A community of artists and cultural workers has rallied around Yup’ik choreographer Emily Johnson after she released a letter detailing experiences of harassment and exploitation during her residency at Montclair State University.
Johnson, who is known for creating performances that foreground Indigenous voices and fuse dance with public gatherings, storytelling, and craft, self-published a letter to the National Endowment for the Arts on January 21. She detailed allegations of harm imposed by Jedidiah Wheeler, Executive Director of Arts and Cultural Programming at Montclair State University and head of its Peak Performances series, saying he verbally harassed her in front of colleagues, undermined her authority, and revoked the $100,000 commission she was promised.
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When Johnson agreed to the residency in 2018, she stipulated that the university would be required to commit to decolonial practices, which included making a Land Acknowledgement that would be stated before her residency projects, Wheeler declined her requests and abruptly terminated the residency, and with it, six-figure commission Johnson claims that the university had only paid her $5,000, and forewent any other projects over the last year and a half because MSU required a regional performance exclusivity that prohibited Johnson from performing anywhere else in a 100 mile radius. But after filing a request through the Freedom of Information Act, Johnson learned the NEA had awarded MSU a $25,000 grant, which the school could not revoke and was contractually obligated to pay. In her letter, Johnson tells the NEA that, even though MSU still owes her $20,000, she will forgo the grant money entirely.
“I refuse to participate in a creative process with a violent and oppressive individual who, while may be experiencing […] fear, anger, rage…, cannot control them in a professional manner and chooses instead to be verbally abusive, demonstratively condescending and controlling, and then wield the weight of his position and institution in continued abusive, unethical and punishing measures,” Johnson wrote.
In a statement issued by MSU, the university “acknowledges that [Wheeler] spoke forcefully and in frustration at one point during a difficult contract negotiation session,” but that they could not agree to decolonial practices because the department “lacked the authority to agree to such demands, which extend far beyond the scope of its function as an office that produces a performing arts series.”
When Hyperallergic reached out for comment, a university spokesman added, “Ms. Johnson did not communicate her concerns to any officer of the University at any point before posting her letter on social media. The University is continuing to gather the facts, and at this time we do not have any additional information to share.”
Stony Brook University Associate Professor Joseph M. Pierce, a citizen of the Cherokee nation who has collaborated with Johnson, helped draft a call to action in support of the choreographer, which was published to Change.org on February 11. The missive was co-signed by 59 other artists, including Edgar Miramontes of REDCAT and Julie Tolentino, and over 1,000 have since added their signatures in support. It demands not just accountability from MSU, but for the arts industry as a whole to implement anti-racist, decolonial practices. Among the requests are a call to boycott Peak Performances; to suspend Wheeler until a third-party can thoroughly investigate his actions; and for MSU to formalize a Land Acknowledgement and foster relationships with the Lenape people, the original stewards of the land on which MSU resides.
Pierce, who has contributed to Hyperallergic in the past, says he found MSU’s response surprisingly hollow. “We all know that institutions are difficult to change, but that does not mean that we do not try. That does not mean that we simply refuse to put in the work,” he wrote over email.
In addition to this petition, more than 130 artists connected to performing arts institutions issued a separate solidarity statement. “As presenters, we acknowledge the systemic racism, settler colonialism and misogyny present in the interactions Emily describes,” they wrote.
After the statements went public, All Arts, a New York City multimedia channel associated with the broadcast station WNET, severed ties with Peak Performances.
As Johnson wrote in her letter, collective action is the only way to bring mass reform to arts institutions.
“We are powerful together, powerful enough to change the racist, unjust, inequitable and harm inducing systems and power structures in the performing arts world and the world at large.”