Ongoing Indigenous protests in the United States and Canada are forcing cultural institutions to engage, often for the first time, in an increasingly inevitable question: who owns the land on which museums stand and how the demands of newly recognized Indigenous artists correctly?

Today, museums are now undergoing a “major transformation of historic proportions,” says curator Patricia Marroquin Norby (Purépecha), in an effort to recognize their links to colonialism and to recognize indigenous rights. But are they doing enough?

Examples include the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, Vancouver Island, which is revamping its Indigenous gallery after the exhibits were criticized for their dehumanizing portrayal of Indigenous peoples; Vancouver Art Gallery, which recruited a group of First Nations artists to consult on its expansion designed by Herzog and de Meuron; and the Smithsonian Institution’s upcoming Renwick Invitational in Washington, DC, hosted by Lara Evans (Cherokee Nation), the first time the prestigious exhibit will feature programming only by Indigenous artists.

But perhaps the biggest change comes from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which in 2018 was criticized by the Association on American Indian Affairs for its long-term display of Indigenous antiques from the Charles and Valerie collection. Diker, which included ceremonies and funerals. objects.

The museum has since rotated the exhibit, added labels throughout to offer Indigenous perspectives on selected works, installed a land recognition plaque on its facade, and appointed Norby in the new role of Associate Curator of Native American Art.

These changes were “not responsive,” but part of a long-term effort to bring Indigenous voices to the fore, Norby said in an interview with The arts journal.

“Currently, museums and other cultural institutions are undergoing a major transformation of historical proportion by publicly recognizing their own colonial heritage and by taking into account long-term institutional practices that have created long separations between collections and source communities,” says- she.

“The current wave of change in the world of Indigenous art and museums is not sudden. It is long overdue and long overdue.

Norby notes actions the Met Museum had already taken prior to his arrival, such as purchasing the monumental Great Hall commission from Kent Monkman, Mistikôsiwak (Wooden People Boat) (2019). In addition to her responsibilities as curator, Norby advises the museum on matters relating to repatriation, maintenance of collections and exhibitions. “It is essential to care for and present Native American and Native art in a respectful and meaningful way that strives to maintain tribal sovereignty and culturally specific protocols,” she says.

While these gestures mark a positive change, some argue that the museum sector could do more. Artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, who became the first Indigenous artist to have a painting in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, says museums still tend to focus their acquisition budgets towards white artists, and that Indigenous art remains underestimated.

“The National Gallery didn’t buy my painting and neither did the Met,” says Smith. “They only own my work because, in both cases, it was given to them. A museum will spend almost all of its acquisition budget on a print by Jasper Johns rather than purchasing works by Indigenous artists from its own community. We are still largely represented as a dead culture, which is why it is crucial to encourage and support living Indigenous artists.

Focus on black Americans and Latinos

Discourse on the representation of Bipoc (Blacks, Natives, and people of color) in American museums has also focused primarily on Black Americans and Latinx communities, argues the artist.

“For example, a job opened for a Native American scholar and it was given to an African-American woman,” says Smith. “I’m not saying we shouldn’t have a person of color for the role, but we now have a lot of qualified aboriginals who are experts in areas that would fuel a museum.”

A 2018 study by the American Alliance of Museums, the Association of Art Museum Directors and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation found that “Native Americans or Alaska Natives” accounted for only about 1% of an increase. 20% of the leadership roles entrusted to Bipoc Museum Staff since 2015. Although several prominent Indigenous appointments have been made since then, the number of Indigenous staff in large museums remains low; the Smithsonian confirms that 1.4% of its current staff are Indigenous, while the Met has two Indigenous members.

Land recognitions, or formal declarations aimed at recognizing Indigenous nations as unceded owners of a specific region, have been widely implemented by cultural institutions since around 2017, but have been criticized by Indigenous communities for being performative and to ignore more important conversations around the Return to Earth Movement.

Tlingit / Unangax artist Nicholas Galanin, who created the monumental work Never forget (2021) for Desert X this year, which appropriates the Hollywood sign with the words “Indian Land” – claims land recognitions “often serve to assuage the guilt of those who say them, without direct action for the community who has been affected by genocide, forced expulsion from their homeland, displacement, child abduction, subsistence rights, theft of cultural objects, etc.

“This work is long term and requires thoughtful collaboration,” says Norby. ” That takes time. It cannot be done in a reactive or rushed manner.

But, as the Land Back protests continue and cultural institutions continue to commit to listening to the perspectives of Indigenous artists and activists, more immediate action may soon be needed before the past can truly be reconciled. .


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