How Museums Are Deepening Their Commitments to Native American Perspectives

Two people in a museum store room with a painting in the background. The Peabody Essex Museum hosts a field-leading fellowship program for emerging Native American leaders. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.

Velma Kee Craig never expected to be where she is today.  A poet, filmmaker, and weaver who grew up on the Navajo Nation Reservation in Arizona, she had aspired to play a role in supporting and preserving the work of Native American artists like herself.  The profession of curator, with its opaque requirements, seemed inaccessible, despite her own education and experience.

Yet this autumn, thanks to a paid fellowship at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, Craig finds herself beginning the third year of a dynamic program for emerging museum professionals supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  “This type of experience wasn’t available to me when I started out,” says Craig.  “Otherwise I would have found my career path a lot sooner.

The Heard fellowships branch out into all areas of the museum, including research, education, and curatorial, but it was the emphasis on conservation that drew Craig to apply.  Among the Heard’s 44,000-object collection are nearly 1,000 examples of Navajo textiles, one of the museum’s most in-depth collecting areas and, because of the fragility of the pieces, a significant one for the conservation team.  An art form in itself, the care and preservation of the textiles requires a deep understanding of traditional Indigenous practices, and the transmission of those practices across generations.  The fellowship program helps ensure the long-term safekeeping of these important works.

exhibition gallery with Native American textilesHeard Museum fellows were involved in organizing the exhibition "Color Riot! How Color Changed Navajo Textiles," which displayed works by late 19th- and early 20th-century Navajo weavers alongside contemporary pieces. Photo: Heard Museum/ Craig Smith.

Across the country at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts, the Native American Fellowship (NAF) summer program held its tenth session in 2019.  Building on a previous grant, the Mellon Foundation recently expanded its support of the program at PEM, where the Native American collection comprises nearly 15,000 artworks and 50,000 archaeological items.  The ten-week paid fellowships “remove financial barriers that make it impossible for many people from underrepresented communities to get a foothold in the field,” says Karen Kramer, the program’s director and PEM’s curator of Native American and Oceanic art and culture.  “The museum is dedicated to presenting and interpreting its holdings in new ways.  Fellows have consistently contributed to that work.” Mellon funding also supports a longer-term fellowship of up to two years; the 2020 fellow will be based in the PEM library, incorporating indigenous terminology into the cataloguing and working on archival projects.

The Heard and PEM fellowships are two examples among a group of Mellon grants to museums in the US with collections of Native American art.  The Foundation has supported the re-installation of the Hall of Native North America at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago; a full-time Native Arts curatorial position at the Denver Art Museum; and undergraduate curriculum development for a concentration in Native American and Indigenous studies at Brown University, in Providence, among other initiatives.  These varied programs reflect the strengths, geographic locations, and collecting areas of their respective institutions, and vary in size, scope, and focus.  But all share similar overarching and intertwined goals:  diversify the pipeline of future cultural heritage and museum professionals; ensure that cultural heritage preservation is approached with care and expertise that increasingly centers Native communities and traditions; and ensure the passage of those traditions across generations.

Last year at the Heard, Velma Craig and her co-fellows Natalia Miles and Ninabah Winton were closely involved with the museum’s Color Riot!How Color Changed Navajo Textiles.  The exhibition presented exuberant textiles by late 19th- and early 20th-century Navajo weavers alongside works by contemporary artists who are boldly interpreting the traditional craft of weaving.  Heard fellows contributed to every aspect of the exhibition, from the high-impact title and concept development, to object selection, installation, and the writing of wall text.  Starting in September 2020 Color Riot! will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida, followed by the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama.  With donor funding, a catalog is now in production.  “I’m really proud of the show,” says Craig. “Knowing it has the voices of three Navajo fellows who come from the culture speaking and writing about the textiles.  This is a part of our lineage.”

three headshotsFellows Velma Kee Craig, Natalia Miles, and Ninabah Winton. Photo: Heard Museum/ Craig Smith.

“We were really contributing,” recalls Winton, who is also returning to the Heard as part of the 2019–20 cohort. She adds that the fellows were particularly mindful of authorship.  Because Color Riot! focused intensely on experimentation and individual creative spirit, the fellows wanted the wall text and cataloguing to communicate, if not the names of the artists (often lost), then their impressive skill in a technically demanding and time-consuming medium.  “Someone actually put a lot of work into these,” says Winton, who determined that the makers should be labeled as “unidentified” rather than “unknown.”

For the museum world to privilege the Native perspective means attaining a critical mass of Native voices and professionals with relevant expertise inside major institutions, requiring more outreach and opportunities, says Patsy Phillips, director of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe.  “That’s what the museum fellowships are providing, and what Mellon’s support is helping to move forward.”

Established in 1962, IAIA offers the only four-year degree program dedicated to contemporary Native American art in the US.  In late 2018, IAIA received a Mellon Foundation grant to fund a research center dedicated to contemporary Native arts.  “We want to bring scholars here and we want them writing about Native arts and culture,” Phillips explains.  “I’ve always felt that Native people writing their own story is one way we can advance the field.”

Phillips notes that she sees a need to train Native-identified interns and fellows not only in curatorial but across every museum department in institutions across the country.  While the number of Native American museums and cultural centers has tripled over the past 30 years, there remains a dearth of curators, directors, and others in leadership roles who identify as Native American.  According to the Mellon Foundation’s most recent Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey, released in January 2019, just 60 employees out of more than 30,000 from 332 participating US museums identified as Native American.

fellows standing in a room holding a discussionThe 2018 Native American Fellowship cohort at the Peabody Essex Museum. Courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum.

With its fellowships, the Peabody Essex is addressing the need for greater diversity in the museum world and in the cultural heritage sector more broadly, attracting applicants with a variety of backgrounds and experience.  Among the 2016 cohort was Tosa Two Heart, who was in the middle of a two-year MBA at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, when she received her Peabody Essex fellowship. Previously, as an undergraduate at the University of California in Los Angeles, Two Heart started her own fashion line, and was eager to return to a creative environment.  At PEM she was assigned to the public relations department and worked on social media campaigns, podcasts, press reports, and marketing research. 

It was great hands-on experience,” recalls Two Heart, who is from the Oglala Lakota Nation and is now the program manager of community development at the First Peoples Fund, in Rapid City, South Dakota.  The Fund administers grant programs and is “a cheerleader to Native organizations that see art and artists as a priority,” explains Two Heart, who runs workshops across the country to advise Native artists on such practical matters as how to best price their works.  “The indigenous arts ecology is already there,” she adds. “First Peoples Fund strengthens it by providing access to existing resources.” 

PEM alumni have taken positions at a mix of Native and non-Native community organizations, cultural centers, and museums around the country, including the American Indian College Fund in Denver, the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, and the Field Museum in Chicago.  The program has become something of a model for other institutions and has flourished thanks to consistent support from the top down, according to Karen Kramer.  She credits Dan Monroe, PEM’s recently retired director of 25 years, as the driving force behind making the initiative an institutional priority.  “Dan felt a moral and professional obligation to not only celebrate our collection in exhibitions, but also to foster the next generation of Native American cultural heritage professionals,” Kramer says.  “My projects are always better for having worked on them with the Fellows.  I’m not Native, and it’s really important that I work directly with Native people.”   

That is not always a given, says Phillips of the IAIA.  “Most institutions don’t ask for the Native perspective.  In our history, non-Natives have felt that they know better and best, she says.  We are seeing a shift, and more Native people are having their own voice.  “But there’s still a lot of work to be done.”