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CAM curator Uslip resigns after Walker exhibition controversy

Visitors to the Contemporary Art Museum are now (Sept. 30, 2016) greeted by warning signs and a wall that went up in front of Kelley Walker's Direct Drive exhibit following criticism and outrage of the work.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Visitors to the Contemporary Art Museum are now (Sept. 30, 2016) greeted by warning signs and a wall that went up in front of Kelley Walker's Direct Drive exhibit following criticism and outrage of the work.

Updated at 1:40 p.m. Oct. 10 — Chief curator Jeffrey Uslip is leaving St. Louis' Contemporary Art Museum for another institution.

Uslip's departure follows weeks of controversy over CAM's current solo exhibition by white artist Kelley Walker that some found demeaning to African-Americans. Three CAM employees and others had called the museum to remove Uslip shortly after the exhibition, "Direct Drive," opened Sept. 16.

In a news release, the Contemporary did not say where Uslip is going or whether he will remain in St. Louis.

Jeffrey Uslip
Credit Welsey Law
Jeffrey Uslip

The show, curated by Uslip, features a large-scale image of a scantily clad female rapper from the cover of a men's magazine, smeared with toothpaste. It also includes an iconic Birmingham civil rights photo, splashed with chocolate, and a nearly white, washed-out image of Michael Jackson.

Concerns about "Direct Drive" drew public attention after an artist's talk during which Walker was asked to explain his work.

Uslip shut down the discussion after artist Damon Davis questioned Walker about his use images that feature black people. Davis later called for a boycott, the removal of the four controversial pieces of the exhibition and an apology to the black community. More voices of dissent, including those of the CAM employees, joined the chorus. CAM responded by posting a warning in the lobby and a wall around the works in question.

But for some in St. Louis, the museum isn't close to moving past the controversy.

Davis said Monday that the announcement of Uslip’s departure isn’t enough. He said Uslip is moving on without taking responsibility for bringing Walker’s show to St. Louis. 

“I just think he was operating inside of a bubble without the context of the greater majority of people that are living lives in St. Louis," Davis said. "I don’t think he took them into consideration.” 

Davis hopes Uslip learns from the criticism — and that CAM makes an astute decision with its next hire.

“Hopefully whoever comes here understands the climate they’re coming into,” he said.

In the release, CAM director Lisa Melandri said the museum will begin a national search for Uslip's replacement.

"This is a pivotal time for the museum and for our community, as we examine museum and curatorial best practices and apply those to everything we do at CAM," Melandri said. "We look forward to our future, which will be informed not only by our new curator, but also by CAM staff and by our cultural and civic leaders.”

For Davis the controversy represents a larger issue within art institutions: people at the top are not completely in touch with the communities they serve. What's needed, he said, is a better cultural awareness.

"The demographic of people that are in the high art world are usually rich white people that don’t have to deal with poor black people or marginalized people of any sort," Davis said. "So he’s still going to get to do what he wants to until somebody like us walks in and challenges him again.”

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Follow Willis Ryder Arnold on Twitter: @WillisRArnold

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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