Reactor

Denver Museum Re-Install Heralds Rethinking of Native American Art

by Kyle Chayka on February 7, 2011

Left, “Wild Man of the Woods” by carver Willie Seaweed. Right, Jennifer Pray working on the newly reopened American Indian galleries at the Denver Art Museum (image from NYTimes.com)

The re-installation of the Denver Art Museum‘s American Indian art galleries has an important new feature, reports the New York Times: artist names are now included on its wall labels. The comprehensive re-installation heralds a new move towards recognition of the history of Native American art, as well as Native American artists’ contribution to a larger American art history.

In an article entitled “Honoring Art, Honoring Artists”, Judith Dobrzynski writes,

For the first time many of the works on display are attributed to individual artists instead of just their tribes. It is a revolution in museum practice that many scholars hope will spread, raising the stature of American Indian artists and elevating their work from the category of artifacts to the more exalted realm of art.

The redesigned American Indian art galleries at the Denver Art Museum (image from coloradocommunitynewspapers.com)

The curatorial gesture of attribution might seem minor, but it’s a huge step in the move from segregation of Native American art in museum galleries to its integration into a greater narrative. Where before, Native American art was largely exhibited in the context of aboriginal and indigenous “artifacts”, including Australian and African indigenous “crafts” unattributed to artists, museums are now developing programs and resources to present Native American art as it should be.

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ new Art of the Americas Wing reserves a large gallery in the ground floor for Native American art, with an installation ranging from earlier, anonymous artifacts to attributed pieces by modern and contemporary Native American artists. Placed next to galleries of early American colonial art, it’s an effort to put Native American art in its proper institutional place. Similar to the Denver Art Museum re-installation, the Boston MFA seeks to redress past injustices. Quoted in the New York Times article, executive director of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts (which also has a significant collection of Native American art), Dan L. Monroe says,

Continuing to follow past practices… perpetuates a set of ideas, values and historical practices laden with racism, ethnocentrism and tragic and destructive government policies.

It’s true that museums’ history of posing Native American, and indigenous art from any country, as “artifacts” rather than art objects is problematic, and it’s great to see more museums devoting more space to Native American art, but it’s difficult to accept this as enough progress in encyclopedic museums where cultures are divided into separate spaces rather than into a complicated historical context.

Isn’t there a better way to think about integrating Native American art into art history beyond just appending artists’ names? We still have a long way to go.

Other resources:

  • The Colorado Reporter Herald has a comprehensive piece on the Denver Art Museum’s re-installation, listing many of the works on view in the “23,000-square-foot gallery,” housing “18,000 pieces of art.”
  • The Highlands Ranch Herald has a report documenting some of the investigation behind attributing works to individual artists.
  • Washington DC’s Museum of the American Indian keeps up consistent programming combining historical Native American art with the work of contemporary Native American artists. Right now, there’s an R.C. Gorman exhibition on view that looks good.
  • Here’s a November 2010 Voice of America video tour through the Museum of the American Indian:

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  • TC Cannon

    True to death. Now museums might also consider putting contemporary native art in the contemorary sections rather than displaying it with the historical stuff as they so often do.

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      Always bothers me when that continues to happen. Contemporary art knows no bounds, really, so why even bother trying to separate it by culture or nationality? It’s a global art culture.

  • Whiteclay

    Individual artist attribution wasn’t important to many historic Native American cultures. By making a display that exclusively focuses on this type of attribution is trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Why try and approach Native American art in western art terms that feels artist attribution is so important? The vast majority of historic Native American objects are not attributed to a specific artist.

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