Artists’ Night keeps up the push for equity in Madison’s art world

The counter-programming to MMoCA’s Gallery Night returns June 2 and 3 in multiple venues around the city.
A photo shows artist Mars Patterson sitting on the sidewalk in front of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Behind them are signs, flowers, and other materials displayed as part of a protest. One sign reads "Truth burns up error—Sojourner Truth." Another reads "True resistance begins with people confronting pain... and wanting to do something to change it. —bell hooks." The glass exterior of the museum lobby is also visible in the background.
Artist Mars Patterson during a fall 2022 protest outside the Wisconsin Triennial at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Via Patterson’s Instagram.

The counter-programming to MMoCA’s Gallery Night returns June 2 and 3 in multiple venues around the city.

Madison, under its liberal surface, still has a great deal of structural white supremacy and systemic racism to dismantle, and 2022 showed that the local art world is no exception. The 2022 Wisconsin Triennial exhibition at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, subtitled Ain’t I A Woman, Milwaukee-based guest curator Fatima Laster set out to highlight work from Black women, non-binary, and gender non-conforming artists. But a couple of ugly confrontations before and during the exhibition, and the museum’s defensive response to these incidents, eventually prompted about half of the artists to withdraw their work from the show. The artists and their allies in the community went much further than that, launching an organized effort to apply public pressure on MMoCA’s upper management and board. They held public protests and created a website, fwd: truth. It documented a range of grievances with MMoCA’s handling of the show, charging, among other things, that the museum installed artwork improperly, under-compensated the artists, didn’t provide enough security to protect the artwork, and failed to adequately promote the exhibition.

The Triennial closed—with a protest—in October. But the organized response never ended. Beyond the meltdown of one major exhibition, it’s about demanding accountability from Madison’s prominent arts institutions, and keeping up a sustained push for greater equity in the art world. Dozens of artists and more than a dozen local venues pledged to boycott MMoCA’s twice-annual citywide Gallery Night. At the end of October 2022, they counter-programmed a gallery night of their own and called it, Artists’ Night—a night of celebrating artists, fighting for equity, and building a space where everyone is given the opportunity to flourish. The event will return June 2 through 3, encompassing art shows at nearly 30 locations around Madison.  

“I felt very strongly that MMoCA wasn’t gonna do anything about the requests that artists and arts organizations have made of them to make amends,” says Jennifer Bastian, director of Madison arts non-profit Communication, which took the lead on coordinating Artists’ Night. (Full disclosure: Communication is also Tone Madison‘s partner organization). 

The museum’s public statements and actions over the past year stand in stark contrast to a public outcry that initially focused on the treatment of Madison-based artist Lilada Gee. In March 2022, Madison365 reported that Gee “was verbally assaulted and belittled by a physically aggressive Overture Center of the Arts employee” while working on her installation for the Triennial. (Overture and MMoCA are technically separate institutions, but share the same building on State Street.) Overture fired the employee and Gee eventually decided to remain in the exhibition, leaving her work intentionally unfinished as a reflection on the confrontation. The show opened in April. In June, an adult and two children visited the museum vandalized Gee’s work and even tried to steal parts of it. MMoCA didn’t issue a statement on the bizarre incident until contacted by Madison365, which also broke that story.

An extensive timeline on the fwd: truth website details MMoCA’s delayed public response to both incidents, but also charges that museum leadership dragged its feet on communicating about the incidents with Laster and the Triennial artists. The museum’s statement about the June incident did offer “heartfelt apology to Lilada Gee for what has transpired,” but this didn’t approach the deeper accountability and institutional change that artists were calling for as they began withdrawing from the Triennial. As the story about the defacement of Gee’s work spread through the local press and national art publications last summer, MMoCA leadership offered only sparing public comment and in some cases did not respond to reporters’ questions at all. On August 24—a full two months after the June incident—the museum added fuel to the fire by issuing a statement attributed only to the “MMoCA Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees,” without even including the names of said board members. It accused MMoCA’s critics of “leveling inappropriate and unfounded accusations of institutional racism for [the board’s] handling of this unique situation.” In a September 15 statement, MMoCA leadership pledged to start a “truth and reconciliation” project, but the fwd:truth website charges that the museum “did not involve or notify the 2022 Wisconsin Triennial artists about this project” and there has been little word about it from MMoCA since.

In October 2022, volunteer-run Communication organized a protest in front of the museum in solidarity with the artists who had withdrawn from the Triennial and the curator Fatima Laster. Marking the closing of the Triennial, the protest also tied in with broader concerns Bastian and others in the art community have raised about the under-compensation of artists in Madison. “The number of Black women given money at the level of the Triennial is close to zero,” Bastian says. “We’re not gonna have that anymore.” Bastian still wants the Triennial  artists to get accountability from the museum’s leadership. Artists’ Night represents an ongoing effort to give marginalized artists space in the conversation about an infrastructure that upholds white supremacy.

“I hope that something changes for [MMoCA],” Bastian says. “I hope they realize that this is not just in the past but we are still talking about this and the art community is not gonna stop.” As an artist and arts administrator, she has used her platform to speak against inequity in the arts. Communication has chosen to boycott the event and all of MMoCA’s programs and encourage arts organizations to pull their support from MMoCA and put their money and support where their values lie as much as possible.

The inaugural Artists’ Night in fall 2020 was put together in less than six weeks because of the urgency to provide another means for artists to showcase their work. “The people who are most impacted should not do the most labor about it,” Bastian says. “As a white-led arts organization, it makes the most sense for us to do the work.” Bastian wants to use the bonds those in the city have created as artists and art coordinators to demand more for the most marginalized artists. 

“There are not enough opportunities for artists in this city,” Bastian says. “On top of that, it’s such a hard time to be an artist in Madison because of the money.” Many artists are forced to work multiple jobs just to live, eat, and pay rent, causing people to leave the increasingly expensive city in droves. And so, Communication staff and volunteers have worked to make the application fees lower and more accessible, to provide flyers, posters, and postcards for the event around the city, and to highlight the different exhibiting artists on social media. 

A sweater from Dripsphere. Photo via

“We don’t need to be represented by just one part of the city, and as an art community, we can represent ourselves in the way we would like to,” says exhibiting artist Ethan Jackson, also known for making music under the name Mr. Jackson. During Artists’ Night, Jackson will be at Communication selling his abstract paintings, a collection titled “BEAUTY” under his art and fashion moniker, Dripsphere. “The paintings are an abstract suggestion to the world to feel beautiful as it changes so quickly,” Jackson says. Even in the transience, and even among conflict in Madison and elsewhere, he wants to capture the good that is present around us.”It’s such a great opportunity for artists and folks in town to learn about one another in real-time and off the Internet,” says textile artist Emily Popp, who sells handmade and “upcycled” clothing through an Etsy shop called Popp Town Mall. During Artist’ Night, Popp will have a selection of one-of-a-kind hand-sewn clothing items and accessories available at 223 E. Mifflin St. As a Madison native, Popp says, “I know that Madison values the arts in spirit, but my hope is that respect can turn into real action by way of monetary support on an individual level and from the state government.” Currently, Wisconsin spends less per capita in public arts funding than any other state.

A photo shows a person modeling a dress printed with patterns of leaves in red and tan colors.
Photo from @thepopptownmall.

“We give ourselves a lot of credit for being liberal and open-minded, but unless that lip service translates itself into structural change and substantial action, it will continue to be a slap in the face to the lived experiences of BIPOC and trans/nonbinary folks,” says Erica Heinz of Fiddlesticks Knits, one of the hosting venues for Artists’ Night. It is integral to the Atwood Avenue business’s mission as a fiber arts store to support fiber artists and uplift queer voices.

Fiddlesticks will be hosting Leo Bergmann, in Bergmann’s first official artist showing. Their crochet pieces and felt embroidery are complex, highly detailed, and sophisticated, They even have comical portrayals of cats and butterflies. “It is a joyful expression of healing,” says Bergmann. “Creating these pieces has helped me through my ongoing relationship with my disability.” They’re looking forward to Artists’ Night as a protest sparking conversation in Madison about the problems of BIPOC and queer communities.

A circular embroidery piece depicts a grey and white cat with bright yellow eyes against a grey background.
An embroidery by Leo Bergmann. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“I hope that Madison grows to be intentional around the inclusivity of Black and Brown artists,” says Mars Patterson, currently an Artist in Residence at the Madison Public Library’s Bubbler program. Paterson will present wearable art at the Bubbler’s space in the Central Library during Artists’ Night, as part of a project that runs through July and includes several interactive events. It is a collaborative and multimodal piece that pays homage to nature. It was created during the pandemic with their Elder, Milwaukee-based ceramics artist Muneer Bahauddeen. Patterson is excited to see new art, experience other peoples’ creative processes, and experience a sense of awe from it.

Another participating artist is Jennifer Hefferan of The Bodgery, a member-run community maker space currently housed in the former Oscar Mayer plant on the north side. The Bodgery has nearly 20 of its members signed up to show their work, including paintings, sculpture, photography, and ceramics. As the person who took the lead on planning the logistics of making The Bodgery an Artists’ Night venue and displaying her own woodwork, Hefferan is excited about bringing together a wide variety of artists and makers and being inspired by their work.

Bastian and her team want to make an effort to give space for all of these artists to garner support from their community, and to end the cycle of artists working hard and receiving crumbs. In the future, her hope is for Artists’ Night to have a matchmaking event for artists and venues, as part of an effort to diversify an event that, despite its impetus, is still dominated by white artists and white-owned venues. Collaboration is at the forefront of this event. “By doing things like Artists’ Night, we hope that the needle shifts. We hope that art spaces see that focusing on arts events and paying artists to be present helps all of us to thrive,” Bastian says.

At the core of this issue is the need for support for Black femmes, non-binary, and gender non-conforming artists. “We all have a part to play in making this city more equitable,” Bastian says. She envisions Artists’ Night to be fun and joyful, especially for artists who give their time, labor, and energy to a craft that provides people with hope, grace, and inspiration. “People give their labor and we have to value it like any other labor,” Bastian says. She wants artists to have the right environment to prosper.

There is a lot of work to be done. It is hard to be in a community with an unending pandemic and a lack of racial equity. But in the pain, the people in the arts community have the capacity for much beauty and love, inspiring us all to hope. Even when it feels like they’re fighting a losing battle constantly, Bastian invites guests to bring flowers for artists during Artists’ Night in hopes that this reminder of tenderness would push people toward radical care, and hopefully, toward rallying for change.Masks are required for entry to the Communication building. For more information, visit Communication’s website and event page.

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