Gallery Curator Fired* After Defending Exhibit of Contemporary Indian Art

Nov 15th, 1993 | By | Category: 5-3: Medicine, Tribal College News
CLAIRMONTS MT RUSHMORE PIECE

Silhouette figures viewing Mt. Rushmore. Dark figures represent an Indian family. Light figures are regular tourists. All are wearing reflective glasses.

An exhibit featuring the art of Corwin Clairmont in Great Falls, Montana turned into an unexpected controversy this fall and led to the removal* of the gallery’s curator.

Clairmont, an artist and administrator at Salish Kootenai College, partici­pated in an exhibit called “Rebirth of a Culture: Four Native American Artists” in October at the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art.

One of his pieces, depicting tourists viewing Mt. Rushmore, led local school officials to cancel a planned third grade field trip. Curator Barbara Racker defended the exhibit, over objections from her board, and appears to have lost her job as a result, according to Clairmont.

The controversial piece shows two families, paint­ed as silhouette figures, viewing Mt. Rushmore. Reflected in the sunglasses of the white tourists are photographs of the Mt. Rushmore presidents. But reflected in the sunglasses of an Indian family are the presidents depicted as skulls.

Great Falls public school superintendents canceled the field trip after preview­ing the art work. They said the exhibit was inappropri­ate for the children and argued that teachers were not trained to talk about the images and their meaning.

Curator Racker dis­agreed and “made com­ments to the media that the show wasn’t inappro­priate,” says Clairmont.

For his part, Clairmont believes larger issues are at stake. “The controversy was around acceptance of diversity, people and cul­tures,” he says. But he also believes the issue became distorted. “I don’t think it was as controversial as it was portrayed.”

He stresses that most of the public and arts community supported his work and the other exhibits. “Most individu­als, according to the muse­um staff, didn’t understand what all the fuss was over,” he says.

The complete exhibit will be recreated this June in Kalispell, Montana at the Hockaday Center for the Arts.


*CORRECTION

The following editorial comments and letters concerning the article above appeared in Tribal College,Vol. 6, No. 2, page 6.

Curator Put on Probation, Not Fired 

In the Winter 1994 issue of Tribal College, we reported that an exhibit by several Indian artists at a Great Falls, Montana art museum had caused a controversy. School administrators, after previewing the exhibit, which included a piece by Salish Kootenai College administrator Corwin Clairmont, canceled a planned tour by third grade children. The curator, Barbara Racker, opposed this decision. We reported she had been fired. 

Editor:

I am writing in response to a copy of an article from the Winter 1994 issue of Tribal College which I recently received in the mail. I would greatly appreciate it if you would print a retraction for the article in your next issue, as it is grossly incorrect.

The first and major error is that our Curator of Arts, Barbara Racker, was not fired and remains on staff. She did not lose her job over the controversy. Secondly, Corwin Clairmont’s work was part of a larger 3-part exhibit. The combined, multicultural exhibits Life, Death and Rebirth were deemed inappropriate for third grade students by the school principals who toured the exhibit prior to its opening. Although third grade tours did not visit this exhibit, older groups from the school district did and third grade tours were resumed for future exhibitions.

We do our best to follow our Mission Statement which reads in part: “Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art is dedicated to the preservation, interpretation and display of art that reflects the needs, interests and cultural diversity of its audience…” 

Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson
Executive Director
Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art 

Editor: 

I was dismayed to read the headline “Gallery Curator Fired After Defending Exhibit of Contemporary Indian Art” in your recent article for Tribal College. While I do feel the article is accurate in most points, I was not fired from my position as curator but put on probation and Corky’s installation was only one of several objections from elementary principals.

Although not a common practice, a preview tour of the three exhibitions with the principals was scheduled by the Great Falls Public Schools art supervisor because she had “concerns” about the exhibits. During the tour, which I conducted, three major objections were voiced—Corky’s Mt. Rushmore piece was “offensive” according to one principal; most of the group was concerned about female frontal nudity in one of Ernie Pepion’s large canvases; several others were concerned about the religious content and skeleton imagery in Day of the Dead and they unanimously balked at the doll parts in a fish tank which was part of an installation by Montana artist Jennifer Bottomly.

I definitely agree with Corky’s assessment that “The controversy was around acceptance of diversity, people and cultures.” I felt very strongly that the story should go public, as the interim director at the time indicated that there would be no arguments with the school district about the cancellation of tours. Against the written directive of this director and the board, I made the story public and was punished for it. While I received unanimous support from the statewide arts community throughout the controversy, I received little support from the Great Falls community and do believe that I narrowly escaped dismissal.

Since that controversy last September, we have hired a new director who, I feel, is more sensitive to these issues and I have been off of probation for months. I, by the way, am the author of Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art’s latest Mission Statement which reads, “PGSMOA is dedicated to the preservation, interpretation and display of art that reflects the needs, interests and cultural diversity of its audience.”

I continue to believe that I acted in the most professional and ethical manner and have no regrets. I know you have received by now the “official” Museum response to your story from Bonnie Laing- Malcolmson, but wanted to communicate with you, as a private citizen, my perceptions of the issue. 

Barbara Racker
Curator
Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art

Editor’s Note: At the time our story was being written, several local and regional newspapers were reporting that Barbara Racker was being fired. We interviewed one of the featured artists, Corwin Clairmont, concerning his reaction to the controversy and, to a lesser degree, the apparent firing of Racker. The resulting story was based on these sources. 

Barbara Racker told us recently that only one reporter had ever talked to her directly. All other media, including the Tribal College journal, apparently relied on previously published stories and other sources, believing their reports of her dismissal to be accurate. In each case a fundamental principle of journalism was violated: They did not check with the source. The journal deeply regrets its error.

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