• Thu. Jun 30th, 2022

Museums have never fully explored the history of American art. That’s why they’re recruiting Indigenous curators to change the narrative

As a tidal wave of racial reckoning has forced the museum industry to confront its grim record of diversity, American art curators are beginning to reassess the galleries devoted almost exclusively to the landscapes of the Valley of the Hudson and rococo portraits of dead white men.

With the help of Native American curators and artists, curators across the United States are expanding narratives, challenging stereotypes, and breaking down categories.

In Indianapolis, for more than 30 years since the founding of the Eiteljorg Museum, the ancient ethnographic framework dividing Indigenous artefacts by region has ruled the logic of its permanent collection.

But the institution’s curators now expect the space to be radically different when it reopens in June after Native American curators and advisers collaborated on new exhibits that focus on the themes of relationship, continuity. and innovation.

“My motivation is to make more Indigenous people feel welcome,” said Dorene Red Cloud, a curator who joined the Eiteljorg in 2016 and a registered member of the Oglala Sioux tribe from Pine Ridge, Dakota. from South. “For a very long time, museums were seen as ivory towers where the locals couldn’t see each other.”

Dorene Red Cloud. Photo courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum.

And his institution is not alone. The Seattle Art Museum is undergoing a similar update; its earlier emphasis on “masterpieces” resulted in galleries mostly filled with paintings of white men. Those demographics are expected to change dramatically when the redevelopment is completed later this year, with nearly a quarter of galleries displaying Indigenous artwork.

Native American artists like Wendy Red Star, Nicholas Galanin, and Inye Wokoma were also curators on the project, the first reimagining of the space in 15 years.

And in New York City over the next year, Brooklyn Museum curators will be hiring outside advisers for their own relocation project. This became a priority for the institution’s leadership, who recognized the need to have a diverse participation of Native Americans in the way the galleries tell Native stories.

Stephanie Sparling Williams, curator of American art at the museum, said the main change will be the shift from a singular story to a “constellation of dynamic, multiplying and historically complex narratives” told through previously unseen works in the collection while that old favorites are recontextualized.

“All viewers should benefit from more depth and breadth in an American art collection,” said Williams.

Installation image from Picturing America (American Art through 1900), 2021. Photograph © Delaware Art Museum.  Photo: S. Woodloe for the Delaware Art Museum.

Installation image from Picturing America (American Art through 1900), 2021. Photograph © Delaware Art Museum. Photo: S. Woodloe for the Delaware Art Museum.

Inside the Delaware Art Museum, conversations about a gradual reboot of American galleries began in 2017, according to Heather Coyle, the institution’s chief curator and curator of American art.

“We didn’t put Native American artists together in our collection, but there were works that we couldn’t wait to reinterpret,” she explained.

Coyle recalled walking through the galleries with Dennis Coker, Principal Chief of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware, when they stopped in front of an 1840 painting by Hudson River School artist Robert Walter Weir, titled Indian captives, Massachusetts 1650.

“Before, we used to construct the context by saying that it had been painted almost 20 years later The Last of the Mohicans was written, but we wouldn’t say that was around the time the trail of tears was happening, ”Coyle said, explaining how Coker brought new analysis by bringing out the symbolism of a sawn-off log featured in the work.

“This is what happens to the natives, their hunting grounds are cut down,” observed Coker.

“It’s just not something I would have seen while looking at the painting,” said Coyle, explaining how working with local Indigenous communities has enriched the museum’s understanding of its collection.

Seattle Art Museum ,.  (Photo by Education Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Seattle Art Museum. (Photo by Education Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

And as these conversations progressed, many museums throw away the old orthodoxies of chronological organization in favor of thematic groupings.

“Timeline is something that takes hold of history,” said Theresa Papanikolas, curator of American art at the Seattle Art Museum. “It’s getting a little deterministic.”

Papanikolas said viewers can expect a very different gallery experience. She is particularly excited about the Red Star installation, which is still in the works but “will evoke ideas of portraiture, landscape and Seattle” while “literally bringing aboriginal voices into the gallery.”

But before contacting artists for the project, Papanikolas consulted with a museum advisory committee made up of 11 paid experts, three of whom were indigenous.

“I’ve learned so much about my blind spots,” Papanikolas explained, adding that she had never thought about what Indigenous artists might feel when approached by museums for an out of the blue collaboration.

“They also urged us not to think in terms of comparisons,” she added, saying that institutions often present Indigenous heritage as mere influences on Western culture. “Why can’t these pieces stand together too?” “

By funding its two-year redesign, the Seattle Art Museum received a $ 1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation and an additional $ 75,000 from the Terra Foundation for American Art. (The Brooklyn Museum also received the same amount of funding from the Terra Foundation, in addition to a $ 40,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.)

Although the majority of museums consult with Native American communities and academics on their relocations, very few have Native curators on their staff leading the redevelopments.

Exterior of the Brooklyn Museum.  Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.  Photo by Jonathan Dorado.

Exterior of the Brooklyn Museum. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum. Photo: Jonathan Dorado.

For example, the Brooklyn Museum has two American art curators working on its project, but the institution has not recruited an Indigenous curator from its staff to help with the project; instead, a spokeswoman said three Native American humanities consultants were helping the museum.

Critics fear that a lack of structural changes within museums will leave their new American galleries feeling like empty moves towards multiculturalism. And some nonprofit analysts have warned that museums ignoring racism and systemic inequalities would find themselves of no interest to contemporary audiences. Others point to a historic lack of investment in people of color within major cultural organizations.

“If institutions are to invest in Indigenous art, they must also invest in Indigenous curators,” said Joseph Pierce, a professor at Stony Brook University who writes frequently on Indigenous erasure in American culture.

“I’ve been involved in some of these conversations and what I keep saying is that museums need to engage with Indigenous art and artists on terms set by Indigenous peoples,” he said. he added.

“You have to rethink what space means, and that means hiring people to do the job for the long haul. “

In the meantime, the Conservatives hope the public will have a new perspective on Indigenous arts.

“For a very long time, Native American art was viewed as craftsmanship,” said Red Cloud, curator of Eiteljorg. “But this is an opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past and envision a future that involves indigenous peoples.”

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