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Bogomil Mihaylov via Unsplash

By ERIN ROLL and LOUIS. C. HOCHMAN
roll@montclairlocal.news, hochman@montclairlocal.news

Members of the arts community at Montclair State University and beyond are rallying behind a performer who accused a university administrator of “violent” outbursts and abusive behavior.

Statements of solidarity and open letters from the arts community have backed dancer, choreographer and artist Emily Johnson — who in an open letter published on Medium 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 university has denied those claims, and stood by Wheeler. It describes the acrimony as the result of a difficult contract negotiation over a residency Johnson was to have at MSU’s PEAK Performances project. The school says Wheeler never used inappropriate language or denigrated Johnson, “nevertheless, he regrets the ill feelings that resulted from the inability to reach agreement.”

Both sides describe the initial dispute as one in which Johnson, a member of the Yup’ik Nation, asked for measures to honor and do outreach to Native American and Indigenous people, including a thorough land acknowledgement and reparations.

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,” the school wrote. A university spokesman told Montclair Local 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. 

In a petition posted to Change.org and accompanying statement published Feb. 12 a group of arts workers say they stand in solidarity with Johnson “in response to unethical, oppressive behavior defended by Montclair State University and Peak Performance” and seek “accountability from higher education and cultural institutions and the broader performing arts field to dismantle the oppressive colonial and racist systems that continue to hurt all of us.”

The statement members of the public not to attend PEAK Performances activities and not to fund or partner with the program. It encourages artists negotiating with PEAK to invite open conversations with its leadership about Johnson’s allegations, or to come forward with their own stories. The statement further asks MSU to apologize to Johnson, to pay a commission fee she says she was promised, and to honor requests Johnson made — including a land acknowledgement drafted in cooperation with members of the Lenape diaspora.

“It is not just MSU and Peak Performances; all higher education and cultural institutions have work to do,” the statement says. It’s signed by several dozen arts workers, and as of Sunday the associated online petition had more than 700 signatures. 

A separate statement signed by more than 130 arts workers as of Sunday, Feb. 14 also stands by Johnson and says MSU’s characterization of Emily Johnson (and her creative producer, George Lugg) as demanding, unreasonable, and not open to negotiation does not ring true with our experience or their reputation in the field.” That statement was also published Feb. 12.

The writers say they understand change takes time, and “no one is expected to do the work of decolonization overnight,” but applaud Johnson for leadership in those efforts. 

“We offer our gratitude and solidarity to all who are doing this work. Let’s keep doing it,” the writers say.

And WNET’s online video program All Arts announced Friday, Feb. 12 it would no longer work with PEAK Performances because of Johnson’s allegations.

Johnson’s allegations

In her open letter — addressed to the National Endowment for the Arts to turn down its funding support for the residency — Johnson said that in a conference call in January 2020, she asked PEAK to issue the land acknowledgement, a formal statement that recognizes Native American and Indigenous peoples as original stewards of the land where an institution is based. 

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.”

“Jedediah responded immediately and violently,” she wrote. “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.’ He screamed, ‘I don’t even know what this word, ‘decolonisation,’ means.’”

The university, in its reply, said Wheeler told Johnson and her creative producer, George Lugg, the arts program didn’t have the authority to honor requests that also included establishing a land rental fund for the Lenape People or making reparations to Indigenous people. 

An earlier “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 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.