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Native exhibits to stress a continuum

DENVER – When Denver Art Museum’s Native exhibits re-open to the public Jan. 23, 2011, they will present art across time rather than in blocs representing “historical” versus “contemporary” periods.

The exhibits will show that Native artists did not die out in the 1800s and then re-emerge recently, but that they have been living and creating continuously from prehistoric times until today using materials and techniques that have evolved as cultures have changed.

It’s an approach that views art by Natives as “art” rather than necessarily as “artifact” or even as solely “Indian art” in the narrowest definition.

“Every artwork in our collection was created by an individual artist, with his or her own opinions, influences and inspirations,” said Nancy Blomberg, Native Arts curator.

Most of the Native art exhibits at the museum closed June 13 to the public in order for the transformation to take place, with its redesigned walls and spaces, interactive emphasis, and new displays to complement old favorites.

The museum has some 18,000 pieces in its American Indian collection, and about 600 to 700 pieces have been and will be on display, but they will not all be the same ones. About 50 favorites – including a Plains tipi and famed San Ildefonso Pueblo pottery, for example – will return, but decisions about other pieces remain tentative, Blomberg said.

Before the reinvention, Blomberg and other museum officials toured galleries and museums in Canada, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand, which has a museum the nation considers a bicultural museum because it has been “very collaborative” with the Maori and other indigenous groups.

The planners also convened focus groups of Native and non-Native people and those who were and were not art patrons. The museum itself has a Native American Task Force that was involved in the changes. The groups’ discussions were, in part, to challenge stereotypes.

“There’s the automatic assumption that American Indian art is more an anthropological exploration rather than an artistic exploration,” Blomberg said. “People have thought the objects just sort of bubbled up out of immutable cultures with no artists behind them.

“But artists had their own views and reasons for making them. Whether it is an artist from 2,000 years ago or an artist creating today – they are trying to create the most beautiful objects they could.

“American Indians are still alive and still producing fine art work.”

A contemporary ivory carver from the Arctic was able to explain something about Denver Art Museum’s oldest piece, a 2,000-year-old ivory tool depicting a sculpin, a wide-mouthed fish whose representation was used as a weight on a hunting shaft.

“Why would someone go to all that trouble to carve this just for a tool?” was the question Blomberg posed, and was told that animals preferred to be killed by beautiful things. The carving was made or commissioned “to make it so beautiful that the animal hunted would give its life.”

In showcasing individual artists, the museum looked at changes “to showcase not only the physical nature but the intellectual underpinnings of the gallery.”

In addition to Denver Art Museum, at least four museums locally have Native collections – Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Colorado Historical Society, the University of Denver Museum of Anthropology, and the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History, she noted.

The different institutions have different missions or goals, but that of the Denver Art Museum is one of collecting and presenting the finest art in the world, “and American Indian art is in that context,” she said, “as art, not as anthropology.”

Far from being static, Native art, like art everywhere, has evolved along with the rest of cultural changes, just as dentalium shells have sometimes supplanted elk teeth, beads have often been used in place of quills, and cloth has at times replaced hides.

A young Lakota woman asked to see traditional cradleboards and, after her baby was born, brought in the baby and her own modern adaptation of a cradleboard with self-adhesive straps for

convenience and other new features, Blomberg said.

“It’s exciting to show changes in the material,” she said, noting the museum collection includes a 300-year-old deerskin shirt with painted ornamentation.

The museum’s Native American collection is a broad representation of art from Canada to the Rio Grande, encompassing approximately 100 tribal groups, with Plains and Southwestern pieces together comprising slightly less than half the 18,000 art works.