Attitude Adjustment: Eiteljorg Museum Unveils Renovation
A renovated Western gallery provides fresh new possibilities at the Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis.
Above: Susan Folwell (Santa Clara), The Twins, 2017, clay, cork and paint. Gift of Steve and Jane Marmon. Right: E. Martin Hennings (1886-1956),
The Twins, 1923, oil on canvas. Gift courtesy of Harrison Eiteljorg.
As any museum curator will tell you, context matters. What a painting hangs next to or near helps bring into focus a unique story that only that configuration of artworks can tell. It’s for this reason that gallery renovations, rehangs and reconfigurations are so exciting—every time a museum makes big changes or shifts things around is another opportunity to tell fresh, new stories.
A series of new stories will take center stage on November 10 when the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis unveils Attitudes: The West in American Art, a new permanent exhibit in two renovated galleries on its ground floor. The renovation and rehang has been a long time coming, according to museum officials. The majority of the adjoining West and Gund galleries had been largely unchanged since the museum, featuring the collection of businessman and philanthropist Harrison Eiteljorg, was opened in 1989. “We’ve been opened for 30 years and this is the first major overhaul we’ve done,” says museum president and CEO John Vanausdall. “We’ve certainly rotated art in and out, but nothing compares to this concept since the museum opened. It was really part of a strategic fiveyear plan we completed about two years ago. There are a number of things we’re trying to accomplish before 2021, including work on our endowment, regional advertising and marketing and, most importantly, this major revision to the permanent galleries.”
The costly renovation was funded largely by museum patrons, as well as a federal grant that allowed the museum to undertake conservation work on some of the pieces. The rehang will present works from the Harrison Eiteljorg collection, as well as the collections of George Gund and Kenneth S. “Bud” Adams, the late NFL team owner who gifted his entire art collection to the museum in 2015.
“I think Harrison would be very proud of what we’ve accomplished here with a permanent collection that originated exclusively from him. Other collectors have given works and the collection has grown considerably, but it started with his collection,” Vanausdall says. “I think he’d be especially thrilled at the number of people who visit the museum to enjoy the works…we are a unique Western museum here in the Midwest and with that we have a unique role, one that can sometimes be a challenge outside of the West, to bring people in to teach them about the American West and Native American cultures.”
Vanausdall, like many museum presidents before him, is reluctant to pick a favorite work from the collection—“they’re like children, so how can you pick a one?”— but he is looking forward to seeing the new placement of Alfred Jacob Miller’s 1845 oil Bartering for a Bride, a piece that guest curator James Nottage is also excited to show for museum visitors.
“It’s an amazing painting, but it’s also a good example of how the conservation came together
for us. It was in a not-so-elegant 1970s frame, so we took it out of that and had it reframed in a period frame and it looks extraordinary,” Nottage says of the painting. “There will be so many instances of that throughout the new spaces, including Frederic Remington’s A Buckjumper, which was also reframed in a more period-appropriate frame. We also have two [Ernest L.] Blumenschein works that we have photos of from the time they were created so we could see the frames they were in. Those frames are long gone, but we’ve found similar frames that are close to what the artist wanted. We will be showing these important works the way the artists originally intended.”
Nottage recently retired as curator from the Eiteljorg but has stuck around to finish this long-gestating project through to completion. While the goal is present these works in a new context, and quite literally under new light, he also says the renovation has allowed the museum to undertake more interactive elements, including touchable displays and video screens. One high-tech interactive feature will present an in-depth look at Dean Cornwell’s mural painting The Americanization of California and allow visitors to learn more about any of the mural’s dozens of figures. More than anything, though, the renovation and rehang of the two galleries will allow the museum to present new ideas about the West.
“Art of the West matures and changes over time so there are other ideas to explore and now we get to make this a more compelling experience for all visitors,” Nottage adds.
In addition to the Remington and the Miller, a number of other Western masterpieces will added to the galleries or presented in a new way, including works by Georgia O’keeffe, Albert Bierstadt, Charles M. Russell, Thomas Moran, Howard Terpning and a substantial amount of work from Taos, New Mexico, from artists such as Catharine Carter Critcher, Nicolai Fechin, Oscar E. Berninghaus, Blumenschein and E. Martin Hennings, whose dual portrait The Twins is a favorite of visitors who meander through the galleries. Some of these artists’ works will get recontextualized through neighboring works, including the Hennings’ piece, which will be shown with Santa Clara Pueblo potter Susan Folwell’s clay pot The Twins, which depicts Hennings’ two figures on the pot’s side.
While the museum has other galleries for both historic and contemporary Native artwork,
Attitudes: The West in American Art will present an important selection of Native items within the new exhibits. Pieces include Navajo weavings, Cochiti ceramic figures, a painting by Fritz Scholder and sculpture by Allan Houser.
Attitudes will also feature museum purchases
from its annual Quest for the West show, which this year added a piece by Krystii Melaine, as well as some new acquisitions, including Grafton Tyler Brown’s 1891 oil Castle Geyser, Yellowstone and Mian Situ’s 2003 masterwork The Golden Mountain, Arriving San Francisco, 1865. Nottage is also excited about rehanging Russell’s 1913 oil Crippled but Still Coming, another fan favorite at the museum. “It’s truly one of the really great Russell paintings,” he adds.
Johanna Blume, associate curator of Western art, history and culture, hopes the renovation brings out new visitors, but also returning visitors.
“One thing we’re doing, and the design is meant to reinforce this, is to kind of surprise people, to make them stop and take a step back and question what they thought they knew about Western art, or more generally American art. I hope we can delight and inspire them, and also give them pause,” Blume says. “It’s all about context. It helps inform the audience and helps them understand the work, whether it’s on an aesthetic level or a cultural level or even in other ways. You can see some of the juxtapositions we’re going for with the The Twins painting by Hennings, who was a white man who moved into Taos to work. But then look at the Twins pot and you’ll see a Native woman, a contemporary Native woman, and her interpretation of the subject. It’s a compelling story.”
Other interesting juxtapositions include Remington’s bronze The Broncho Buster, a cowboy work by a white artist, paired with Bernard Williams’ Black Cowboy – Bill Pickett, a cowboy work by a black artist; and a mesmerizing Henry Farny Native American scene alongside a piece by Native American artist Scholder. It’s these stories, and countless others, that should entice museum visitors to, or maybe back to, the Eiteljorg Museum.
Grafton Tyler Brown (1841-1918), Castle Geyser, Yellowstone, 1891, oil on canvas. Museum purchase through the generosity of Harrison Eiteljorg. Frederic Remington (1861-1909), A Buck-jumper, ca. 1893, oil on canvas. Bequest of Kenneth S. “Bud” and Nancy Adams.
Daniel Smith, Stillwater Crossing, 2009, acrylic on canvas. 2009 Quest for the West Harrison Eiteljorg Purchase Award.
The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in downtown Indianapolis. All Images courtesy of the Eiteljorg Museum.
Mian Situ, The Golden Mountain, Arriving San Francisco, 1865, 2003, oil on canvas. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Eiteljorg Museum’s Western Art Society.
Nicolai Fechin (1881-1955), Pietro, oil on canvas. Gift courtesy of Harrison Eiteljorg.