Art Fund Says Museums Have Changed, but Native American Art Has not


Just a few weeks ago, there was huge press attention over the announcement made by the Metropolitan Museum of Art that they were changing the direction of the institution. A gift of 91 pieces of Native American artwork was promised by Valerie and Charles Diker to the Met. What is so unusual, however, is that the Met instantly stated that they would not simply ban these pieces to indigenous corners, but actually add them to their American Wing.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) has been donated 91 pieces of Native American art. Traditionally, these types of pieces would be added to non-Western wings, such as Oceania and Africa. But the Met will add them to their American Wing, alongside pieces by artists such as Frederic Remington and John Singer Sargent. This is a hugely important decision, because the Met is the first museum to recognize Native art as of equal status of other American works. This, according to the Art Fund, really says something about how Western museums are developing.

Native American art has, for many years, been defined by tastemakers from the Americas and Europe. They have seen it as “curiosities” reminiscent of colonial days. People have long struggled to give the aesthetics and culture of Native Americans a proper place. In 1876, the centennial of the United States, hundreds of Native pieces of art were added to an exhibition to celebrate the 100 years. Yet, it was scathed as showing only a “miserable and helpless ethos”. A beautiful totem pole carved by a tribe of the northwest coast was described as “malign and ugly”. Of course, this is also reflective of the systemic racism of those days, but it continued for a long time. In fact, Native objects have always only been interesting for their cultural value, rather than their artistic value. This is why the pieces are seen in natural history museums, alongside dinosaurs and dodos.

However, modern art is flowering, and it seems that the time has finally come for Native creations to take up their rightful place alongside famous artists such as Giacometti, Brancusi, and Picasso, who all, by the way, saw these pieces as Native Art. For too long, even after it became recognized as art, did people describe it as “primitive art”, as though it is somehow lesser than that created by Western cultures. For too long, even the galleries that did appreciate Native art as art, would put the pieces in separate galleries, still unsure about the place it has in society. This, according to Art Fund, is where the Met is setting an example that will hopefully be followed many others.

Native American people, it is now recognized, have made art for thousands of years, long before the Europeans came there. Just because Euro-Americans could not place this art, does not stop it from being art. Some pieces actually show how art has developed in similar was as European art, using different techniques and materials, and representing different parts of their society (body language, gardening, cuisine, dance, ceremony, history, poetry, story, song, fashion, and so on). But what the Met has truly done is empower Native Americans to know that their art is just that: art, whether others accept and understanding it, or not.

Art Fund recommends that people look as much as what is inside museums, as what they do at why certain things are inside museums. Native Art has now been elevated to its rightful standing, which means Western ethnocentrism is being recognized. Whether others will follow suit, and break through the culture of superiority and exclusion, remains to be seen, but people are rightfully hopeful.