Big, bold, and by many accounts about the time, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 56-word land acknowledgment plaque, placed on its Fifth Avenue facade in May, honors indigenous peoples past and present (mainly the Lenape) whose homeland occupies the institution.
Visitors to the Met, or the Art Institute of Chicago, or any other museums where land acceptance greets them, may well be surprised that these sentiments, crafted with the utmost care and usually in consultation with indigenous communities, are From, some two centuries-old galleries are fitted with art depicting Native Americans, sometimes brave, sometimes monstrous, and most often ruinous. Not to mention their proximity to the many art historical celebrations of destiny manifested in the landscape. Alfred Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and others.
It’s tough terrain and the Met has been both fanatical and cautious in charting it: bronze plaques were in place for years to come, while murals by Kent Monkman, a Canadian artist of Cree descent who greeted visitors to the Great Hall from April 2019 to April was. , were an audacious recent commission, offering witty references to famous works in the museum’s collection.
But it is in the American wing where the intent of a bronze plaque should come into play as something more than a virtue sign. And here you’ll find a land and water description drawn by Patricia Marroquin Norby (Purepecha), the museum’s first Native American curator and first curator of Native American art, appointed in 2020. Taller and more specific in its commitment to presenting Native American art, and its ties to indigenous communities, both historical and contemporary, the statement is placed next to the “Scrimshaw Study,” a beautiful 2021 ceramic borrowed from the multimedia artist is. Courtney Leonard of the Shinnecock Nation.
With illustrated references to the environmental history of the local Shinnecock, Leonard’s contemporary work is paired with the historical material of “The Art of Native America.” This is a particularly bold curatorial moment by Norby, and it informs the new rotation of this ongoing exhibition of a path-breaking collection of gifts, promised gifts, and loans from Charles and Valerie Dicker in the early 1990s.
Norby lives for physical engagement, for the moments when he can show you how 19th-century ceramics, textiles, carvings or paintings are made and how it relates to the contemporary works he’s added to the Dicker exhibition. “I am interested in the inter-generational and ecological knowledge of the objects I work with,” she told me in a rare didactic moment. By the time you’ve visited the gallery with her, it’s already clear that the boundaries of many museums—historic/contemporary, native/non-native, European/Native American, fine arts/decorative arts—are those she fruitfully finds. will ignore.
She has been questioning boundaries as an “urban Indian” on Chicago’s West Side since childhood. Her great-grandparents settled there after leaving the Mexican state of Michoacan in the wake of the Great Depression, and she fondly remembers her community. “Indians have always been urban,” she says. “Every major American city has large numbers of Indians from diverse backgrounds.” Her parents moved to the suburb of Arlington Heights when she was in grade school but she continued to speak Chicago as “going home” and sometimes still does.
When she’s not at the Met, 50-year-old Norby is on a six-acre farm in rural Wisconsin with her husband, a veterinarian, and their teenage daughter. They hunt, grow much of what they eat, and have a community of Native women nearby, from whom they have learned many techniques of beading and regalia-making. In his spare time, you can find him playing the banjo or listening Carolina Chocolate Drops, African American String Band, as a reading text on tribal sovereignty.
Her credentials include a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Minnesota with a concentration in American Indian history, art, and visual culture, as well as an upcoming book, “Water, Bones, and Bombs,” on art making and environmental issues in New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley. He has held positions at the Newbery Library in Chicago and the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, winning numerous awards and focused work on the diversion and repatriation of cultural material.
For all of her learning, Norby is less academic in her approach to art than many curators, preferring to talk about how her MFA in printmaking and photography informs her curatorial work. “I am interested in what it takes to make something – the physical and emotional toll. I am not interested in which artist is hot,” she said. “I love to see things that go beyond aesthetic protocol. They are deeply connected, but there is also something new and fresh in them.”
That passion appears from when you enter a new rotation of new “The Art of Native America.” The map that initially welcomed visitors marking nine Native American cultural areas — woodlands, plains, plateaus, and so forth — is gone. “There are different houses,” Norby admits, “but there was much more exchange than maps, and, anyway, maps are settlers’ views of indigenous cultures.”
Instead visitors will encounter two contemporary works: “Untitled (Dream Catcher)” from 2014 by Mary Watt (Seneca), a colossal assemblage of reclaimed blankets quilted by several hands in a patchwork of indigenous tales. It sets the stage for the rest of the exhibition, as does Northern Traditional Dance Costumes and Accessories (2005) Across it, created by Jodie Archambault (Lakota) with family and friends, features 15-pound beads and is worn at powwow dance competitions.
The sense of community and continuity of past and present are both unmistakable in the piece, and are unmistakably part of the way alongside Norby. Sylvia Yount, the curator in charge of the American Wing, did this restoration of the dicker material. Although still organized geographically, 116 works from over 50 cultures have been reduced to 89, of which 29 have been added more recently from Decers and others.
In addition to putting historical work in dialogue with some contemporary pieces, the most regular aspect of museum exhibitions, there is an encouraging change in the wall label. Many of the labels have been adjusted or replaced with texts by artists and scholars from the source communities, for the most part eroding the customary hierarchy in which museum curators speak for art and visitors.
“I’m a visitor here myself,” Norby says, explaining why it’s not his place to talk about the work of another community, and to get living people to talk about not just one thing. Rather why it is important to help dispel the aura of nostalgia that clouded our vision of Native Americans.
The other rotations of the collection will be, Norby promises; Perhaps one where works are done in dialogue with non-native art. The possibilities are many, but she assures me that with each new installation the involvement of the source communities will increase. Will there be more Native visitors, as there were in Newberry, Chicago? “It takes time,” she says, but I have something I like to call ‘Indians attract Indians. We always seem to be looking out for each other.”
None of this would have happened without the transformative gifts Charles and Valerie Dicker collected over the past several decades. From the time his collection was first discussed, Dickers was eager to appoint a curator for original art for the Met. Did he envision the disappearance of the map from the original exhibition or the addition of contemporary works in the new rotation? No, said Charles Dicker, but “changes freshen things up.”
“We’re learning from each other,” Norby says of the decors. “It’s about building trust on both sides.” What was also important to her hiring, echoed Yount, was that “Patricia had a deep and long-term commitment to building trust and inclusive relationships with indigenous communities.”
As we pass Engelhard Court on our way to the “Art of Native America,” I stop by a ruined and defeated Hiawatha statue of Saint-Gaudens, a caustic comment or two from him about this regular bit of colonialist depiction. I expect Instead, she surveys the court and says, “Thayer Tolls Works so well here,” referring to the wing’s curators of American Paintings and Sculpture. She is delighted to work with the staff of all-female curators.
Norby knows she has come at an auspicious time, as American Wing is remaking itself under Yount. Established in 1924 in the exuberant spirit of the Colonial Revival, it has come a long way since period rooms and Pilgrim furniture ruled the day and original art was showcased elsewhere – Art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas at Rockefeller Wing with. Since 2018, works by Frederic Remington, Henri Inman, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and many others have, in addition to their traditional wall label, also features a rotating set of Met Calls. “Basic Approach” by contemporary artists and scholars. Indigenous art has also been installed here and there in the wing’s painting galleries.
When Norby expands the presence of contemporary original art in the American Wing, she will have gone some way towards erasing another boundary – the period between late modern and contemporary American art and the American Wing from the mid-17th to early Long, awkward, four-block separation art of the 20th century. And if she’s eager to do something like showcasing native art in other departmental galleries, she’ll also begin to reorganize the museum with the new bronze plaque in front of her.
Elizabeth Pochoda writes for The Nation and The Magazine Antiques.