Standing in the Special Exhibitions Gallery of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Edward Poitras speaks quietly into the microphone, looking earthward as a handful of video cameras roll behind him. Reporters, notebooks in hand, cock an ear. I almost don't catch it, but later I'm glad I make the effort to write it down: "I consider the world, wherever I am, the sky, the earth; it's a place we all share." Stopping short of a cliché, Poitras' words not only give meaning to his artwork that inspired the comment, but in one fell swoop he manages to give context to the notion of "Native American contemporary art."
And yet the artwork Poitras refers to defies stereotypes of all things Native American. "Home and Garden," visually simple and yet complex, contains no images of totem poles, animal spirits, or feathers - although these are often employed by Native American artists to surprising and compelling ends - rather, the installation consists of five single elements: a red rectangle painted on a gallery wall to suggest a door, a black, wooden slot to resemble an ID card scanner, a tent bundled in rope, and 400 pounds of dried rice corralled into a triangular figuration to form a carpet on the ground, upon which seven wadded up American greenbacks are placed to mimic an alignment of stars in the Orion constellation.
When Poitras explains the significance of each item, it is easy to see how, on the whole, his artwork suggests both alienation and unity: the rice, symbolic of sustenance; the door, a portal to other realms (through which coyote is said to pass); the ID card slot, suggesting the ubiquity of identification; and the tent, symbolic of shelter. The constellation of dollars points to a unifying sky but also to the image of the pyramid on each bill, its shining eye looking eternally back at the self.
Poitras, a First Nations artist from Canada affiliated with the Gordon First Nation tribe, is among the five artists who comprise the 2009 cohort of the Eiteljorg Native Fellowship for Native American Fine Art. A program in its sixth biennial cycle, the Fellowship does for Native American artists what no other program has managed to do. Not only does it acknowledge the creative vision and accomplishments of Native American contemporary artists on a level playing field with mainstream contemporary artists, even as it attempts to address the marginalization of Native American fine art, but it has also elevated the museum itself - and in doing so, it affords the artists the capacity to reach audiences in perpetuity. The Eiteljorg Museum's contemporary art collection, built largely from this program, is now widely considered to be the finest of its kind and best known in the world.
Poitras and his fellow artists, Jim Denomie (Ojibwe), Jeffrey Gibson (Mississippi Band of Choctaw/Cherokee), Faye HeavyShield (Kainai-Blood), and Wendy Red Star (Crow), were selected by an international panel of their artist peers and other art professionals, the majority of whom are Native American. The artists are recipients of $25,000 unrestricted cash grants and a major exhibition ("Art Quantum" is now on view in the museum's Special Exhibitions Gallery through Jan. 18), and they are the subjects of a scholarly catalogue. The Eiteljorg award thus acknowledges the artist's success, and at the same time, moves it forward a notch - quite a significant notch, as it turns out.
Putting up the tent
Jennifer Complo McNutt has sustained the vision of the Fellowship program since its inception in 1999. McNutt, who has worked for the museum in various curatorial capacities since 1991, became head curator of contemporary art in 1998, the year the Fellowship was conceived. Since its first unveiling in 1999, this program has more or less defined McNutt's tenure there: forming the crux of an institutional strategy to build its permanent contemporary collection alongside its two other collection areas - Native American material culture and Western art.
The contemporary collection now contains roughly 200 original works of sculpture, painting, drawing, photography and installation, as well as prints. (A revolving selection of this work can be viewed in the museum's contemporary galleries, or by touring the galleries virtually at www.eiteljorg.org). Placed in the context of the museum on the whole, which contains roughly 10,000 objects, this might not seem like such a large number: and yet it is, especially when one considers that Native Americans have been creating art for thousands of years, and contemporary art is just that - art created during the historical present and therefore representing a relatively miniscule time period.
The Fellowship and an earlier (and also ongoing) program, New Art of the West, both funnel work into the museum's contemporary collection - while the Fellowship focuses exclusively on Native American contemporary art rather than Western contemporary art in general. Like New Art of the West, the Fellowship includes a purchase prize, significantly upping the ante of the $25,000 cash award artists also receive. With five artists in each Fellowship cycle, and six cycles completed, the numbers make it plain that this collection will continue to grow in breadth and stature as long as it continues.
And McNutt is confident that as long as the funding is in place - Lilly Endowment has been present since the beginning as a lead funder, to the tune of $470,000 each biennium - the program will continue to grow.
McNutt's office, a cubicle in the lower level of the museum, is unassuming as far as "command centers" go. Family photos cover the walls, alongside newspaper clippings and art posters. Glancing at her computer monitor, I catch a photograph of McNutt with her dogs before it fades into the next image. McNutt's passion - in addition to her work at the museum and her own visual art practice - is working with dogs. She has owned, trained and shown Labrador retrievers in competition ever since I've known her, having first crossed her path years ago when she worked at the Indiana Arts Commission.
McNutt's interest in animals is closely linked to her work ethic. "How they connect is through my sense of responsibility," she says. "If I'm going to do something then I'm going to do it well."
McNutt traces this interest back to her childhood. "When I turned 12, I got a registered quarter horse, and I would walk three miles to feed her and then back again; once in the morning and once later in the day. What that gave me was a sense of responsibility; not in the sense of burden, but reward." While McNutt appears to be outgoing, and speaks compellingly about the museum, the Fellowship, and the artists she has come to know (she describes this year's Fellowship exhibition elegantly: "This one has a sense of quiet and serenity"), she claims to be more reserved in character - and being with her animals is a way to recharge.
Seeing her in action at the Fellowship press conference, where Edward Poitras spoke so unassumingly about his own work, McNutt confidently moderates the proceedings, inviting each artist to speak about his or her work and seamlessly transitioning to the next artist. It is clear that McNutt is not only respected but also admired for her work with the Fellowship, which is all the more significant since she is not Native American herself. This notion of tribal identity is an important one to Native American artists, who have more often been overlooked than recognized for their Native status in the contemporary art world. McNutt acknowledges this is one of the reasons it has been so important to have Native American artists, scholars, and critics at the table from the outset of the Fellowship - not just the Fellowship, but as a core part of the museum leadership in general.
"The field likes the fact that they have a voice in the organization," McNutt tells me. "Essentially we're a platform for the artists' voices." Through McNutt and her staff and colleagues' efforts - including associate curator of contemporary art Ashley Holland (who is Cherokee) - a cadre of artists, scholars, writers, museum staff and advisers, many with tribal affiliation, come together over the course of each two-year cycle to select the artists, write about them in a catalogue, and put together the exhibition of work.
Setting up the table
The Fellowship program has set the proverbial table for the museum as it continues to reach out to the Native American community it serves - not just by showcasing Native American art and cultural materials, but also by redressing the widespread superficial understanding of Native American culture and art in general.
"When (artist) Jaune Quick-to-See Smith and others started that whole Indian art movement," McNutt says, "they banded together because they weren't getting into galleries, they weren't getting into shows. Jaune's work, of course, has been everywhere now, internationally." Quick-to-See Smith, outspoken representative of Native American fine artists, has work in the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, considered pinnacles of achievement to many mainstream American artists. McNutt points out, however, that the Whitney still has not held a major Native American contemporary art exhibition - adding, without irony, "Native American fine art is surely American."
When it comes to the Eiteljorg, Native American artists have come to hold the Eiteljorg in high esteem, not only for its Fellowship and that program's career-enhancing possibilities, but also as a permanent venue for their work. Kay WalkingStick, who is also known internationally, and, like Quick-to-See Smith, is considered a cross-over artist - one who is known in mainstream contemporary art circles rather than thought of solely as a Native American contemporary artist - is one of the program's biggest fans.
WalkingStick (member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma), who taught at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, from 1988-2005, was selected as the Distinguished Artist in the 2003-2004 Fellowship cycle. Speaking to me by telephone from her home in New York, WalkingStick declares, "The Eiteljorg has the single most important collection of contemporary Native art in the world," adding, "and this is a stellar accomplishment. The NMAI [National Museum of the American Indian, one of the Smithsonian Institution museums, in Washington, D.C.], doesn't have it at all. They have some contemporary art, but nothing like the Eiteljorg. There are small collections of contemporary Native art in a lot of different places around the country, but nobody has this incredible compendium that the Eiteljorg has." Further, as WalkingStick points out, they've built the collection in a relatively short time - six fellowship cycles in 12 years, to be exact.
From an artist's perspective, the Fellowship has provided a platform upon which Native American contemporary art is viewed on a level playing field with all contemporary art. WalkingStick explains, "[The Fellowship] has validated Native American art in a way that nothing else has. It has validated this sense that Native contemporary art is equal to any other mainstream contemporary art. And slowly the big museums are recognizing this, but I think that the Eiteljorg has been primary in that validation."
WalkingStick credits McNutt's efforts in spearheading this change. "Jennifer has made all the difference. I think she's been a key player from the very beginning. She's an artist herself so she recognizes the quality of the Native American art." WalkingStick also acknowledges the efforts of John Van Ausdall, the museum's president and CEO since 1996.
Van Ausdall's arrival antedated the museum's interest in contemporary art - founder Harrison Eiteljorg began the museum with a few significant holdings, including work by Fritz Scholder and George Carlson - but he quickly signed on to the cause and was part of the core group that began the Fellowship. As Van Ausdall told me, "The Fellowship made sense in that it had multiple meanings: giving money was well understood as significant, but 'fellowship' also implied the coming together of people to join in fellowship."
Expanding the constellation
While the notion of fellowship has come to encompass an ongoing level of support by artists and those involved with the Fellowship that is perhaps unprecedented in the world of prestigious art prizes - many artists end up donating additional works to the museum, even after the museum has already purchased their work - the museum is just now beginning to explore ways of further connecting with its home base. Partnerships exist with institutions such as IUPUI, and membership courtesies are extended as part of larger museum exchanges - but Van Ausdall believes this is "fertile ground for the future. I think we've spent a lot of our time focused on the national and international presence for the program and I think it was the right thing to do, but we have a chance to develop the local and regional audience now. I think this community is interested in contemporary art now."
Many local institutions face the same challenge: it is often easier to be recognized off the home turf - it's the "grass is greener" mentality. Indianapolis is still best known for hosting world-class sporting events: from the annual car races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the sometime hosting of NCAA basketball championships. (The popularity of the Indianapolis Colts practically goes without saying.) While the climate seems to be changing, it remains true that the majority of Indianapolis residents may not take an interest in contemporary art at all - let alone this specific iteration of it - even as the city has struggled to extend and deepen its cultural reach.
The Eiteljorg Museum has always worked against this tide that favors sports, much like all the cultural institutions here. And yet, with the Arts Council of Indianapolis' concerted efforts to work with local institutions - museums, galleries, performing arts venues and the like - to make the city more of a cultural destination, none of these institutions has been as successful as the Eiteljorg, with the exception of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (which houses a number of world-class collections), in actually achieving this international standing.
And the larger question might be asked, What can an institution like the Eiteljorg do in terms of engaging a conversation and opening minds to the value of art for a community?
Identity and access
Jennifer Complo McNutt acknowledges the difficulty in getting audiences to the table. Certainly, traditional Western art and Native American cultural objects are an easier sell - and these areas are covered widely and well by a number of institutions, particularly out West (the Heard Museum with campuses in Phoenix and North Scottsdale, Arizona, for instance, is world famous for its general collections and exhibitions of American Indian art).
But in Indianapolis, it may be a harder sell. "There are a lot of expectations that either can discourage you from coming or encourage you, because maybe you really wanted to see arrowheads," McNutt says. "Add that to the fact that people are intimidated by contemporary art; and even those who love contemporary art might be intimidated, or might not assign the same value, to Native American contemporary art."
Ironically, it is for these reasons that Native American contemporary art is poised to bridge the gap in a way that mainstream contemporary art often cannot. WalkingStick believes that a program such as the Fellowship, if it were to be hosted by an institution in New York City, which is at the center of the contemporary art world, would largely go unnoticed. "I think that a smallish museum in a smallish city has the opportunity to promote these awards and these artists and actually be noticed, whereas in New York they wouldn't be... I think there are opportunities for traveling their shows, I think there are opportunities for the artists to be seen on a regular basis, that I don't think would necessarily be available elsewhere."
And while contemporary art has a reputation for opacity, the Eiteljorg Museum has managed to acquire work that is at once challenging and accessible. Through the use of humor, artists such as Wendy Red Star (Crow) and Jim Denomie (Ojibwe), two of this year's fellows, offer approaches that are often surprisingly familiar.
Denomie's work layers historical and social references, from famous works of European and American art to famous battle scenes. In "The Last Chicken," a group of stereotypically portrayed Indians sit around a table laughing and eating. A portrait of Elvis hangs on the wall, and a picture window reveals a bourgeois pastoral setting of a grassy landscape and a distant bank of trees. The rendering turns romanticized notions of Native Americans on their collective head.
Wendy Red Star's "Fancy Shawl Project" incorporates images that epitomize life on the Crow Indian reservation. From a distance, each of the five tasseled shawls could be construed as brightly colored variations on a traditional theme until, upon closer inspection, photo-transferred images depicting aspects of reservation life emerge: reservation dogs, crackerbox houses, storage cars, basketball, and television sets - subjects not typically associated with fine art, and certainly defying stereotypical images of sacred objects.
This confrontation between historical or social truth and degrading or romanticized perceptions of Native Americans - from alcoholism to an exalted connection with the earth - is a common theme in contemporary Native American art, and yet if those themes are tackled, it is done in a manner that honors the mediums in which they are realized and reveals the artist's evolved aesthetic point of view. In other words, the expression reflects the artist's unique concerns and experiences, within or outside of his or her Native identity - as one would expect with any artist.
Native American artists are often perceived as makers of crafted items in traditional materials: feathers, beads, clay and the like - and yet, while many contemporary Native artists do use these materials, contemporary artists take them a step beyond: they are both material and message. McNutt puts it this way: "They already have a personal context, they already have a community; but that history's there." By history, we're talking hundreds if not thousands of years, and the diversity of more than 500 tribes - each with its unique traditions, values and geographical connections.
Spare and elegant, Kaye HeavyShield's installation "body of land" suggests that diversity, even within one's own community. Hundreds of conical forms are affixed to the wall, each one created from a photograph of human skin. Stepping up close, one sees an endless variety of hues: red, brown, peach, gold. Skin is its own landscape: both literal and symbolic. "Each portrait is a body," HeavyShield writes. "Of knowledge, histories and stories both real and imagined."
Jeffrey Gibson's installation "Mythmaker" offers an entirely different aesthetic: at once cerebral and dynamic, it contains layers of meanings within a beautifully composed context of oil paint, urethane foam, pigmented silicone, glass beads, and a tree stump. Enamored with "solid forms, transparent forms, bodily forms," Gibson's work bridges his personal passions with his social concerns. At the age of 10, Gibson inherited 140 acres of land in Oklahoma, bringing up all kinds of demons related to land ownership and land abuse. "The layering and the marks," Gibson remarks, "allow me to be aggressive." And that aggression has remarkable results. "There was always this spillover that would exceed the form," Gibson adds, which is readily apparent in his paintings - ethereal abstractions merging line, color and form in an intense abstract expressionist aesthetic that does literally spill off the canvas.
And yet it's a delicate balance between maintaining a sense of identity and reaching audiences considered "mainstream," without betraying one's cultural roots. Art can indeed be defined by its message: and that message can be culturally specific but also meaningful to a wider audience. McNutt puts it best: "I think that developing the program was a risk," she says, pausing to measure her words. But its success, she acknowledges, is proof of a risk well-taken. "Our reputation was made on the Fellowship. But the continuation of the program, I don't think it's a risk."
You could say the constellations are aligned in its favor.
If you go
Art Quantum: Eiteljorg Fellowship for Native American Fine Art is on view through Jan. 18, 2110. In response to past Fellowship artists' feedback, the Eiteljorg Museum has launched a new website dedicated to the Fellowship: www.fellowship.eiteljorg.org. The site offers a venue for the community to become involved by making comments and by creating their own art in the Community Art Gallery. Visitors can also view artists and curators discussing the artwork and larger concerns related to contemporary Native American fine art.
The Eiteljorg Museum is located in White River State Park at 500 West Washington Street. General admission is $8 for adults, $7 for senior citizens 65 and over, $5 for full-time students with ID, and free for children 4 and under. Members and IUPUI students are admitted free of charge. Hours are Monday Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday noon 5 p.m.
For general information about the museum and the Fellowship, visit www.eiteljorg.org or call (317) 636-WEST (9378).