By Judith H. Dobrzynski
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.
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.
This approach sounds good, but a couple Natives on Facebook don't necessarily agree:
Furthermore, the emphasis on artist attribution is more of a Western art thing, and not necessarily the most important aspect of traditional NA objects. It feels like it is an attempt to legitimize the work in a Western context.
In short, I'd say treating the objects as art is a step forward. But other steps may be necessary for people to fully appreciate the objects.
For more on the subject, see Defying Expectations with Native Art and Native Art Continues from Past to Present.
Below: "Left, Wild Man of the Woods mask has been attributed to the carver Willie Seaweed. Right, Jennifer Pray working on the newly reopened American Indian galleries at the Denver Art Museum." (Matthew Staver for The New York Times)