New Directions – New Connections: Revitalizing a Museum’s Approach to Native American Art

Written by Mike Murawski

Visitors to the Portland Art Museum are beginning to encounter an unmistakable revitalization of Native American art. This fall, the Portland Art Museum announced the opening of its new Center for Contemporary Native Art, a gallery dedicated to presenting the work and perspectives of contemporary Native artists. In 2014, the Museum was awarded a major three-year grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) focused on creating a “community anchor” space to foster a deeper understanding of Native American art and artists in the contemporary world. Each year, the Center will host two rotating exhibitions and feature a range of related programming.

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Greg Archuleta, Sara Siestreem, and Greg Robinson in Center for Contemporary Native Art

At the core of the Center’s mission is the commitment to partner with Native artists in co-creating the exhibitions, interpretation, and programming for the space. This approach challenges visitors to think about Native American art and the cultures that inform the work as dynamic and changing, and not as an ethnographic snapshot in time. In this way, we hope that privileging a contemporary view of Native art in the Museum will provide visitors an opportunity to engage with and to relate to the plethora of Native experiences. Front-end evaluation and planning of the Center has involved the Museum’s Portland-based Native Advisory Committee as well as Native artists and others involved in Native American artistic and cultural practices across the region.

The Museum’s Center for Contemporary Native Art is part of broader institutional efforts which culminate early in 2016 with an innovative special exhibition showcasing contemporary Native photographers in dialogue with photographs from Edward Sheriff Curtis’s renowned body of work The North American Indian.  In addition, a new, provocative set of Native artists will be featured in the Center for Contemporary Native Art (see Survivance below), and a spectacular summer exhibition spotlights Native fashion and design.

For Deana Dartt, Ph.D., the Museum’s curator of Native American art since 2012, these exhibitions and initiatives are the result of years of collaborative efforts and a true commitment to Native artists and communities. Working closely with Native advisors, she has brought to the museum an emphasis on Native artists working today to reinvigorate the Museum’s highly acclaimed historic Native American art collection. Her goal is to more meaningfully engage visitors in the issues critical to Native American art practice now, and the unique perspectives that inform that work. Dartt says:

“We want to show the whole spectrum of artists and art practice in Indian Country, from customary or ‘traditional’ to the edgy contemporary, seamlessly woven together in a way that is meaningful to our community as a whole as well as empowering for young Native visitors as they walk through the galleries. I’m always thinking about—and always inspired by—the power of art to heal historic wounds and restore hope.”

Dartt, who grew up in southern California and is a member of the Coastal Band Chumash, earned her Ph.D. in anthropology and museum studies from the University of Oregon and served as curator of Native Culture at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum before joining the Portland Art Museum. She is one of only two Native American art curators in mainstream institutions who are of Native heritage.

In concert with the Museum’s education department, Dartt has connected the collections with Native communities through projects such as the new Center for Contemporary Native Art and Object Stories partnerships with the Native American Youth Association (NAYA) and Family Center, as well as Yup’ik community members in Bethel Alaska (see previous post “Sharing Authority/Sharing Perspectives: Native Voices”). The Museum has also enhanced online access, making the Native American collection of nearly 3,500 objects the first to be fully digitized through a $150,000 grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

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Yup’ik/Inupiaq artist Drew Michael, whose stories are featured in Museum’s Object Stories project. Photo by Katie Basile.

Under Dartt’s guidance, the Native American collection has quadrupled its modern and contemporary holdings since 2012, adding works by exciting contemporary artists such as Wendy Red Star (featured in the Native photography exhibition) and Nicholas Galanin, the Tlingit/Aleut multidisciplinary artist. In 2017, the Museum will mount a major exhibition entitled The Art of Resilience: A Continuum of Tlingit Art, the first large-scale examination of Tlingit art whose forms have long defined the public perception of Northwest Coast Native art. It will include items from the Portland Art Museum’s 1948 acquisition of the Axel Rasmussen collection that inspired the dedication of permanent gallery space at the Museum to showcase Native American art. The exhibition will complement the world-class collection with stunning contemporary works and others to be commissioned specifically for the exhibition.  Dartt remarks:

“In developing The Art of Resilience and our contemporary installations, we’re forging strong connections with the Native artists and communities.  We’re bridging the past and future of Native American Art at the Museum.”

Indigenous Currents

The Center for Contemporary Native Art’s inaugural exhibition thlatwa-thlatwa: Indigenous Currents opened in October, featuring the work of contemporary Oregon Native artists Greg Archuleta, Greg Robinson, and Sara Siestreem. These three artists bring forward a strong sense of the continuum of Native cultures and artistic practices in Oregon. Each of these artists is working in traditional as well as “modern” media, but their practice is rooted in their sense of Native identity and values as integral to their roles as Native community members—not solely as individuals with exceptional talents.

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entrance to the new Center of Contemporary Native Art and its inaugural exhibition

The exhibition addresses the issues these artists face in their everyday lives, as Native people challenged to assert their indigeneity in a growing urban metropolis. They all work in their own ways to educate Oregonians about the deep and rich history of this land and its rivers. Their collective goal is to make visual the ancestral memory that fuels the passion for their work—a memory largely invisible to the people who share this home. In partnering with the Portland Art Museum to bring this vision to the public, the shared goal of these three artists is to help visitors more deeply understand the art and experiences of Oregon Native people—past and present—and to more fully appreciate the unique beauty of the cultures so deeply rooted here.

For this project (among others), the Museum’s curatorial and education staff are making a conscious effort to allow the artists’ to engage the public and talk about their own work and artistic practice; rather than adopting the standard practice of Museum curators or educators talking about the artists’ work (whether through interpretive texts, publications, or public programs).  The artists have been leading gallery talks in the Center to talk about their work, and the Museum has been using these videos as well as artist interviews (see below) to share this project with a public audience.  In keeping with this goal, I am embedding a few of these videos below so that you can learn more about the art and practice of each artist with minimal intervention on the part of the Museum.

Survivance

In March of 2016, the Center for Contemporary Native Art will present its second exhibition featuring the work of Demian DinéYazhi’ (Diné) and Kali Spitzer (Kaska Dena/Jewish). Together, these artists will frame themes of gender, sexuality, and identity through the lens of their respective Indigenous cultural perspectives and traditional practices. Their work in the new Center will demonstrate their commitment to survivance, defined by Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor as Indigenous self-expression in any medium that tells a story about an active Native presence in the world now.

Survivance is more than mere survival—it is a way of life that nourishes Indigenous ways of knowing. DinéYazhi’ and Spitzer will create a transdisciplinary and multimedia space that reaffirms their dedication to cultural revitalization through language and social engagement—a contemporary and radical act of survivance.

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RISE poster – http://burymyart.tumblr.com

Header Image:  Ishmael Hope dances with Clarissa Rizal’s “Resilience Robe” during the Shx’at Kwáan dance performance during the Sealaska Heritage Institute Celebration 2014. Rizal’s “Resilience Robe” was commissioned by the Portland Art Museum, and will be an important work in the Museum’s 2017 exhibition of Tlingit art. Photo from Juneau Empire, http://juneauempire.com/local/2014-06-15/weaving-new-native-narrative-museums

5 thoughts on “New Directions – New Connections: Revitalizing a Museum’s Approach to Native American Art”

  1. We’re working with many of these ideas at my institution and I love to see what the Portland Art Museum is doing with contemporary Native artists. Gallery teaching with our collection of Edward Curtis prints is one of my favorite tour stops (what a controversial guy!) but isn’t incredibly unique. However, comparing those with pieces by Lee Marmon and/or local San Antonio artists like Joe Harjo is unexpected and gives visitors a totally different view of what constitutes Native art. I’m feeling very inspired by this post- thank you!

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post, and learning about what we’re up to at the Portland Art Museum. I love that you bring in artists like Joe Harjo when bringing groups to look at Curtis (must spark some interesting and meaningful conversations). We open our exhibition that will include work by Curtis in February, so stay tuned and we’ll have more to share about that, no doubt. Thanks for reading!

  2. My dad invented a sailboat, for which he did a prototype, which I always thought of when I visited the Native American exhibits. In August of 2010, his sailboat was exhibited in a one-day event titled A Teaching Collection. It was in the area of Umiak marked 3B for this one-day event. Doing one-day events with local input seems to me to be a great way to draw in wider and deeper local participation with downtown institutions. My dad was probably in his 70’s when he invented this, and he had issues with arthritis, so he invented what he called a Crotch Rocket Sail Boat. He wanted to ride it the way he rode horses, something he also loved and shared with me as his daughter. You could blow on the prototype, in the bath tub, and it would go where you blew it. I continue to appreciate the opportunity to have showcased dad’s invention downtown. He died in 2004, at 89.

    1. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story about your father and his sailboat. I love when museums allow the community to bring in objects of personal significance (we have done that some at the Portland Art Museum through the Object Stories project, which began as a way for visitors to bring in personal objects and tell their stories). I agree — this is a great way for museums to connect with their local communities in deeper ways.

  3. Nicely timed post Mike, reflecting broader trends in museums and galleries to acknowledge living artists that extend from from ‘traditional’ or ‘indigenous’ arts as we know them. Also important that the language used –terms like survivance– allows these artists to define their own agenda and interests, so they don’t immediately succumb to the dominant discourse of the international curator/impresario club that defines what is and isn’t worthy of our attention. (There’s an interesting essay about this in the Chinese art context in the October/15 Art in America magazine called “Asia First” by Richard Vine.)

    I will assign your post to our exhibitions course in the spring. We spend a morning at the American Museum of Natural History’s northwest coast galleries (a space that has become its own artifact) and in the afternoon visit the “Infinity of Nations” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Gustav Heye center downtown (which includes a contemporary art section on one end of the exhibit) This gives us an opportunity to see what has changed in the display of Native-American arts and culture. So reading around what others are doing to address contemporary aspects will be very useful.

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