Interviews

Meet the Art Community of the US Southwest: Andrea Hanley on the Power of Objects

An interview series spotlighting some of the creative community members in the US Southwest. Hear from artists, curators, and art workers about their current projects and personal quirks.

A few months ago, I moved to Santa Fe from Los Angeles, and soon after arriving I assumed the role of US Southwest editor for Hyperallergic. In the brief time I’ve lived in New Mexico, the generosity and vibrancy of the arts community here has already blown me away. The Southwest is a vast and incredibly diverse place, and summing up any part of it in a few words would be a silly thing to attempt. I’m still learning about it, and it seems there is an endless amount to discover. In this series, I’ll take you along for the ride — as I meet the people who make the Southwest art world the remarkable place it is, you can meet them too.

Though these interviews will span the American Southwest, I wanted to start in my new home of Santa Fe, highlighting one of our local arts stars Andrea Hanley. Hanley is the chief curator at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian and an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. In her 25-plus year career in the arts, she has worked as a curator, gallerist, writer, fundraiser, lecturer, and volunteer. She spent a decade at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, returned to Arizona to be the fine arts coordinator and curator for the city of Tempe, was the founding manager of the Berlin Gallery at the Heard Museum, and worked as Membership and Program Manager for the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe before joining the Wheelwright. Read more about Hanley in the interview below.

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(Image courtesy of Andrea Hanley)

Where were you born?

I was born in Phoenix, Arizona. I lived half in Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation, and half in Tempe, Arizona, which is a municipality of Phoenix. I went to high school in Tempe and went to college at Arizona State University.

How long have you been living in Santa Fe?

I’ve been living here for about seven and a half years now. Before I joined the Wheelwright, I worked at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts as their public programs director. I did a lot of public programming, and we had at least two residencies when I was there — one was a social engagement residency funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation. IAIA was also kind enough to allow me to curate some of their exhibitions, so I had a number of shows that traveled. And then most recently I’ve been a the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian as their chief curator. My background has always been in art spaces: in college I worked for galleries, out of college I worked for a short time at a nonprofit art space, and then was recruited to work at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian for about 10 years before I came back to Phoenix.

What’s your first strong art memory?

Gosh, there are so many. I think for Navajo people in general, art is so ingrained in how we live. I had relatives who were weavers, my parents also dabbled a little bit in jewelry when I was younger. And I also remember going to a lot of larger art exhibitions and receptions, I was exposed to museums very young. My mother got her undergraduate degree in art, and my parents tended to hang with a lot of really interesting artists.

In the 1970s there was this thing that happened as part of the bicentennial called the Freedom Train. The Freedom Train came to Tempe and it was the first time I had seen iconic objects like that. I always knew that objects held power, simply because of who I am and my culture. But seeing things like Dorothy’s shoes or Martin Luther King’s podium, I had this moment where I really did understand the power and the influence objects could have on people. And that’s probably when I decided I would go into the arts.

Do you have an artistic practice?

I got my degree in drawing, but no, not really. I fancy myself a little bit crafty, but for the most part I love watching others create work and going from there.

What was your favorite exhibition you saw this year?

There are so many! But I think I have to connect it back to the Wheelwright and say the exhibition I have loved best was being able to be here for the tail end of the organizing of this exhibition called “Laughter and Resilience: Humor in Native American Art.” It was such a wonderful process. The work is really interesting and really digs deep, and is so relevant right now. I think it reveals itself in a way that allows people to really understand the contemporary Native American. You really get a sense of who Indian people are, and you understand that Indian people are funny, and they’re sarcastic, and they’re silly, and they’re whimsical. There’s a really wonderful sense of humor in that show, a lot of times a really gentle one, and sometimes a very biting one.

What are you currently working on?

I’m always trying to work on something that is important and relevant and close to me, and as a Navajo I want people to understand that reality as well. So in the exhibitions I curate, I want to support and reflect contemporary Indian issues as well as tribal core values. And I want people to be aware that there are Indigenous people all over the world, and to know what’s important to them.

Right now I’m trying to think about this amazing collection we have at the Wheelwright, which is over 11,000 pieces. I want to try and revitalize the underutilized parts of the collection by opening them up to artists. So one of the exhibitions that I’m hoping to work would be to create site-specific installations at the museum that would incorporate the museum’s collection. For example, the extensive silver collection — we have rings and bracelets and necklaces and shot glasses and whistles and forks and spoons and all these things. We’d have an artist come in and select specific pieces for an installation and create some sort of composition in the abstract. So the installations become this material truth — you look at the objects and they speak for themselves. And it allows both Native artists and the public new ways to contemplate and understand the museum and its collection. What I’m hoping happens is it becomes a kind of incubator, so people can continue to do projects and interventions like this.

What guides your process?

One element is being able to recognize someone who is speaking from a narrative or an idea throughout their practice. Also, making sure I look at folks who aren’t as experienced or haven’t been in the field as long, and making sure those people are seen and supported. And looking at people who are in this field, or want to be in this field, who are really excited. About practice, about their work. For me, that is what is really gratifying. I’m also always hoping that people get something out of the exhibitions that I create, that it opens their eyes to who contemporary Indians are.

What’s the best book you’ve read recently?

I just read my friend Peter Rock’s book, “The Night Swimmers.” That’s one of my favorite new books, I loved it. It’s always lovely when you’re able to read a friend’s book.

Do you prefer to see art alone or with friends?

I like both! It’s interesting, it seems like a lot of times I am by myself. But I do love to go with friends because I’m always curious about what people have to say. It’s always interesting to see a show and have friends who see it somewhere else, and then we can talk about it.

Do you like to photograph the art you see?

I do. To remind me of things that I think are important, or to inspire me. I love doing that. I go back and look at them, I keep them in folders, I reference them. I also do a lot of online looking, too, a lot of research to get a sense of things that I like.

What do you see as the centers for creative community in Santa Fe?

I’ve always been a huge fan of Santa Fe, and I’ve always thought of it as being kind of a Mecca. For a whole bunch of kinds of work, but particularly of contemporary Native American artwork. I feel that there’s such a cohesiveness in terms of the communities that work here and how they work together. I like the idea of the community working towards more places for artists to work, and the idea of more spaces that aren’t necessarily commercial, that allow people to be very experimental in the way they work. There are so many different types of creative people here, you can’t help but be inspired. Santa Fe is a place where you can meet your heroes. There’s a lot of really thoughtful and interesting people, and those people look for ways to connect and be supportive. I think everyone who is here who is in the creative economy works hard, and they work to be here. People want to be here. Like me, I waited for years to be able to be here. And I’ve never been as creative as I’ve been in Santa Fe.

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