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Experiencing Art of the American Indians Through the Eyes of Curator Susan Bergh

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Experiencing Art of the American Indians Through the Eyes of Curator Susan Bergh

Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection, which draws from the renowned Native American art collection at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., is making its traveling debut at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) before moving to Minneapolis and Indianapolis. Below, Susan Bergh, associate curator for art of the ancient Americas at CMA, talks about the origins of the exhibition and the relationships she developed with members of Cleveland’s Native American community.

How were you first introduced to the Thaw collection, and what was your initial reaction to it? How long have you been working on this exhibition?
I heard about the collection long before I saw it—it has a huge reputation for high quality.  When I finally visited the Fenimore Art Museum, it was one of those rare things that exceeded expectations. During my time at the Fenimore, I was impressed not only by the collection’s beauty, but also by the strength of the many Native voices behind the objects, the complexities of history and thought that the artworks record.

My e-mails tell me that I first received word that the Thaw collection was making a tour in June 2008. Work began to pick up after we visited the Fenimore in early 2009, and things got really intense last September, when we started to design the show, plan the public programs, write the gallery texts, and search for quotes and photos for the galleries.

I know this is an unfair question, but tell me three of your favorite pieces in the exhibition and why.
I hate this question! And if you ask it again tomorrow, the answer will be different. But today, one favorite is a wonderful little Haida bowl from the Northwest Coast. It’s in the shape of a sea bird who’s so alert and lively that you can imagine it running along a shoreline. It’s made of translucent mountain-sheep horn and has a golden glow.

Another is Beacon Lights, a basket by Louisa Keyser, the famous Washoe weaver. It’s truly a majestic thing, so finely conceived and made, and it anchors my favorite gallery in the show—California and the Great Basin. This gallery was a big surprise to me—I didn’t expect it to be so beautiful and oasis-like. The baskets look like jewels against the serene, deep green of the gallery’s walls.

I can’t name a third. There are too many others, and it’s too much like closing a book that you’ve really enjoyed reading.

Each gallery includes quotations from Native Americans. Why was it important to you to include these voices?
Many of the quotes and photos are contemporary, and they respond to a point that the local Native Americans on the show’s advisory committee wanted to make: that American Indians are still here, they’re strong and resilient, and they continue to create art, live their culture, and teach their children. I think you must provide a space for people to speak from their own perspective. And the perspectives are so interesting and thought-provoking. I wish we could have done more in this regard.

Over the course of your work on the exhibition, what is one thing you learned that was perhaps most surprising to you?
I was impressed by the number of Native women involved in the arts, and so I included information in the labels about the sex of the makers, when it could be determined. So many names have been lost, and I wanted to restore that essential piece of biography. And it’s always interesting to try to come to grips with how to present art that wasn’t meant to be seen as something separate and removed from life, but instead was and remains very much a part of it.

Describe the role played by the local Native Americans on the advisory committee. How did their participation help shape what museum visitors will see?
In Cleveland, I’ve never worked with such an engaged, committed group of people. Here’s a list of some of the ways they’ve shaped the show, in no particular order:

  • They gave us crucial advice on interpretation and marketing approaches;
  • They’re turning out to demonstrate Native arts during the run of the show;
  • They organized dancing and drumming performances for the opening of the exhibition;
  • They’re collaborating in the show’s film series and blog, a web component, and media appearances;
  • They’re serving as gallery guides;
  • They suggested that Native music be played in the show’s anteroom; and
  • In general, they made us think, taught us a lot, and kept it real.

I’m grateful for everything they’ve put into the project—including their patience over a few missteps!

I don’t think you can take the . . . art without taking the people as well . . . When that is done . . . you have completely empty images conforming only to the formal aspects of the art, without any feeling for the emotion behind them. 

— Bill Reid, Haida artist, K’aadaas Gaah K'iigawaay clan, 1983

Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection continues at the Cleveland Museum of Art through May 30. More information about the exhibition can be found on the museum’s web site.

Image: Beacon Lights, 1904–5. Louisa Keyser [Dat So La Lee] (about 1850–1925), Washoe, Carson City, Nevada. Thaw Collection, Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, N.Y., T0751. Photograph by John Bigelow Taylor.