Con­tem­po­rary style

A his­tory of the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Na­tive Arts

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A his­tory of MoCNA

As early as the 1960s, the decade that the In­sti­tute of Amer­i­can In­dian Art was founded, staff at the school rec­og­nized the sig­nif­i­cance of col­lect­ing con­tem­po­rary art by Na­tive peo­ples. His­toric col­lec­tions and some con­tem­po­rary works could be seen in mu­se­ums, but a col­lec­tion de­voted ex­clu­sively to con­tem­po­rary Na­tive arts was novel. IAIA had a ready-made source in the out­put of its stu­dents, fac­ulty, and staff. At the time, IAIA was still lo­cated on the cam­pus of the Santa Fe In­dian School, but stor­ing the ac­qui­si­tions was prob­lem­atic. “There was no rhyme or rea­son to how it was stored, no air qual­ity, noth­ing,” Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Na­tive Arts di­rec­tor Patsy Phillips told Pasatiempo. “It was a time when they didn’t re­ally un­der­stand muse­ol­ogy but they knew it was im­por­tant to col­lect. I came from the Smith­so­nian — the Na­tional Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can In­dian — and their col­lec­tion is made up from the col­lec­tion of Ge­orge Gus­tav Heye. He lived in a town house in New York and just brought ev­ery­thing into his house and then bought stor­age fa­cil­i­ties. That’s how peo­ple col­lected for many years and it’s still how some peo­ple col­lect to­day. So it was smart at the time for IAIA to be col­lect­ing be­cause that was such an im­por­tant time in con­tem­po­rary Na­tive art and that’s why our col­lec­tion is so rich to­day.”

As do­na­tions from pri­vate col­lec­tors and artists came in, the school’s ac­qui­si­tions grew to the ex­tent that it was nec­es­sary — if works were to be ex­hib­ited — to es­tab­lish a mu­seum and, in 1972, un­der the di­rec­tor­ship of Chuck Daily, a cam­pus art gallery be­came the first lo­ca­tion of the IAIA Mu­seum. The in­au­gu­ral show was Earth Col­ors, a trav­el­ing ex­hibit

or­ga­nized by the Bu­reau of In­dian Af­fairs. “At that time there was no money for pur­chases,” Phillips said. “It was a stan­dard prac­tice for stu­dents to give some works to the school.”

Af­ter mov­ing into the the Pue­blo Re­vival-style build­ing the mu­seum now oc­cu­pies on Cathe­dral Place, the col­lec­tion fol­lowed. “They moved it here in ’92,” Phillips re­called. “The sec­ond floor is where we stored all of the works.” With the up­stairs rooms taken up by staff of­fices and stor­age, that left only the bot­tom floor open for ex­hi­bi­tion space. By the time Phillips took over the mu­seum’s lead­er­ship in 2008, the mu­seum’s hold­ings, called the Na­tional Col­lec­tion of Con­tem­po­rary Na­tive Art, num­bered nearly 8,000 ob­jects in di­verse me­dia; how­ever, the cu­ra­tors had all but stopped col­lect­ing, as there was no more room, nor funds avail­able for stor­age.

Then, in 2010, the mu­seum col­lec­tion was moved to the Bar­bara & Robert Ells Sci­ence & Tech­nol­ogy Build­ing on cam­pus and MoCNA’s sec­ond floor fa­cil­i­ties were used, in­stead, for ex­hi­bi­tion prep. The new cam­pus fa­cil­ity could ac­com­mo­date large-scale works and came re­plete with a con­ser­va­tion lab and new equip­ment for the stor­age of paint­ings and other art­works. Mov­ing the items to cam­pus al­lowed for staff to be­gin col­lect­ing again. “What we had, for the first time, was space for do­na­tions to the col­lec­tion, so we’re get­ting calls from around the coun­try. Peo­ple want to do­nate be­cause they’re age­ing and their kids don’t want the art. This is what we’re see­ing in the field. And we al­ways buy stu­dent work from the grad­u­at­ing stu­dents.” Each year, the work of

grad­u­at­ing stu­dents is shown at two pri­mary venues: the Balzer Con­tem­po­rary Edge Gallery on IAIA’s cam­pus, and at MoCNA.

The plan in 2010 was to con­vert some of the up­stairs rooms of the mu­seum into an ex­hibit hall for the per­ma­nent col­lec­tion, but the money was not im­me­di­ately avail­able. “Our pri­or­ity at the time was re­ally to get set­tled on cam­pus and that cost some funds be­cause of the added stor­age and equip­ment.” Still, the freed-up spa­ces up­stairs, to­tal­ing about 3,600 square feet, al­lowed the mu­seum to pro­vide a stu­dio for IAIA’s artists-in­res­i­dence as well as a pub­lic area for lec­tures and other pro­gram­ming. The plan to open up more ex­hi­bi­tion space, how­ever, was re­al­ized only this year. The pre­miere col­lec­tion-based show, Vi­sions and Vi­sion­ar­ies, opens on Fri­day, Aug. 21, and with it, MoCNA has reached another mile­stone in its his­tory. Not only has it nearly dou­bled its gallery space but the col­lec­tion has grown to in­clude many of the na­tion’s fore­most Na­tive artists such as Ge­orge Mor­ri­son, Al­lan Houser, and He­len Hardin.

“We have a pretty rig­or­ous ac­qui­si­tion process,” Phillips said. “Peo­ple would come and say, ‘I want to give this to you’, and we would say, ‘OK. We’ll take it.’ But now it goes through our com­mit­tee: our chief cu­ra­tor, the cu­ra­tor of col­lec­tions, my­self, and some other out­siders. If it fits within our mis­sion state­ment and our col­lec­tion, we’ll ac­cept it. We have cer­tain cri­te­ria; we are a Na­tive in­sti­tu­tion. We can col­lect from non-Na­tive stu­dents, but we look at what we need — Na­tive artists and Na­tive alumni. What are we miss­ing in our col­lec­tion that we need to fill? These are the things we look at.”

Post­card of the down­town post of­fice build­ing be­fore it be­came MoCNA; top, in­stal­la­tion view of Ric Gen­dron’s

Rat­tle­bone ex­hibit; photo Ja­son S. Or­daz Op­po­site page, Patsy Phillips, di­rec­tor of MoCNA; photo Ja­son S. Or­daz

In­stal­la­tion view of Dark Light: The Ce­ram­ics of Chris­tine Nofchissey McHorse ex­hibit, 2014-2015; photo Ja­son S. Or­daz; above, MoCNA’s fa­cade

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