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Heard houses unparalleled collection of Southwest American Indian art

PHOENIX, Ariz. – There is a certain irony in the fact that someone from the cold, damp climate of the northeast was the driving force behind the creation of the Heard Museum, home of one of the finest collections of American Indian art of the hot, dry southwest.

Without a doubt, Dwight Heard would be happy to know that the institution that bears his name and was created in 1929 to house the collection of American Indian art and artifacts that he and his wife Maie had amassed is one of the most famous museums in the world.

Heard, who grew up in Wayland, Mass, where the winters are long, cold and damp moved to Chicago after high school, where he met and married Maie in 1893. A year later, Heard was diagnosed with lung problems and on his doctor’s recommendation, the couple moved to Phoenix in 1895.

Wealthy landowners whose successful businesses included real estate development, investment lending, and newspaper publishing, the couple was also philanthropic, supporting the community with time, money and donations of land.

During those years, the Heards developed a passion for American Indian art and began to collect pieces that they exhibited in their home, a 6,000-square foot house called Casa Blanca. When Heard died of a heart attack in 1929, a museum was already under construction next to the Heards’ home that could no longer accommodate the couple’s extensive collection on Indian art.

The Heard Museum opened modestly in late 1929 and for more than 20 years Maie Heard acted as museum director, curator, maintenance staff, lecturer and guide, teaching visitors about the art and Native cultures that she loved. After her death in 1951, the museum’s Board of Trustees hired staff and implemented educational programs in an effort to keep the museum going.

After several expansions, the Heard now has 130,000 square feet of galleries, classrooms, and performance areas, occupying more than eight times the size of the original museum built in 1929 to house the Heards’ personal collection.

Built in the original Spanish-style architecture around an open courtyard, the Heard Museum has been a landmark in Phoenix for more than 75 years, and a place where scholars and other visitors from across the world come to view the collections and learn about the art and history of the region’s indigenous peoples.

The museum is a continuum of living culture and art, mixing objects from the ancient material cultures of the region’s indigenous peoples with contemporary exhibitions, performances, and festivals

In 1926, the Heards purchased La Ciudad, a Hohokam Indian ruin in Phoenix and opened the site to the public for afternoon views. The museums’ archeological material comes from this site.

At the heart of the museum is its permanent collection an exhibition called HOME: Native People in the Southwest, which includes the museum’s most prized masterpieces, representations of sweeping landscapes, poetry and personal recollection with artists and Native community members, all reflecting in the importance of home, family and the land. The museum’s courtyards have gardens filled with native plants and trees. There is a full-sized Navajo hogan, and a 21-foot mural featuring a cultural portrait of the Yaqui people by Mario Martinez, Pascua Yaqui.

Inside, a surprising 30-foot glass and clay art fence by Tony Jojola, Isleta, and Rosemary Lonewolf, Santa Clara/Tewa, guides visitors into the main section of galleries where the museum’s most valuable treasures are.

There are rooms of pre-Columbian pots and baskets of astounding beauty – red on black Hopi Tewa pots made circa 1050-1150; large, dramatic jar baskets and flat trays produced for the tourist trade by Western Apache basket weavers from the 1880s on; Bitohochi style bowls with intricate geometrical designs of perfect circles and squares that were made without the benefit of any kind of tool other than the artist’s brush; exquisite beaded bags, jewelry, and huge contemporary paintings interspersed along the way.

A huge glass cabinet along an entire wall displays 500 Hopi kachina dolls donated to the museum by the late Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1986.

Kachina dolls are religious icons hand carved from cottonwood roots by Hopi artisans as ceremonial gifts to children that are used to teach them about religion.

The museum also has an interactive room with access to Web sites, radio stations, and Native newspapers and magazines; multimedia and interactive displays, free films and a video gallery.

And then there is the museum gift shop, which sells quality authentic American Indian jewelry,pottery, paintings, weavings, sculpture, clothing and books.

“We’re responsible for 35-to 40 percent of the museum’s operating funds. We’re a pretty big operation,” said Ginny Harris, manager of the retail operation.

The museum has five separate retail shops around Phoenix and most of the items sold are purchased directly from the artists, Harris said.

“Artists come to the museum or send us photos by e-mail and then just come in and sign up and one of the buyers works with them.”

The items in the shop are of such high quality that “some people walk in here and they think they’re in the museum.”

The Heard has an extensive education program for adults and children, including school tours and workshops.

And the museum hosts the famous Indian Fair & Market during the first weekend of March each year. The market features 700 juried American Indian artists and their productions of jewelry, textiles, sculpture, pottery, paintings, baskets, carvings and beadwork. There are cultural demonstrations, music and dance performances, indigenous storytelling

The 51st Annual Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market will take place March 7 and 8. More information is available at

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