Sunday, June 28, 2015

Jim and Lauris Phillips Center for the Study of Southwestern Jewelry

The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian was founded in 1937 by a philanthropist from Boston, Mary Cabot Wheelwright, and her collaborator, a Navajo, Hastiin Kllah. The original building was built in the shape of a Hogan, the traditional Navajo house. 

In 2011, I wrote a missive about the plans of the Wheelwright to build an extension to their institution to house a Center for the Study of Southwestern Jewelry.  The project had been discussed and debated for some time that there needed to be permanent galleries and installations since the museum had been conceived as a museum of Navajo ceremonial art, and, after repatriation of the sacred objects, it developed as a Kunsthalle for exhibitions of the work of individual Native artists and also historical subjects.  We have been coming out here for 25 years and known the director of the Wheelwright, Jonathan Batkin, during that time and the shows have been among the very best in town.

Finally, this June the long awaited goal of galleries for the permanent collection was reached and we attended the opening.   Though the museum had been donated some silver in the past when it was decided that silver and jewelry would be the focus of the permanent galleries the first major purchase was a collection of Native American silver spoons in 2002.

Martha Hopkins Struever, a dealer and collector for whom the main gallery is named has also been a major influence in the lives of many Native jewelers through mentoring and acquisition of their work. Over the course of the campaign, she directed many donors to the Wheelwright and, I suspect, was behind many of the anonymous gifts.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Batkin

Jack and Ann Stewman had scoured the country for an institution that they felt would appreciate their Native jewelry collection and when they saw the 2005 exhibition of Hopi jeweler Charles Loloma at the Wheelwright and met its dynamic director they knew they had found what they were looking for. They promised their collection as well as additional funds to kick off the last leg of a fund raising campaign to be able to add the wing for the study center.

They say good things come in threes and in this case it was Lauris Phillips known as a voracious collector and dealer in the field of Southwest Jewelry who donated her personal collection of rare early pieces in 2010. 

We attended the afternoon opening and it commenced with a prayer by the Navajo sand painter and silversmith, Joe Ben and his son Zachariah giving a blessing.   Joe Ben spoke about the great influence and assistance both Marti Struever and Lovena Ohl, another major dealer in the field had been.  After a short prayer song outside the doors of the new center the director went inside the galleries with the Bens who did two blessing songs in private as requested by the Navajo.  The door was left part way open so that those crowded into the ante room could hear but not see.

From left Zachariah, Joe Ben, Jonathan Batkin with artist Jonathan Lorretto

At the members’ opening the next day we saw Zachariah Ben demonstrate his sand painting technique.


After the blessing we were invited back to a large tent where tables and chairs were set out and food and drink were provided.  The director then thanked the many people who were involved in one way or another in the success of this monumental endeavor.  Wisely, we were given individual time slots to see the galleries so that they never got too crowded.  Since this first day was for donors and artists the pecking order was obvious by the times assigned!


The galleries are truly beautifully done with recessed vitrines in wood paneling.  Inside each case, on  the left and sometimes right side as well there are general didactic labels giving the history of what is in the case.  The silver and jewelry are beautifully mounted in the center of the case and below labels lighted from underneath have images of the pieces and brief label copy.  The cases are in roughly chronological order starting out in the late 19th century and going through to contemporary.  Some are devoted to bracelets, concho belts or horse bridles and others have the work of single tribe such as the thunderbird jewelry of Santa Domingo (Kewa) Pueblo or an individual artist such as Charles Loloma.

Photo credit: Jonathan Batkin

 True to its title as a study center Johnathan Batkin has assembled unique documentation of the field. In 1995 he was able to negotionate  the donation and management of the archive of John Adair (1913-1997) an anthropologist who  was the first to research the origins and early history of Native American silversmithing.  He wrote the seminal book on “Navajo and Pueblo Silversmiths” in 1944.  The museum has continued to acquire documentation about early Southwest silversmiths and even some of their original tools making  the Center a must place to go for in depth study in the field.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Currents: New Media in Santa Fe

The first question is, “What is New Media?”  I quickly found a good answer at newmedia.org.  It is “is a 21st Century catchall term used to define all that is related to the internet and the interplay between technology, images and sound. In fact, the definition of new media changes daily, and will continue to do so. New media evolves and morphs continuously.”  It is where art meets technology and it seems to be a continuous battle between the two.

Currents is produced by Parallel Studios in Santa Fe.  It is a not for profit put together by a group of video and installation artists.  The Co-executive Directors Mariannah Amster and Frank Ragano are interested in producing exhibitions to provide a venue for new media artists.  The first edition of Currents was in 2010.  The main event is always free and it seems to grow larger every year. It takes place in the 31,000 square foot exhibition space known as El Museo Cultural.  This space is also often a venue for art fairs.  For Currents it is totally blacked out with the only light on or from the exhibits themselves, and ,wisely, a separate light on the label.  There are about 45 exhibits here that vary in size from quite small to 400 square feet.  Since this includes sets of short films as well as outside venues, approximately 125 artists participate in Currents. 

There can be a disorienting nature to the dark space and ever moving exhibits so there are plenty of places to sit, watch and listen.  In one exhibit you walk onto or is it into a pool of moving water.  One steps rather gingerly if you don’t have a great deal of faith that they are not trying to soak you!  There are earphones so you can hear the water swishing and gurgling around you. In this brief video,  the ambient voice is coincidental.  I left the earphones dangling and you can see my shoes as well.  Titled Pink Noise by Yolande Harris.


While some of the works are purely visual many include sound. On a large screen, here is a detail of the Video “Noise Fold” by David Stout and Cory Metcalf from Denton, Texas.



Some of the exhibits are interactive.  We saw an artist who had a stylus attached to a gyroscope-like contraption, which periodically took images of people looking at the work. It then took bits of the image to draw until the round piece of paper was reasonably full.  According to the artist it would continue until the paper was totally full but he preferred to stop before that point.  The artist is Harvey Moon from San Francisco and he titled his work “Delta”.  He is interested in connecting people with technology through what is new in the field.

Hye Young Kim, originally from South Korea, has created a video experience called Intimate Distance where two visitors are asked to sit opposite each other with their heads together.  Some are related like Aunt and Nephew or Mother and Daughter and others are Boyfriend and Girlfriend.  The artist is interested in the interaction and also whether they will kiss or not!   Some of the videos are exhibited on a screen nearby.


An event like this also allows artists of different nations to get together to exchange ideas, techniques and understand the art of other countries.  The immense effort that goes into such an enterprise makes the project worth being funded by National and State agencies, private foundations and individual contributions. This year 40 artists had their, travel lodging and shipping paid by Parallel Studios and honorariums were paid to local artists.

Currents does not only occur at El Museo but at a number of galleries and other venues in Santa Fe and this year the organization will present exhibitions at four other locations around New Mexico as well.  It is the largest venture of its kind anywhere giving new media artists around the world the opportunity to qualify and participate.

I must admit I find it intriguing but still have trouble reconciling it with how I was brought up as to what art is.  On the other hand there have been so many art movements that have been ridiculed in their own time only to last until they become part of the artistic vocabulary.

The show has a short 2 week run and will close on June 28.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Fundraising

I am writing this Missive because my wife and I have joined a number of Boards of institutions here in Santa Fe.  In need of funds, as all institutions are, it is necessary for us to understand fundraising as best we can.  As you know, it is the process by which one solicits donations from individuals, businesses, foundations or governmental agencies.  I believe that most of us find this an unpleasant task and leave it up to professionals called Development officers to bring prospective donors to the CEO of their organizations.   That individual does the final pitch particularly in the case of larger donations.


The question is who does one approach.  The best professionals have gotten out in their communities and been introduced to and met with prospective donors.  In the case of businesses it is usually easier to beat the bushes and meet the appropriate person on their own turf.  In the case of grants it is best to hire a professional grant writer because this is its own skill not only knowing which government agency or private foundation might be interested in a given project but then filling out the complicated and idiosyncratic forms in the appropriate manner.

There is an eternal question that comes up on Boards, “Why is our donor base so old?  How do we attract a younger audience”.  It is my personal belief from observation that people are wired that way.  We spend over half of our lives trying to acquire funds to reach certain goals and then one day we realize it is no longer our only or prime desire.  Witness all the yard and garage sales you find in the suburbs and country: one starts to divest oneself of one’s goods.

Museum of Spanish Colonial Art

In my opinion fundraising from private individuals, and I am sure the professionals would amplify greatly on this analysis, falls into two categories: one is the care and handling of the large donors; and the other is the stewardship of the smaller ones.  The latter are those who wish to support an institution but do not wish to or cannot contribute the big bucks.  Why is it important to cater to both?  Because once in a while the regular small donor becomes a very large donor.  I gave such an example last year.

Also, the consistent donor’s smaller contributions add up.  The smart fundraiser realizes that $1,000 a year even has an advantage over the one time $10,000 donation because there is an excellent chance that there will be an equal donation from the $1,000 donor in the 11th and 12th year.


I don’t want to give the impression that young people are uncharitable but they, of necessity, will probably be more modest donors.  Obviously I am not speaking about the young genius who has just sold his company for a zillion dollars.   Thanks to the internet there is a new phenomenon that donors, often the younger ones, donate more easily through the web.  They find it much simpler than writing out a check or filling out a form and finding a stamp and mailbox.  I never appreciated the effort involved in finding a mailbox when I lived in a city with a box every block or two but in the country one needs to drive to it!  There are also crowd sourcing websites that help raise funds for eleemosynary as well as for profit ventures and I have known a few cases where people raised funds for needed medical attention on line as well.  The web is therefore a relatively new source of revenue but again not for the major donations. The latter come through longer term relationships with the institution and probably with one or a few individuals there.

 But where to start the cultivation process?  It begins with the question of what is it worth to have an art museum, a Kunsthalle, or a performing arts center.  Many believe it is so much more important to give to medical research than to the arts.   Well, thank goodness many want to give to such research but it is up to those of us in the arts to show the value of art in society and the preservation thereof.

The Lensic Performing Arts Center
I was tempted to write, “where would the world be without art” but that is ridiculous because since man invented fire he has created art.  So the question is whether it is worth preserving.  The education best starts when we are very young.  Of course, our son Hunter was taken to art institutions from a young age but he had an additional impetus when he was in first grade and won a drawing contest and his “masterpiece” became part of a major exhibition at the teachers’ union offices on Union Square in New York City.   This gave him a sense of pride (not to mention a rare opportunity for a meal at a nearby MacDonald’s. ) It also gave him a sense of preserving an art work. 

School groups are taken to museums but far too rarely, and then all too often there is only a very dry docent giving them facts rather than getting them to use their imaginations and ingenuity.  It becomes a chore rather than a pleasure.  It does not have to be that way. The headmaster, a classicist, in our son’s middle school years took his class to the Metropolitan Museum and let them loose telling them to find an object that spoke to them.  On each of repeated visits they had be able to find their way back to that object.  After studying up on it, they had to bring the rest of the group to tell them about it.  That gave each of them a life long sense of possession.  Still today, Hunter visits his object when he is at the Met. 

Many institutions bring in groups of young financially successful professionals in the hopes that they will someday become donors and trustees.  Too often these are merely social events.  The Museum of Modern Art, however, has a long standing program for Junior Associates, those 40 and under, who come to the Museum and socialize over a glass of wine but then they are taken for a behind the scenes tour.  There is nothing more seductive than being taken to where the public does not usually go or getting access in advance of others.

Anything and everything we can do to get people involved with our art institutions and cultivate their interest as early as possible will ensure that, when they are ready, they will consider contributing in one way or the other.


Sunday, June 7, 2015

Graduation

We went to the commencement ceremony of the New Mexico School for the Arts (NMSA).  This Charter high school was established by Governor Bill Richardson and granted its charter by the State in 2008.  It opened its door to its first class of 9th graders in 2010.  The founders and inspiration behind the entire effort were Catherine Oppenheimer and her husband Garret Thornburg with a number of other very dedicated backers.

Before NMSA, Catherine, a former ballet dancer, established the National Dance Institute of New Mexico (NDI) modeled on the methods developed by New York City Ballet star Jacques d’Amboise who founded NDI in New York City in 1976.  From a base in Santa Fe, NDI New Mexico. goes into public schools across the state and now has over 8,000 4th grade students who learn discipline and cooperation through dance .  Statistics show that these students have done significantly better academically than those without the training.

We have been attending NDI performances for the beginner to advanced students for some time and you can tell which students stand out.  In 2011 we saw this young girl performing with her older brother in the musical “A Chorus Line”:


I must admit it brought me to tears and in fact I wrote about it at the time. 

We have been following this young woman for all these years and last week she graduated from NMSA.  Her full name is Gabriella Monique Ottersberg Enriquez known at school as Gaby Ottersberg.  Gaby graduated with the highest honors from her class.  This is a very talented class. Though their specialties are in Dance, Music, Theater and Visual Arts, 29 out of 44 students graduated with academic honors.  They receive 3 hours plus every day in their arts specialties and the rest of the time is devoted to the usual high school curriculum.  According to the commencement program 100% of the graduating class is going on to college including schools such as Bard, Lewis & Clark, Oberlin College and Conservatory and the University of Pennsylvania.


Who remembers their graduation?  I just remember that I had to go to my High School graduation but I don’t believe I even attended my college or post-graduate commencements.   I do know that Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at my high school graduation in 1962 and all I remember is an old lady who I thought was going to be inspirational and she wasn’t … at least not to an 18 year old.

My older son, Danny, actually remembers that Mario Cuomo, Governor of New York, spoke at his High School and George H. W. Bush at his College graduations.  He did not remember what they said but found George Bush’s commencement address on the web!  It speaks of grand concepts of freedom but there is no practical knowledge being imparted.

When my daughter, Cathy, graduated from college Mike Wallace spoke, you would think we remember that, but we don’t!

Kathy Bates, the actress, spoke at my younger son, Hunter’s College Graduation, and she did say one thing that we remembered and found important.  She said that the young people should take advantage of every opportunity and if you play the guitar and someone asks you to bring it to a party you bring it because you never know who might be there and hear you. That was how she got her first break.

Gaby was kind enough to invite us not only to her graduation but also to her graduation party for family and friends.  I asked her then who would be speaking at her commencement but she could not remember the name and said she did not have a chance to look her up yet.  She must have perked up, however, when that person announced that she was a spy and former covert CIA Operative Officer.  It was Valerie Plame Wilson.

Photo Credit: Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican
Ms. Wilson had practical experience to impart to the students that they hopefully will remember.  She did give some of the usual individual pieces of advice such as-- college was an opportunity to explore and decide where your passion was and not to be scared to make up your mind, change it and make it up again.  She also advised most strongly that if you were not a morning person, not to take early morning classes!  

But most important she spoke of the need for perseverance and resilience.  This is an imperative for anyone in the arts.   Her illustration was most apt and personal.  In the run-up to the Iraq war her cover was blown and her husband’s reputation was shattered in retaliation against her husband, Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson.  He refuted the administration when he reported on his 2002 fact-finding trip to Niger to investigate allegations that Saddam Hussein was attempting to purchase Yellow Cake Uranium.   He then wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times called "What I Didn't Find in Africa".  Valerie Plame said. “we were called liars and traitors and those were the nice things!”

After they were done with the subsequent inquiries and trials they picked up and left Washington moving with their  twins to start all over again in Santa Fe.  Living well is the best revenge and here they have become very active and influential in the community.

To end on a lighter note, there were as usual a number of speakers but one of the best was the young senior Genevieve Conley from the Music Department.  She gave the Salutatorian Remarks.  Her last line was, “But if your passion is in the arts make sure your parents give you a credit card before you leave home”!!


Sunday, May 31, 2015

Rich on Red

From Memorial Day through Labor Day Santa Fe is celebrating “A Summer of Color”.  The State Museums and some private museums have all picked a color and many galleries as well.  It all began when Shelley Thompson, the Director, Marketing and Outreach at New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs and publisher of El Palacio the official magazine of the Museums of New Mexico, started to hear about what the museums planned for the summer.  One was planning to open a new silver and jewelry wing to the museum, another focusing on turquoise.  Since the bureau of tourism for the state had been looking for a public relations hook she suggested “Summer of Color” and they parlayed it from there.

I will probably write a number of Missives, on the exhibitions derived from this theme but I doubt there will be any that will surpass the one at the Museum of International Folk Art as far as International interest is concerned.

The exhibition is called “A Red Like No Other Color”, Red for short.  It is an international survey of the subject of cochineal which, I learned from the catalog is not about a restaurant in Marfa, Texas which many art lovers know since the artist Donald Judd made it a center for minimalist art but rather a tiny red bug found in the pear cactus.  For centuries it was the favorite source for the color red for artists in many media.  It was known in Mexico since Pre-Columbian times and by 1600 became the second most important commodity after silver that the Spanish exported from New Spain.  In fact, the ships carrying the cochineal were favorite targets of British piracy on the high seas.  The Earl of Essex became an instant hero in Britain when in 1557 he returned from a voyage having plundered 3 Spanish ships and returned with 55,000 pounds of cochineal.

I had never heard of this bug until Santa Fe began buzzing about several years ago.  I am sure that all participants in a summer of color will explain why their color is dominant above all others.  In the case of cochineal, however, they have a great argument in their list of Lenders including U. S. Museums such as the Getty, Denver Art Museum and the Metropolitan plus museums in Spain, Italy and Great Britain and from institutions in Mexico and the Canary Islands as well as others; plus all those who worked on this show for which there were over 40 international scholars and scientists who swarmed to the subject.  Red is a color that we all understand and can identify, unlike mauve and chartreuse.   Remember that red pencil on your term papers… but that may not have been cochineal.  We would only know by scientific analysis. That was done on each piece in the show either at the institutions themselves that had the equipment or in the New Mexico State Museum lab.  Its chief conservator, Mark MacKenzie went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan to learn what equipment would be needed and what to look for.

In order to know when cochineal was actually used in works of art before contemporary times it took careful analysis without harming the work of art.  This became an expense not usually needed to put on an exhibition but clearly there was enough interest at institutions where all wish to use the wonders of science in the study of the arts that even the National Endowment for the Humanities thought it important enough to give their maximum grant of $400,000 allowing the museum to get some loans that otherwise they could not have been able to bring in. 

The cochineal dye gave the possibility of a rich color, which had a great deal of flexibility in its shades of red.  It was used for paintings, drawings, and decorating boxes and most often in textiles. It is not limited to the art world, however, it can be found in make-up and has even been used by Starbucks to color their brews until vegans began to complain about it!

The guest curator who led this six-year effort was Barbara Anderson who has just retired from the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs and was formerly the Head of the Getty Research Institute Exhibitions and Consulting Curator for Spanish and Latin American Materials.  Her cohort as editor and an author for the catalog was Carmella Padilla, a prominent freelance writer, who has written extensively about Hispanic art and culture in New Mexico.  The in-house curator was Nicolasa Chávez and the show was conceived of by the director of the Museum, Marcia Bol.

You may want to know what kind of art I am raving about.  It is what my father used to call a Mixtum Compositum, a little bit of everything bound together by the common denominator of cochineal and the quality of the work.  There are reasons that the greatest art made for the richest patrons costs more.  The artist took more care and was able to pay more for their materials.

The best known artist in the show is El Greco and the Museo del Greco in Toledo, Spain lent their portrait of El Salvador Apostolado. Though it is an excellent example of the artist’s work it is almost hidden in a corner rather than on an end wall showing that they were not looking just for names but fine examples of the cochineal technique.

Photo Credit: Tomas Antelo, Instituto del Patrimonio
Cultural de España, Madrid

Probably the most famous red in the world is that of the English Red Coat soldiers and there is a fine example from the National Army Museum in London.  Unfortunately, when I write about any museum exhibition I run into the problem of Rights to images.  In this case, however, the Folk Art Museum was not granted those rights.  But the Army Museum’s website has an excellent image.

The cochineal bug existed in the United States as well and Native Americans were always using colorful dyes for their art so naturally they adopted the cochineal red.   This Lakota Sioux headdress and trailer of the late 19th century was given to the Folk Art Museum by Florence Bartlett in 1955.

Photo Credit: Blair Clark

From Santa Fe there is a fabulous gown by Orlando Dugi lent to the Museum by the Navajo fashion designer and beadworker himself.  I just kept imagining how stunning it would look on some Starlet on the red velvet carpet at the Academy Awards!


In Santa Fe We have not had many world-class exhibitions that could stand in any museum in this country or abroad but this is certainly one of them.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Always Stay in Vegas


 The ultimate Fantasy Land is not in Orlando or Anaheim, but in Las Vegas, Nevada.  I had always wanted to go.  I had these visions of this beautiful place with luxury hotels offering all the amenities with a casino somewhere on the property.  Little did I realize that it is a city built up with unsightly skyscrapers along a single road, the Strip, and the initial impression is generally, uninviting.

What truly surprised me began when we got off the airplane and there was a ring of slot machines.  If you come with a child… well don’t, but if you do, be sure they don’t run right over to the glittering machines because a security guard will tell you immediately that your child is not allowed near them.   As one father responded, “Then why do you put them right off of the gates!"


I should explain that it was a birthday gift from my children that we would all get together in Vegas without grandchildren who are all underage.


We stayed for five days and four nights staying at two different hotels.  Here came another shock.  The hotels are huge and the casinos serve as the lobbies.  You have to walk for a quarter mile past slot machines and gaming tables just to get to the room elevators.

The first hotel we stayed at was the Bellagio.  Here I must say we lucked out.   At registration it took quite a while until we could get a room.  Everyone else was checking in quite quickly so I questioned the receptionist who said that she was trying to get us a better room.  Since we were checking in with my younger son and his girlfriend they asked if we would mind sharing a space.  At first I thought NO! But, then we found that it was two bedrooms which sounded okay.  When we got to our suite on the 34th floor we found a huge living room with two great bedrooms which each had two bathrooms, a his and a hers.  In case four bathrooms were not enough they gave us a powder room for good measure.  There was also a stocked bar and a large dining table to eat our breakfast on.  The Bellagio décor is quite fitting for Fantasy Land, including a ceiling of colored glass in the lobby by Dale Chihuly and a Japanese garden where I saw several Japanese taking pictures probably to show their friends back home who had never seen anything like it!



The next morning we moved to the Aria Hotel with a slightly shorter distance from the front desk to the room elevators but about half a mile through the casino from the garage to the front desk.  The Aria, with its towers has 54 floors  (here our room was only on the 12th) with a total of 4004 guest rooms.  They were expecting 1,425 people to check in on just one day.  Multiply this by all the hotels on the Strip, the visiting population is an incredible 40 million visitors a year.  In the case of a recession like 2008 and 2009 the losses can be immense! 
 
Lest I leave the wrong impression there are lots of things to enjoy in Fantasy Land.  The hotels all have swimming pools and some have several.   There are gyms and quiet rooms, which one needs after the noise of the slot machines and the musac or live music blasting through the casino. One designed space that I found very inviting was at the Venetian Hotel where they have a gondola rides and spaces evoking a Venetian Palazzo.


There are some great shows in Vegas.  The first that we saw was one of several Cirque de Soleil extravaganzas.  This was an Eastern fantasy called KA telling a heroic tale of twins who embark on an adventurous journey to fulfill their destinies.  The acts were amazing, Here is one of the high flying demonstrations.



We also saw one of the headliners, Jay Leno.  He was, in my opinion, much funnier live that on his TV show.  Like most of the celebrities he had someone open for him who was also excellent, Finis Henderson, an impersonator of all the famous vocalists such as Sinatra, Elvis, Michael Jackson etc.  After the show we were standing around outside, (when you are a group of 8 nothing happens quickly) and who should walk out not in the suit and tie he wore on stage, but casually dressed, as we were, Jay Leno, who said hello to all the stragglers.  When one of my kids announced that this was a birthday present for me he shook my hand in congratulation.  I didn’t wash it for a week!

In order to see the old Vegas we went to the Neon Museum which is a bone yard for old electric signs both neon and incandescent.  Today LEDs are favored.  I understand that at night a few of the signs can still be lit, but evening tours were booked up through the summer.  We then walked through a bit of the Old Las Vegas which is not the Vegas of today. What we saw looked very 1950’s with no evidence of the town that was founded in 1905 and incorporated in 1911.  Later it was run by the Mob and slowly became the Strip of today with huge resorts owned by corporations and foreign investors.



My three kids and their significant others treated us to all these events. The finale was a late night ride on the world’s largest ferris wheel at the LINQ where the kids got us tickets for a “car” with all you could drink as you watched the panorama below a perfect farewell to Fantasy Land.


Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Museum as More than Narrative

“Telling the Stories of the American West:  The New Frontiers of Narrative” was the title of W. Richard West, Jr.’s  lecture, currently President and CEO of the Autry National Center of the American West, in Los Angeles.  He was giving the final talk in a series titled “Exploring Narrative” presented in a collaboration between the School for Advanced Research and the Ralph T. Coe Foundation.



Rick West, as he is known, has a degree in American History from Harvard and graduated from Stanford Law School.  The first 20 years of his career were spent as a Washington lawyer at the prestigious law firm, Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson and then the Indian owned law firm in Albuquerque, Gover, Stetson, Williams & West, P.C.  Many of his clients were the Indian Tribes.  He is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes and Peace Chief of the Southern Cheyenne.

I guess it should be no surprise that Rick West was chosen to be the founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington D.C. where he spent almost 20 years.  His law partner Kevin Gover took his place there as director.  At the age of 69 Rick West decided that rather than retire to Santa Fe, as he had said he would, he was going to take the reins at the Autry Museum.  It was founded in 1988 by the famous singing cowboy of Radio, TV and film fame, Orvon Grover Autry better known as Gene Autry (1907-1998).  The institution started with a large collection of Western Art and memorabilia and a mission to tell the story of the American West.


Having visited and lived in the Southwest for sometime now I can testify first hand that it is quite a different world from what we experienced back East.  The background, lifestyle and the thinking is different.  If we were in Europe it would be like comparing Ireland and Spain!  Therefore, it is a story that needs to be told.  We tell stories not just to educate the visitor but also those living their lives in that environment.  I always think of Winston Churchill quoting George Santayana, (in The Life of Reason, 1905) “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  First we need to learn it!

Though Native Americans have obviously lived everywhere in what we now call the United States a great part of their more recent history is part of the story of the American West.   Their history has been an oral one and art was just a part of life, not a course you took at school but rather something you learned from your family.  Therefore, the concept of telling a story through art in a museum context is quite new for them.  In the past and in some places still today Native American Art is used ethnographically, in order to learn about a culture.  As the Indians have gained their own voice in the Anglo world they are eager to express their ideas themselves and not filtered through the Anglo academic.

National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)

Viewed from the outside, NMAI was a political exercise where a multitude of tribal constituencies were asked to tell their history in their own way through their art.  As a result we did not get an art museum but another ethnographic and history museum telling many different Indian stories from the Native perspective.   In his talk Rick West made the point that this was the New Way, that the Old Way of curating by scholars was no longer valid and I believe he totally missed the point.  There can be little question that the Native Americans have to have their own voice and views heard and seen but that does not automatically invalidate art history and connoisseurship.  What about the American and European scholars of Islamic art, are they to now be totally discredited?  One wants to hear a multitude of voices when dealing with art.

At the Autry, Rick West said he is listening to all the voices and giving them all a chance to tell their stories.  That is as it should be, but again, it is one sided.  West seems to be only interested in telling stories, i.e. narrative, leaving out the beauty of the creations of a culture, or at best calling it incidental to the story. As said there is room for both and it is important that both be expressed.  It is probably a good thing to have both kinds of museums for art and for history.  While one constituency may be interested in the use and meaning of objects that can be supplied by current participants another may be drawn to the culture  through the esthetic quality of its creations.  

Rick West told us that there is authority outside the museum and that is absolutely true and every object tells a story but a work of art does so much more and it helps to have someone trained in the vocabulary of art to interpret it.