Nancy Blomberg, Na­tive Amer­i­can art cu­ra­tor, dies at 72

Texarkana Gazette - - RECORDS - By Neil Gen­zlinger

Nancy Blomberg, who as a cu­ra­tor at the Den­ver Art Mu­seum treated Amer­i­can Indian art­works as aes­thetic cre­ations, not ar­ti­facts, and cham­pi­oned the artists who made them, died Sept. 2 at her home in Breck­en­ridge, Colorado. She was 72.

The cause was ac­ci­den­tal as­phyx­i­a­tion, her hus­band, Art Blomberg, said.

Blomberg was chief cu­ra­tor at the mu­seum and its Andrew W. Mel­lon cu­ra­tor of na­tive arts, and dur­ing her 28 years at the mu­seum she re-imag­ined its ex­ten­sive Amer­i­can Indian art col­lec­tion. She em­pha­sized that pieces of­ten thought of as an­thro­po­log­i­cal ar­ti­facts were in fact art­works; she also pushed to ex­pand the col­lec­tion with work by con­tem­po­rary artists and set up res­i­den­cies for them.

“Many places want to keep us in the past,” Me­lanie Yazzie, a Navajo print­maker, sculp­tor and painter, said by email. “Nancy made sure we had a place to help ed­u­cate and share our point of view with the pub­lic.”

She also sought to change the way Na­tive Amer­i­can art was pre­sented. The prac­tice at most art mu­se­ums was to dis­play such works as a mu­seum of nat­u­ral his­tory or an­thro­pol­ogy would, la­beled by tribe and cited for their ethno­graphic rather than artis­tic sig­nif­i­cance. In 2011 the mu­seum com­pleted a seven-month over­haul of its Na­tive Amer­i­can art floor, and among the changes was that when pos­si­ble wall la­bels now car­ried the name of a per­son as well as a tribe.

“In­stead of sug­gest­ing a cul­ture was re­spon­si­ble for a bas­ket, ce­ramic bowl or weav­ing, the new la­bels ac­knowl­edged that in­di­vid­ual artists cre­ated th­ese ob­jects,” Anna­beth Head­rick, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Den­ver’s School of Art and Art His­tory, said by email. “And through this sim­ple act, Nancy re­minded vis­i­tors of the hu­man­ity be­hind th­ese be­long­ings.”

As Blomberg her­self put it in an in­ter­view with The New York Times, “I want to sig­nal that there are artists on this floor.”

Nancy Jean Bas­tian was born on Aug. 25, 1946, in Aurora, Illi­nois. Her fa­ther, Arthur, was a main­te­nance su­per­vi­sor, and her mother, He­len (Unick) Bas­tian, was a home­maker.

Blomberg re­ceived a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in an­thro­pol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Illi­nois in 1968 and a mas­ter’s in an­thro­pol­ogy at Cal­i­for­nia State Univer­sity, Northridge, in 1974.

Be­fore be­ing hired by the Den­ver Art Mu­seum in 1990 as as­so­ciate cu­ra­tor of na­tive arts, she held cu­ra­to­rial posts at the Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum of Los Angeles County and the South­west Mu­seum in Los Angeles. Her first mu­seum job was at the An­chor­age Mu­seum of His­tory and Art in Alaska. Art Blomberg, whom she had met in col­lege and mar­ried in 1968, joined the Air Force upon grad­u­at­ing and was posted to Alaska. She ac­com­pa­nied him there, be­gan vol­un­teer­ing at the mu­seum and was even­tu­ally hired as cu­ra­tor.

Art Blomberg said her ex­pe­ri­ence in Alaska was trans­for­ma­tive.

“Nancy was fas­ci­nated with an­thro­pol­ogy from an early age, as early as ele­men­tary school,” he said by email. “Her love of na­tive arts and peo­ple was born while liv­ing in Alaska and nur­tured by a won­der­ful men­tor and first­hand ex­pe­ri­ence with na­tive artists and cul­tures. She found the art­work to have a spe­cial soul and en­ergy that spoke to her.”

Nancy Blomberg knew that many peo­ple had a very lim­ited view of what con­sti­tuted Amer­i­can Indian art—“It’s not just bead­work from 1860 or 1880,” she once said—and she was ea­ger to broaden it.

“Nancy helped to shape the field of Amer­i­can Indian art and ex­pand its recog­ni­tion in the broader art world,” John P. Lukavic, cu­ra­tor of na­tive arts at the Den­ver mu­seum and her col­league for seven years, said by email. Her ex­hi­bi­tions, such as “Red, White & Bold: Master­works of Navajo De­sign, 1840-1870” and “Artist’s Eye, Artist’s Hand,” “sought to chal­lenge stereo­types and in­tro­duce mu­seum vis­i­tors to the rich, dy­namic, and liv­ing tra­di­tions of in­dige­nous artists,” Lukavic said.

Some in the art world oc­ca­sion­ally com­plained that she was not of Amer­i­can Indian her­itage her­self.

“Ide­ally, mu­se­ums that have Na­tive Amer­i­can col­lec­tions should have Na­tive Amer­i­can cu­ra­tors,” Joe Horse Cap­ture, a Gros Ven­tre Indian and vet­eran cu­ra­tor, told The Times in 2015. “It’s not easy, but it’s pos­si­ble.”

Few, though, faulted her ef­forts to raise the pro­file of Na­tive Amer­i­can artists and to freshen her mu­seum’s col­lec­tion and pre­sen­ta­tions.

One splashy ac­qui­si­tion was “Wheel,” an out­door sculp­ture by the Cheyenne-Ara­paho artist Edgar Heap of Birds. In 1996 Blomberg had sent re­quests for pro­pos­als to nine Na­tive Amer­i­can artists for an out­door piece, set­ting no con­di­tions other than that the works had to be suit­able for the mu­seum site and able to with­stand Den­ver weather.

“Ev­ery sin­gle one re­sponded,” she told The Den­ver Post, “and I wish we could have ac­quired all of them.”

Blomberg also worked to es­tab­lish di­a­logues with tribes over items in the mu­seum col­lec­tion, es­pe­cially ones af­fected by the Na­tive Amer­i­can Graves Pro­tec­tion and Repa­tri­a­tion Act of 1990, which re­quired that in­sti­tu­tions re­ceiv­ing fed­eral money take steps to re­turn to tribes hu­man re­mains, fu­ner­ary ob­jects and ar­ti­facts deemed sa­cred.

She took that re­spon­si­bil­ity so se­ri­ously that in the mid-1990s, when the mu­seum re­turned its first item un­der the act, the Elk Tongue Beaver Bun­dle, to the Black­foot na­tion, she would not pub­licly de­scribe what the bun­dle con­tained be­cause that was sup­posed to be known only to those el­i­gi­ble to par­tic­i­pate in the re­li­gious cer­e­mony in which it was used.

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