Monday, August 30, 2010

Indians Indians Everywhere !

For three weeks in August there is Indian mania in Santa Fe. It actually starts in Albuquerque with the sales fair at the state Fairgrounds. Here traders (called “dealers” back East) sell not only to some local collectors but they also buy and trade with each other.

This in preparation for the following week when collectors will begin swarming into Santa Fe. At the new Santa Fe Convention Center, the best dealers will offer Indian works from the secondary market . These are just a couple of the events that lead up to the week-end of Indian Market (or Indian Mark-up as it is called by some).

The Santa Fe Indian Market has been in existence since 1922 and today brings some 100,000 visitors from all over the world to a town with a population of around 70,000. The market is estimated to bring in $100 million in revenue to the area. With an accent on the southwest about 1200 Native Americans from all over the United States representing approximately 100 tribes set up in 600 plus booths on the Plaza and the surrounding streets.

Why? Aside from it being a successful commercial enterprise for them, there is intense competition among the Indians. They vie for ribbons, with attendant cash prizes. Those who win the ribbons are extremely proud and show them off. A single piece may have been entered and won ribbons in previous markets in Phoenix, Gallup and elsewhere and with each ribbon the price of the art work seems to increase.

In Santa Fe prizes have individual sponsors and the judging is done by juries of three specialists including Native artists, scholars and sometimes traders with a certain specialty. The yellow, red (second place) and blue (first place) ribbons are given in categories that include painting, jewelry, pottery, and textiles, and, this year for the first time, film . These divisions are broken up into subcategories corresponding to specific techniques and the traditional styles of different peoples, but increasingly important is the designation “contemporary” , which may be as subjective as objective. There is a People’s Choice award and, of course, the coveted and much-publicized “Best in Show”.

The reason that many pieces have seemingly high prices is that the Indians bring their best work. They want to show the other artists how good they are, and they know that their pubic expects it of them. The very best pieces by the best artists command the highest prices and they usually sell quickly. In good times, well-known artists are sold out the first day. The second day, the artists that still have goods left may be amenable to giving a better price. The other side of that coin is that if you want the best that an artist has brought with him, you better buy it right away because it won’t be available for long. Even with unsold works, if the artist is affiliated with a gallery, a piece may appear there after market and you will find the gallery mark-up added to the price.

One of the additional events introduced this year was a skateboard competition. A long-time popular favorite is the Costume Contest with competitors in categories according to age, starting with 2 to 4 year olds and going on to adults. They show off traditional wear of their own nation with costumes often sewn by a grandmother. Recently a contemporary fashion design category was introduced.

Indian Market is conducted under the auspices of SWAIA (The Southwestern Association for Indian Arts) and many recent innovations are due to the Executive Director, Bruce Bernstein, a scholar and entrepreneur who had previously been director and chief curator of the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe. He also served as Assistant Director for Cultural Resources at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C.

People who come to town just to see what Indian Market frenzy is all about often get caught up in the spirit and become immersed in the subject matter. Here you have the opportunity to speak with the Native Americans themselves about their art and culture. It is an exciting time to learn something about the “foreign” world of Native Americans who were here before us foreigners!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

State of the Art / Art of the State

A short while ago my wife and I made an appointment to meet with the Executive Director and Curator of the Capital Art Collection. No, that is not an investment fund! The capitol building of the State of New Mexico has a collection and a serious arts program.

The capitol of New Mexico is Santa Fe and the capitol building is hidden behind trees on the border of the most historic part of town. The circular building with four entrance wings protruding to the North, South, East and West was designed so that from a bird’s eye view it resembles the sun symbol of the Zia tribe.

Their pueblo is located in Northern New Mexico. The Zia symbol was adopted for the state flag when New Mexico achieved statehood in 1912.

The “new capitol”, also known as the Roundhouse, was dedicated in 1966 and required asbestos remediation between 1989 and 1991. There was already a system in place similar to 1% for art and at the time of the necessary renovations the legislature decided to set up the Capitol Art Foundation with a panel of 25 arts experts from around the state including curators, directors and scholars. It was agreed that the foundation could not buy art but could only accept it as a loan or by donation. The money appropriated would go only for the salary of the sole director/curator and pay for installation of the art acquired.

Today the collection numbers over 600 works in all areas including paintings, drawings, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, photographs, prints and mixed media. Aside from judgments of quality, the only prerequisites for donations are that the artists are from New Mexico or work here. The works of art are installed throughout the four floors of the Capitol down every corridor and on every wall.

All the cultures of New Mexico are represented including, Hispanic, Native American and Anglo. The most popular piece in the collection is a monumental mixed media Buffalo Head lent by the artist, Holly Hughes.

Additionally, two temporary exhibitions are organized every year, (before budget cuts there were four). When we visited we saw “Roots and Vision of the African American Experience in New Mexico” consisting of work by 25 African-American Artists from Albuquerque. The next exhibition which will open in September will be art created by public school students throughout the state. It is ironic in that in the most recent budget cuts, art is being eliminated from the curriculum.

The Executive Director and curator who does all this on her own is Cynthia Sanchez, who was appointed shortly after the Foundation was set up. She has degrees not only in art history but also in painting, sculpture and performance studies. All of them must come in handy in juggling what she has taken on, not to mention the politics of dealing with the legislature.

Interestingly, in the same building, the Governor has his own Governor’s Gallery in his offices. It is a separate entity, with its own curator, who organizes loan shows…. but that is for a later Missive.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Art Dealer Today

My father defined our trade quite simply, --we try to convince someone who does not want to sell, to sell, and someone who does not want to buy, to buy. That could never be more true than today when everyone with a collection wants to hold on for a better selling climate and those who wish to collect have no expendable cash!

We travel, we look, we schmoose (gab) and we hope. Often we fail in our attempts to bring a buyer and seller together but once in a while we succeed, and that is a day to celebrate. My father and his cousin Rosenberg always celebrated twice. Once when the client said, “I’ll take it” and again when the check actually arrived. That is another thing that is more true than ever today.

In the old days if a client said they would buy something you could literally bank on it. Unfortunately, that is not as true any more . It used to be a pretty small art world. Everyone knew everyone. My father believed that if anyone collected in our fields they had to visit our gallery, not necessarily buy, but check out what we had.

Klaus Perls the renowned art dealer used to say, “I have never sold anything in my life. Once in a while I have allowed someone to buy something”. From an old fashioned dealer such as myself it makes a lot of sense. We want people to come by our galleries and fall in love with a work of art. Only after that am I there to consummate the acquisition.

Today, the art world is bigger. There are many more art buyers (if not collectors), there are many more art dealers, and the auction houses greatly influence the market.

A good friend and art dealer colleague who studied a different field at Columbia University has said to me that he is jealous of my art history degree. I have countered with how jealous I am of his business degree. Which one is more important? I believe that today, probably, the business degree is more important. As a matter of fact some of the most successful art dealers have MBA’s.

When I was doing my MA at Columbia I asked a professor about continuing on for a Phd. He asked “Why? You can learn more in your gallery in 2 months than here in 2 years”. Now, while this might have been a bit of an exaggeration, on the job training in the art field is possible. Business formulae are much more difficult to master without the discipline of a scholastic setting.

Thank goodness, museum curators are still being trained as art historians. Increasingly, however, the prerequisite for a museum directorship is a degree in business administration, yet museum directors still make the ultimate decisions of what acquisitions will go to the trustees for approval. There are few who are strong in both art and administration. . We have recently lost two such directors, Philippe de Montebello who retired from the Metropolitan Museum, and the late James Wood, named President of the Getty Foundation after retiring as the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago. Happily the Metropolitan picked a new director, Tom Campbell, the old fashioned way, from the curatorial ranks.

From the art dealer, both more scholarship and more business acumen are demanded. I think that the former is a great improvement in our trade. Our clients want to know more about the art that they are buying. We have to be able to supply the latest scholarly information available. The complicated, protracted, deals that have become the norm are alien to the world I grew up in. Yet the art dealer today must be able to handle both.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Stranger in Hopiland

We got an “emergency” call from our friends living on the Hopi Indian Reservation that the last Katsina dance of the season was taking place in a couple of days. So with hardly any notice we packed up and headed out.

The Hopi Reservation covers about 2,400 square miles in Northern Arizona, an approximate 5 ½ hour drive from Santa Fe. About 7,000 full time inhabitants live in 12 villages which stand on top and at the foot of 3 mesas . One goes up and down a lot of steep hills as one drives and walks around. Coming from New Mexico the quickest route is through Gallup (a true frontier town) into Navajo country.

Though their ancestral lands originally covered far more territory, today Hopi is surrounded by the Navajo Nation which has caused conflict for generations. While the Navajo were a nomadic tribe, the Hopi have lived in their current location for over 1000 years. They have the distinction of being the only Native American tribe not to have been relocated because their land has never been of interest to the white man for farming or mineral development. The road up to Second Mesa was only built in the 1960’s, Life at Hopi remains extremely simple. Many go without indoor plumbing and have to haul their own water.

The Hopi calendar is marked by dances that can be religious or social. What we attended was an important religious event, Niman, the Home Dance. It takes place every year near the end of July and is the last appearance of the Katsinam in the villages before they return to their home in the San Francisco Peaks in Northern Arizona. The dance goes on from sunrise to sunset with short breaks in between when the Katsinam return to the Kivas (underground religious chambers) and refresh.

The term Katsina (or kachina) refers to the masked dancer and to the spirit he impersonates. These spirits are the intermediaries between man and the gods

As visitors we do not sit on the plaza (the square) where the dances take place. First priority goes to the families that retain their ancestral houses on the plaza and their extended families. Most visitors sit and stand on the roof tops surrounding the plaza. No photography is allowed.

It is an arid land and in 20 years of visits we have never experienced rain. But this time bright sunshine alternated with torrential downpours. Many at the dances got soaked but we managed to dodge the rain drops and were inside when the rains came. The Katsinas we were watching are called Susuk’holi on Second Mesa. They are the messengers to the Rain gods!

Our friends Joseph and Janice Day have a trading post on Second Mesa and their clients are not just the tourists who come from all over the world. The Indians come as well to trade for the many supplies that they need for the dances. For instance outside their small shop is a pile of wood, not logs for firewood but rather cottonwood roots from which the carvers create the Katsina dolls. These are given to the children as rewards for good deeds and also to teach them about the Katsinam. Every village has variants of the Katsinam and they can be very difficult to identify, but a Hopi learns early on.

The Hopi and their Katsinam have fascinated Anglo artists and intellectuals from Jung and the Surrealists to the German artist, Horst Antes, who has the most important collection of Katsina dolls today.

A bibliography attempting to cover all that has been written about the Hopi was published in the 1970’s. It is a tome of over 700 pages and it could probably be expanded several fold by now. I, myself, could go on for pages and pages. I plan to return to the land of the Hopi in future missives.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sole Mates: Cowboy Boots and Art

Never underestimate the power of a title. Some are real turn offs and others lure you in. Back in Santa Fe I was intrigued by the title above given to the current exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art.

Boots are, of course, utilitarian apparel, but the cowboy boot is interwoven in the fabric of North American history, representing the life and lure of the Old West. Even abroad if you are wearing Western boots someone will say, ‘cowboy’.

Who would have thought you can take the subject of boots and amplify it into an educational, humorous and even exciting exhibition. Sole Mates uses history, anthropology and art with a sense of humor, to trace the origin of the form from the generic riding boot of the 1880s, and bring it up to the present. I was surprised how much one could learn from it.

Most of us have seen images of the cowboy in the saddle roping or riding a bull wearing his boots but have you ever thought of them as a personal fashion statement or wearable art. The art part is usually hidden by trousers covering the tooled, sewn, cut and applied decorative design.

Governor, Bill Richardson, who had done so much for the arts in the state of New Mexico is pictured with his fancy boots. On the actual boots which are displayed as well you can see his initials on the heels. The photograph shows him in his art-laden office surrounded by loans selected by him and his wife from various museums in the state, but the boots are his own.

Elizabeth Wells Smith took the photo of the governor and she wears boots all the time. In the exhibition we see her boots with one pair of Billy Martin boots all chewed up by her 190 lb. Irish Wolfhound… guess he likes boots too!

The craft of the boot maker has hardly changed. It was thought of as exclusively a man’s profession but today that no longer holds true. An outstanding example is a woman who pestered her father until he taught her the trade. Her grandfather C.C. McGuffin left Texas and established his boot shop in Roswell, New Mexico in 1915. In turn he taught his son, L.W. the trade. L.W., however, did not think it appropriate for his daughter until she insisted. Today the talented Deana McGuffin is recognized as a leader in the field.

The pair of boots she lent to the show are titled, “My Day of the Dead Boots”. One boot shows a male skeleton playing a guitar and the other a female skeleton dancing in a skirt. These are both beautiful and humorous. She wears them outside her trousers otherwise no one would know!

People can relate to this exhibition on basis of personal experience. Every visitor I saw stopped at the Brownie snapshots taken in 1952 of a little dude, no more than 5 or 6 years old, posing in his cowboy outfit with his six-gun and holster. I know I can find a photograph of myself, the son of German Jewish refugees living in New York City, wearing the same garb.

Paintings in the exhibition , including works by Remington and Russel and more recent Western masters, give life and historic context to the boots exhibited. Prints by contemporary photographers bring us up to date with images like several pairs of booted legs hanging out of the back of an old truck, and a woman in short shorts sitting on her motorcycle showing off her leg… I mean boot.

One brings something to an exhibition and one takes something more away. I appreciated cowboy boots before I saw Sole Mates but I left with a much better understanding... and a smile on my face.