it was due to open at Forbes Library, releasing a statement at the time that the exhibit contained “harmful genocidal art” and that the selection process for the exhibit “did not include the voices and the art of (the Indigenous) community.”

That decision spurred objections from some people that the board was in effect censoring all the artists in the show, although others supported the move. The issue played out for weeks in social media, letters and op-eds in the Gazette, and in other forums. One board member resigned because of the decision, and the chief organizer of the Biennial, board volunteer Ellen Augarten, said she felt blindsided as well.

Amodeo said at the time that the board was working on an apology and explanation for its decision, but that the complexity of the issue and the volume of emails members had received precluded a quick response.

“We have to provide clear steps for what we’ll do to redress harm and how we can change,” Amodeo said in early November. “Until we do that, if we put forward an apology, it’s not going to mean much for any of you — to BIPOC artists or other artists, or to folks who just wanted to attend” the Biennial.

Last week, Amodeo told board members, including the newcomers, that “we’re kind of the new crew left to speak to this issue” and that it would be up to them to offer the public a response after months in which the board had not met.

Information on upcoming Arts Council meetings and agendas can be found at northamptonma.gov by clicking on the link for “Agendas & Minutes.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at [email protected]

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