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November 19, 2014 12:59 PM   Subscribe

Tacoma Art Museum has just opened an entirely new wing devoted to a single collection of Western American art [depicting Native Americans and created by Europeans and Euro-Americans]. Because the work presented is culturally problematic, the museum has taken the unusual step of commissioning a handful of Native American people to write labels responding to the art. What results in the galleries can be frustrating, but it also breaks open the complexity of what's really going on both in the art and in the institution of the museum in 2014.
How Tacoma Art Museum Criticizes a Collection Without Angering the Donors, by Jen Graves.
posted by Banknote of the year (25 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
I am not a huge fan of the writing in that article, but am super interested to go through a comprehensive list of the works and the commentary. Thanks for sharing it.
posted by Theta States at 1:35 PM on November 19, 2014


I'd be more impressed by contemporary criticism of the collection: Yes, a lot of these works are obviously idealized and science-fiction-cover-y, but after the wholesale destruction of much of Native American culture (and the inorganic reverse-engineering of much of what exists today in discontinuity with the past), what value is added by judging these works in the manner done in this exhibit? They might as well ask random people to comment on them.
posted by resurrexit at 1:46 PM on November 19, 2014


This is contemporary criticism. Native culture was not completely destroyed. Inorganic reverse engineering is what the paintings already are. What's happening now is recontextualization. The value added is that we get to see the paintings more accurately, as part of the original and current context. A random person would not be able to supply the kind of commentary mentioned in the article that you should read that's linked above.
posted by tychotesla at 1:59 PM on November 19, 2014 [52 favorites]


I think there's a huge amount of value added by engaging with Native American critiques of their popular presentation in an art museum. These aren't random people - they're people whose place in American society is a reflection of the way American society erases their particular histories and cultural heritage. There is value in understanding how people - who aren't dioramas locked in an unchanging, idealized, disappeared past - feel about their representation. I'm not really sure what "contemporary criticism" of the art collection would be more appropriate?

(They also link to Deeply Embarrassed White People Talk Awkwardly About Race, by the same author, which I thought was excellent.)
posted by ChuraChura at 2:00 PM on November 19, 2014 [13 favorites]


They might as well ask random people to comment on them.

What we've had since these paintings were created and displayed was mostly commentary by random people who didn't know anything about Native culture. How is having actual tribe members comment on them value-free?
posted by rtha at 2:20 PM on November 19, 2014 [12 favorites]


I love this idea. I definitely thought the commentary added value, but I thought myself that the responses were very short and lacked some depth. Perhaps resurrexit was suggesting a more in-depth, academic criticism from a Native American perspective? Well, I could sympathize with that point of view, but I still thought what I read added value and I really appreciate the spirit of the endeavor.
posted by PigAlien at 2:29 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


Perhaps resurrexit was suggesting a more in-depth, academic criticism from a Native American perspective?

But that stuff exists all over the place. Seriously, check Google. This is a nice attempt at not letting the work completely define the conversation, which I think is worthy. I think I'm going to check it out.
posted by lumpenprole at 2:36 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I find the subject pretty interesting, even if the article itself is a bit awkwardly written. I think tychotesla nails it -- This is absolutely about recontextualizing art that was, itself, often created in a context foreign to the subjects and subject matter it is depicting. There's a lot to unpack here, and understanding and "placing" that art absolutely requires a voice from the people and culture it ostensibly depicts. Kudos to the TAM for reaching out, and also many thanks to the artists and representatives from Native communities who took the time and patience to respond. There are many, many ways this could have been botched, but it seems like the exhibition of this art was done with an appropriate amount of cultural sensitivity and forthrightness. Good job all!

As an aside, I went to university in Tacoma...uh, a long time ago, apparently, as I wasn't aware that the TAM has been in their current $22M campus/facility since 2003. It looks like a substantial improvement over what it used to be. Not sure I would recognize much of Tacoma these days, which is probably a good thing as far as Tacoma is concerned.
posted by mosk at 2:41 PM on November 19, 2014 [4 favorites]


The only time I've been to the TAM I had a blast. It had small interesting exhibits, was in a really neat building, and my impression is that it's a well located destination for anyone thinking of making a day-trip to Tacoma. So I'll also be making a trip down there in a week or two.

but I thought myself that the responses were very short and lacked some depth.

Anytime I'm genuinely interested in the culture of a subject, I'm almost always disappointed by the level of analysis present on labels. Audio guides sometimes offer more, but usually just ape the label and give an "imagine if you were this person" speech. Tours can be hit or miss as well.

I really wish it was common for museums to have a source of in-depth information about a specific collection. I'd hope the curators would be conscious of that level of analysis already, after all.
posted by tychotesla at 2:55 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I definitely thought the commentary added value, but I thought myself that the responses were very short and lacked some depth.

That was my first reaction, too. But that's probably, sadly, necessary. It sounds like the intent is just to make patrons aware that issues about representation and appropriation exist, and are worth talking about. I mean, even a short, superficial response was seen as "too angry." How could the gallery & the respondents create deeper responses that wouldn't just provoke more outrage?

(Although it's still frustrating that this even needs to be a consideration.)
posted by Banknote of the year at 2:56 PM on November 19, 2014 [2 favorites]


What's happening now is recontextualization. The value added is that we get to see the paintings more accurately, as part of the original and current context.

Touching upon the original context, without criticism raised from those people from that time, is not possible. These modern-day commentators are too far removed from the time period and cultures these works purport to represent (however badly); the most they can offer is generalizations of the particular culture with which they are familiar today, which is not at all like these works from more than a century ago, some of which were painted by artists who, despite their many flaws, penchant for kitsch, and inability to comprehend fully the culture and history they captured, were actually contemporary with the subject-matter depicted.

And I did read the article and found it quite interesting--but limited, as I've argued above. YMMV.

This is a nice attempt at not letting the work completely define the conversation, which I think is worthy.

I think that's a fair point, and really one I'd have to see the exhibit to judge for myself, to see how the collection and the comments interact.
posted by resurrexit at 2:57 PM on November 19, 2014


resurrexit, at the risk of sounding patronizing what you're describing is called History, and curators know about it. That's also why I said "more accurately" instead of "accurately".

And I'm frankly I'm confused by what you want here. You seem to not like the idea of contemporary audiences making educated hypotheses about the original context. But that would leaves us making uneducated hypotheses about the original context which, at least to me, seems much worse.
posted by tychotesla at 3:36 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


I've all ready scheduled to go visit with friends who work with local tribes. I am looking forward to their reactions, as I only have the settler art & local history sides.
posted by Dreidl at 3:46 PM on November 19, 2014


mosk, I went to UPS in the mid-90s, and if you went there then or earlier, parts of Tacoma have changed dramatically. (Especially downtown!)

I'm definitely curious about what they've done with this exhibit, might have to take a trip up sometime soon.
posted by epersonae at 4:19 PM on November 19, 2014


>mosk, I went to UPS in the mid-90s, and if you went there then or earlier, parts of Tacoma have changed dramatically. (Especially downtown!)

Yeah, UPS class of '86 here - woo hoo, epersonae, a fellow Logger :) Tacoma and the surrounding area was definitely on the skids in the 80's. I went back once around 1990 or '91 and the city had already changed considerably. Very happy things have turned around for the entire region since then. Unfortunately I haven't been back to Tacoma in the interim, but I am sure I'd be blown away by the way it's changed. Downtown -- especially Pacific Ave. -- was pretty sketchy when I was there.
posted by mosk at 4:39 PM on November 19, 2014


KBTC, the Tacoma PBS affiliate, also did a show last week about the Haub Collection at TAM, with interviews with museum curators and directors. (There are a bunch more links on that page, too.)
posted by Banknote of the year at 4:54 PM on November 19, 2014


These modern-day commentators are too far removed from the time period and cultures these works purport to represent
It's funny how having your ancestors slaughtered in a genocide can lead to a modern-day dearth of highly-specialized art critics from your culture.

These are the voices available. It is irrelevant whether or not you, in your position in the majority culture that wiped their cultures out, find them adequate enough.
posted by scrump at 5:02 PM on November 19, 2014 [6 favorites]


mosk: You probably wouldn't recognize it hardly at all! The broken-down old train station is a federal courthouse, the Art Museum has a shiny new building, UW-Tacoma has taken over a bunch of old buildings that used to be boarded up wrecks, there's a new convention center, a glass museum, a car museum, light rail...

I moved to Olympia about 10 years ago, so I'm only there every once in a while, and every time a bit startled. :)
posted by epersonae at 5:21 PM on November 19, 2014


actually contemporary with the subject-matter depicted.

Actually the article refers to at least one painting where that is not the case.

I find this fascinating, I go to Tacoma frequently because of their delightful zoo, and I would very much like to see this exhibit.
posted by bq at 6:58 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


People honeymoon in Tacoma? WTF, why???
posted by oceanjesse at 8:51 PM on November 19, 2014


I look at that first Remington piece and I try to imagine some alternate universe where, say, Euro-American history is largely depicted in art through the lens of Japanese customs, by almost entirely Japanese artists. I imagine much of the art produced would be gorgeous, some of it transcendently so. Still, you'd want the explanation that, yes, while John Adams' transfer of the Presidency to Jefferson was honorable and important to the establishment of precedent for peaceful succession, it wasn't done with deep bows and handing over of a sword. (Just to imagine what this sort of thing might look like.)

My kind-of hometown of Bartlesville, OK has a pretty amazing museum of Native American art and artifacts nearby, called Woolaroc. (Founded by either Frank or Wade Phillips, I can't remember right now, but in any case, the name came from his mistress, who looked at the property as woods, lakes, and rocks.) The museum is pretty evenly split between art and artifacts, and the art, while euro-american, is from artists who at least were in the places they were depicting. It is, by all measures, a museum very dedicated to accuracy in preserving Native American culture and heritage (it is in Oklahoma, after all, in a place where just about everyone has Native American ancestry and cares about it.) Still, I'd absolutely love for this sort of treatment to be done there. This is wholly good, by my estimation.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:51 PM on November 19, 2014 [1 favorite]


(I should note that my favorite thing in Woolaroc is a copy of a Cherokee Newspaper, half in English and half in the Cherokee alphabet developed by Sequoyah, because the previously-illiterate Sequoyah's backwards-engineering of script and success and speed in getting his syllabary adopted is one of the coolest events in history, to me.)
posted by Navelgazer at 9:55 PM on November 19, 2014 [3 favorites]


Keep Tacoma feared! Tacoma kicks serious ass, lived there from 2011-2013 and have been back twice in the past three months. Given the amazing friends and people I know there, the outstanding levels of cultural awareness in this exhibit does not surprise me.
I love this, miss Tacoma every day. Thanks for posting.
posted by Annika Cicada at 1:23 AM on November 20, 2014


A lot of Americans get really uncomfortable if you say that Native Americans and their cultures were not, in fact, completely wiped out. They have this romanticized image in their heads of who the Native Americans were and like to concede that it's so sad they were wiped out. This is their way of "respecting" them. Meanwhile, many also claim, somewhat questionably, to have Native heritage. And for them, that should be the end of the discussion - isn't it enough that they're really sad and can even identify with the Natives? But every once in a while they are reminded of the grim reality that there are still Native Americans, many of them living in not-so-great conditions on reservations and struggling to preserve what's left of their cultures. This is too much for them to handle because it's so much easier to mourn the Native Americans' disappearance than to have to face the living truth, which isn't as pretty as they'd like it to be and makes it something that's not just in the nation's past, not something we've moved on from.
posted by ChuckRamone at 7:13 AM on November 20, 2014 [1 favorite]


This is wonderful!
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 12:13 PM on November 29, 2014


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