A history of the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts
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