Art

A Museum Gains Prominence Through Collecting Native American Artists’ Work

A gem of a museum in Ohio known for European masterpieces, gains contemporary relevance.

Installation view of Indigenous Beauty (2015), (photo courtesy Toledo Museum of Art)

TOLEDO, Ohio — In 2015, the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) hosted Indigenous Beauty, a large show of traditional and contemporary American Indian art on loan from the Diker Collection — the very same currently on view at the Metropolitan Art Museum. The show was the result of a shifting focus at the TMA. Since its founding in 1901, the museum has collected and carried a fine cross-section of American art, Native American visual culture being conspicuous by its absence.  One Native American bowl acquired in the 1940s remained in storage because there simply didn’t seem to be an appropriate context for its display. But this is about to change.

Installation view of Expanded Views (photo courtesy Toledo Museum of Art)

The critical success of Indigenous Beauty added momentum to a conversation TMA leadership had been having regarding the need to become relevant to broad audiences and reflective of diverse cultures. To this end, the museum has just renovated and re-opened a large gallery space in its American art section which will display a rotating selection of Native American art, both traditional and contemporary.  The inaugural exhibition, Expanded Views: Native American Art in Focus, is an intimate but thoughtful cross-section of Native American visual culture in the  collection, many of which are new acquisitions.

Wendy Red Star “Four Seasons Series (Spring)” (2006), four archival pigment prints (image courtesy Toledo Museum of Art)

Curated by Halona Norton-Westbrook, the show serves as an outgrowth of the TMA’s concerted drive towards establishing a more holistic collection.  Norton-Westbrook tells Hyperallergic that while the museum has acquired a reputation for housing singular American and European masterpieces, it won’t contentedly rest on its laurels, but actively “seeks to address what a twenty-first  century art museum should look like.”

Installation view of Crossing Cultures (2013), (photo courtesy Toledo Museum of Art)

This effort not only encompasses Native American art, but also art by indigenous cultures elsewhere in the world. In 2013, the museum hosted a large exhibition of Aboriginal Australian art on loan from the Hood Museum. The exhibition was among the first brought to the TMA under its current director, Brian Kennedy, who from 1997-2004 served as the director for the National Gallery of Australia.  Since then, the TMA has been adding Aboriginal art to its permanent collection.

In keeping with the TMA’s history of collecting and displaying “singular masterpieces” of European and American Art (and the museum indeed seems to contain at least one representative painting or sculpture by most of the blue-chip artists you’ve likely heard of), Norton-Westbrook says she sought to do the same for Expanded Views. The resulting exhibit is eclectic, but admirably refuses to consolidate Native American visual culture into a series of predictable bullet-points, intentionally refraining from reducing the culture to a clean, digestible narrative.

Cheyenne Nation, Model Tipi Cover (circa 1860), hide, paint, sinew (Gift of The Georgia Welles Apollo Society, image courtesy Toledo Museum of Art)

Works as diverse as pottery, Crow Ledger drawings and a model Cheyenne tipi cover are shown together with contemporary works, such as Wendy Red Star’s iconic “Four Seasons,” an ironic tetralogy of self-portraits in which the artist poses amidst emphatically kitschy Native Americana props, mocking reductive Western stereotypes of complex indigenous cultures. And Marie Watt’s “Ledger: Predator and Prey” (2015) is a contemporary politically-charged embroidered blanket mimicking a ledger-drawing, juxtaposing a soaring eagle with an American reaper drone. From the very beginning, it was important to the TMA that the old and the new be included together; says Norton-Westbrook, “we wanted to make the point that although these cultures have suffered historically though displacement and disruption, they have survived and lived through to the present day and continue to produce incredible artists.”

The show interjects several non-Indigenous works from its American collection, such as Albert Bierstadt’s “El Capitan” (1875) depicting a panoramic view of Yosemite Valley. Removed from its usual space amidst other 19th century American landscape painting and now re-contextualized against the backdrop of Native American art, the painting suddenly invites questions about Westward expansion and rightful land ownership.

This exhibition (and the space it occupies) gives a welcome and deserving platform for Native American art in all its complexity and diversity.  Furthermore, given the tone of current political discourse regarding who really belongs within America’s borders, the show reminds us of our country’s uncomfortable and messy history.

Expanded Views: Native American Art in Focus curated by Halona Norton-Westbrook is in on view at the Toledo Museum of Art (2445 Monroe Street, Toledo, Ohio 43620) through April 28th.

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