Saturday, February 19, 2011

Honoring Art, Honoring Artists

Hat tip, AK48.

Honoring Art, Honoring Artists
By JUDITH H. DOBRZYNSKI

WHEN the Denver Art Museum’s signature American Indian art galleries reopened last week after a seven-month overhaul, the biggest change wasn’t the new display cases or the dramatic lighting. Rather, it was in a less obvious place: the wall labels.

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.

So the museum’s “Wild Man of the Woods” mask, made in 1900 and previously identified only as “Kwakiutl,” will be attributed to Willie Seaweed, a Canadian carver who died in 1967. In another gallery an exhibition of more than 30 pieces of pottery will celebrate the extraordinary skill of Nampeyo, a Hopi woman born around 1860. Other objects, thought to be the work of single unknown creators — like a selection of Navajo “eyedazzler” weavings dated 1885-1900 — will be grouped together with labels reading, “Artist not known.”

Art museums have collected American Indian objects for decades, but, like natural history and anthropology museums, they have tended to treat them as ethnographic pieces, illustrative of the cultures they came from. Wall labels have generally steered clear even of the “anonymous” designation commonly used for Western artworks of unknown authorship and in cases where Indian artists left signature marks — as Chilkat weavers of the Pacific Northwest long have, for example — this evidence has often been ignored.

Nor did the early collectors of Indian art care much about authorship. To cite one example, George Gustav Heye, whose collections form the core of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, routinely bought pieces without noting anything other than the tribe and date. But Nancy Blomberg, the curator of native arts at the Denver Art Museum, was determined to do things differently when she reconceived the galleries, choosing nearly 700 works from the museum’s world-class 18,000-piece collection. “I want to signal that there are artists on this floor,” she said.

Although some museums have made scattershot efforts to identify the artists behind pre-20th-century Indian pieces, the Denver museum has now embraced attribution more completely and comprehensively than any other institution. Ms. Blomberg’s message begins in the introductory panel, which celebrates the individual artists on the floor, and continues in the labels beside the artworks, for which she drew on her own work and the research of other scholars. With excitement in her voice she told of one recent discovery.

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