Jennifer Complo McNutt has sustained the vision of the Eiteljorg Museum’s Fellowship for Native American Art since the program’s inception in 1999. Since its first unveiling, this program has more or less defined McNutt’s curatorial tenure there: forming the crux of an institutional strategy to build the museum’s permanent contemporary collection alongside its two other collection areas—Native American material culture and Western art.
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. Essentially we’re a platform for the artist’s voices,” McNutt says.
And McNutt is confident that as long as the funding is in place—Lilly Endowment has been present since the beginning as a lead benefactor, to the tune of $470,000 each biennium—the program will continue to grow.
Through the efforts of McNutt, who is curator of contemporary art, and her staff and colleagues—including associate curator of contemporary art Ashley Holland (who is Cherokee)—a cadre of artists, scholars, writers, museum staff and advisors, 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.
John Van Ausdall, the museum’s president and CEO, quickly signed on to the cause when he joined the museum in 1996, and was part of the core group that began the Fellowship. Van Ausdall says, “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.”
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. 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.”