By ERIN ROLL
An artist who had been planning a two-year residency with Montclair State University’s PEAK Performances arts program is accusing an administrator of hostile, violent outbursts that demeaned her work and her Native American heritage.
In an open letter published on Medium, dancer, choreographer and artist Emily Johnson accuses MSU Arts and Cultural Programming executive director Jedediah Wheeler of being a “violent and oppressive individual” who can’t control his rage and “chooses instead to be verbally abusive, demonstratively condescending and controlling, and then [wielding] the weight of his position and institution in continued abusive, unethical and punishing measures.” The letter is addressed to Brandon Gryde and Sara Nash, both administrators at the National Endowment for the Arts, which would have helped fund the residency.
University officials issued a response to Johnson’s letter earlier this month, denying her allegations and saying Johnson and her manager, George Lugg, made several non-negotiable contract demands that PEAK Performances could not fulfill. The school said Wheeler did not use any harsh language toward Johnson, but that Wheeler “acknowledges that he spoke forcefully and in frustration at one point during a difficult contract negotiation session, which came after repeated unsuccessful efforts to help Ms. Johnson and her manager understand the reasons that their demands could not be met.”
MSU spokesman Andrew Mees — in response to a message sent both to him and to Wheeler, seeking comment — told Montclair Local on Thursday, Feb. 11, that the school has nothing further to add to its statement, but “Jed does want you to know, though, that he has apologized to Emily Johnson.” Wheeler has not replied to Montclair Local directly.
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In her letter, Johnson, who is a member of the Yu’pik Nation, said Wheeler yelled at her and made demeaning remarks after Johnson asked PEAK Performances to take steps to acknowledge and honor Native American and Indigenous people. Johnson said that in a conference call in January 2020, she asked PEAK Performances to issue a land acknowledgment — a formal statement that acknowledges Native American and Indigenous peoples as original stewards of the land where an institution is based.
The discussion came up as Johnson was talking about ways to involve Indigenous voices at the university in her residency work, from speaking with Native American and Indigenous students to inviting other artists to submit their work for display, she said.
Johnson said in her letter she’d hoped that with PEAK Performances’ help, “we might create new pathways for relationships with other Indigenous artists and generate processes — like with the First Nations students on campus — that the larger institution could follow.”
She wrote that she’d asked for “a personal commitment to a decolonisation process,” and that she’d need the school’s support in doing so.
Johnson alleged Wheeler had an angry outburst when she made those requests.
“Jedediah responded immediately and violently. His yelling relayed that he ‘calls the shots.’ That we are going to have ‘a problem’ if I continue to ‘come in here’ and make ‘demands,’” she wrote. “He screamed, ‘I don’t even know what this word, ‘decolonisation,’ means.’”
The residency would have received a $25,000 grant from the NEA, and PEAK Performances would have been required to match that funding. Johnson was also to have received a commission from PEAK Performances. In Johnson’s letter, she tells the NEA she wants to forgo the grant, and would not take part in the residency.
The university, in its reply, said Johnson had made non-negotiable demands. Beyond the land acknowledgement, it said, Johnson wanted the Office of Arts and Cultural Programming to “establish a land rental fund for the Lenape People” and make reparations to Indigenous people.
The university said that Wheeler told Johnson and Lugg that the office did not have the authority to agree to those demands, and that the university was already doing its own projects related to land acknowledgement.
WNET’s online video program All Arts announced Friday, Feb. 12 it would no longer work with PEAK Performances because of Johnson’s allegations.
“ALL ARTS prides itself on our fierce advocacy for the arts and artists. When confronted with problematic situations involving any institution, artist or artwork that we support, we must take action. Our artists and audiences expect nothing less,” it wrote.
A “letter of solidarity” circulating among university community members and seen by Montclair Local said the behavior Johnson describes “has no place in society nor at a university dedicated to developing a supportive and inclusive community.” It also expresses concern that “she also describes promised financial remuneration being withheld by PEAK Performances.”
It calls for the university to investigate her allegations.
“We hope that Ms. Johnson’s concerns will be taken seriously not only for her sake, but for the health of the community as a whole,” the letter states.
In a post to Facebook earlier this month, Brett Wellman Messenger, the former program administrator for PEAK Performances, said when Johnson wrote “that Jed yelled ‘I call the shots’ it was no surprise to me” and said he’d seen similar behavior for years.
“I thank Emily Johnson for her courage and I acknowledge so many others who have been hurt by Jed’s abusive behavior that have not felt able or comfortable speaking out for fear of retribution or loss of income,” he wrote.
And he took issue with statements in the university’s response that described how Wheeler had made PEAK’s stage available to artists from marginalized backgrounds.
“Indeed, Jed has given a stage to many great artists. I feel lucky to have been able to work with so many of them in my time there, but the issue here is that Jed GIVES them HIS stage. HIS stage,” Messenger wrote. He said he took issue with that power dynamic.
“This statement feeds Jed’s vanity and continues in a practice of covering up his misdeeds that are well known to the university, the dean’s office, the provost, HR, and the [school] president, Susan Cole,” Messenger wrote.
An earlier version of this post attributed the final two quotes in this story incorrectly.