Sunday, July 27, 2014

Madness on Museum Hill: The International Folk Art Market

Just above the town of Santa Fe, New Mexico is “Museum Hill.”   There one finds four museums, the Laboratory of Anthropology and the Department of Cultural Affairs administration building.  Once a year the International Folk Art Market takes takes over the plaza and parking lots of Museum Hill.  This year was it’s 11th appearance and it grows ever larger.   153 artists were brought from around the world and 1,700 locals volunteered to assist the professional staff.  On the opening day they had a limit of 10,000 tickets to sell, and every one of them was used.

Of Course, if you are willing to pay more you can come in early and for even more you can go to the preview the night before.   By 11AM on opening day there was a line to pay for objects acquired even before the larger crowds arrived.  Only at the Flag Ship Apple Store in New York have I seen lines like this to pay.

Obviously, they are offering something that people want.  In this case, it is the opportunity to make contact with foreign artists and buy their wares.  It is obviously more fun to buy directly from the artist particularly when there is an exotic factor involved and you can ask about their lives in Africa, for instance, and the techniques they use to produce their craft.

There is a rigorous vetting process of the artists and a complicated application form for which the umbrella organization the International Folk Art Alliance offers assistance.  Every year there is turnover even though in at least one case an artist participated for his 9th year.  This year’s market grossed 3 million dollars of which 90% was kept by the artists averaging around $19,000 each but, of course, some artists do better than others.  One artist brought clothes one year in a size too small for most Americans and did not do so well, but she was invited back the following year, and, having learned her lesson, she did much better.  The International Folk Alliance also offers on line assistance for the artists on subjects such as pricing, developing a catalogue for buyers, and customer relations.  The latter is a logical subject when you think about that some people come from quite different cultures.  In some places barter and bargaining is an important part of selling but not necessarily in the U.S.

There is another gimmick for getting people to come and volunteer to work at the Market.  I am less convinced of this one.  It is billed as your good deed for the day.  You are helping a village in third world countries.  We are told that an artist can make at market 10 times what he or she might make at home in a year. I worry that this may be like the person who wins the lottery and one day the money runs out. Some artists come from co-ops, however, and a cop-op with a good manager is probably a good thing for all. But what about the  artists from Israel, France and Italy.  I wonder how they feel about this third world classification.

Another large selling point is saving art forms that would otherwise disappear.  This is said about most art in most cultures at one time or another.  In our world of Native America we have heard this about several areas including Hopi textiles.  Often it is a trader’s gimmick to sell a piece.  Somehow, arts and crafts survive wars, genocide and famines.  It is a necessary part of life and, though it may lie dormant for a while, it is resilient.

Lowery Sims, Curator, The Museum of Arts & Design, New York and an exhibiting artist

One personal point…can you imagine what it is like living near Museum Hill with the thousands of people who are coming our way? The Market organizers have done what they can arranging for large touring buses to pick people up and bring them back to the parking facilities around town, but that can add up to at least a 20 minute wait and a 10-15 minute ride both ways, so people take there cars.   The surrounding streets are all parked in.  We have to block our driveway with orange cones and a trash bin to be sure we can get in and out of our house!  If they have much more success the Market will need to move… what about to the dormant race track south of town?
When all is said and done, however, the concept of the International Folk Art Alliance was summed up by Cheryl Mills, a lawyer who served in the Clinton White House and as Senior Adviser and Counsel for Hillary Rodham Clinton, quoted the former First Lady, “Talent is Universal; Opportunity is not.”

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Easton Collection Center

When we were up in Flagstaff recently we had a special treat.  The Director of the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA), gave us a tour of the Easton Collection Center, which is a state of the art facility on a hill just opposite the museum.  It is located among the converted chicken coops of a late 19th century ranch on the site that were made into housing units for scholars and interns.  It is a beautiful spot.

The story reads like a fairy tale which I guess becomes more so with each retelling. Robert Breunig had been a curator at the museum in 1970’s but only came back as director in 2003 after a term as director of the Lady Bird Johnson Wild Flower Center.  In Flagstaff he inherited a museum in financial straightswith a great collection and a dedicated staff but with substandard storage facilities.  In fact, there was a very real risk of losing much needed grants if he did not upgrade

Six months into his tenure he held an event for his Plateau Society (higher end members) and told them that the priority of the institution was a to build a new conservation center and storage facility.  One couple who had been involved with the institution but never given more than $1,000 at a time asked him to call them on that Monday morning, which he did and was asked to pay them a visit.  They had talked for about an hour after he arrived when the lady of the house asked if three million dollars would help in this endeavor.  He practically fell off his chair because this is what dreams are made of, not the usual slogging to raise funds.  The couple did have two conditions, however.  One was that he interview their architect, Jim Roberts, not insisting that he hire him, however, and the other was a little vaguer.  They said, “Make it the best you can”.

Every museum has many constituencies and MNA is no exception.  One of their most important are the Native Americans of the Colorado Plateau, including the Hopi, Zuni, Navajo and White Mountain Apache.  The museum put together several planning committees and one was solely for the Indians, who, as you might imagine had several concerns.  They desired for one that the entrance of the Collection Center face East, also that the building have a connection to the San Francisco Peaks which have a religious significance for them; further the building needed to be in tune with the seasons and wherever possible made with local materials.

As surprising as it may seem the architect and the director got along extremely well and both had some of the same concepts, one being to build a natural living roof.  This was a new one to me but not to architects in general.  The Center was built with a slanted roof topped with earth planted with local grasses, which keeps the building at a more consistent temperature.  Solar panels at one end supply about one third of it’s needed electricity.  During the rainy season the water runoff goes into a 22,500 gallon tank which in normal years tides them over the dry season.

The architect came up with a wonderful design and the Indians were pleased with the concept as were the other constituencies.  Their was just one problem, it would cost over twice as much as they had so they made plans to put the project on hold until they could raise the needed funds.  When the director told the donors, however, they weren’t having any of that. They immediately offered to contribute another 3 ½ million but again on the condition that he make it “as good as you can”.

When it was time for the ground breaking in February of 2008 there was just one more problem and that was political in nature.  The donors had said this was not about them, it was about the museum and they did not want their name mentioned.  Robert asked them one last time a month before the opening whether he could please use their name because everyone would want to thank someone, and all would be terribly curious.  I am sure it would also start a rumor mill that could cause all kinds of embarrassing conversations for the director.  Anyway, they continued to say no until the day before the ground breaking when they phoned him to say that they had been thinking about it and he could use their names, Elizabeth and Harold Easton.  Robert described humorously the scramble to redo the programs and make this change in the celebrations.  The Eastons did draw the line at having their pictures up in the entryway.

In the entrance on Equinox and Solstice the light comes through a window slot into the East-facing entrance and shines in the exact center of the inner metal door to where the collections are stored at 65 degrees Fahrenheit with 35 % humidity.

One of the big issues is natural light which the Indians thought was important and the conservators were, of course, against.  The perfect compromise was motion sensors so that when you walk into the conservation center the skylights slowly open and close again when you leave. 

The collections are all stored in rolling cabinets and categorized according to materials.  I believe we were told that there are over 300,000 etymological specimens alone.  There are rows and rows of rolled textiles.   Abundant ceramics from all the tribes, with many archeological objects as well.   Shards, however, are housed elsewhere.

Guess what one of the results of building a state of the art Collection Center is?  More collectors want to donate their collections.  One of the recent donations is a collection of contemporary-style intricately carved Katsina dolls from about 1990 to the present.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Hopi Festival

For most of my life I have been in London on the 4th of July since the Old Master auction sales and art fairs are around that time. I never had a bucket list as such but there was something I have wanted to do for 25 years and finally, not being in London for Independence Day, I had the opportunity to go to The Hopi Festival at the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA).  It was right after this Festival in 1989 that we stopped at the MNA on the way to the Grand Canyon and in their gift shop "discovered" the art of the Hopi.

This time we were no longer strangers but friends with the director Robert Breunig and his wife Karen Enyedy.  We also had friends and acquaintances among the visitors and exhibitors. Funnily enough my first thought when we got there was an association with a fair we used to do in Munich.  All German events start with a speech by the head of the organization and then a celebrity guest.  In Munich it was the organizer of the fair and the mayor or his representative. As exhibitors we waited impatiently for the doors to open and the potential clients to come in.  Here it was much the same only we were among the potential clients on the outside. After the museum director welcomed everyone to the 81st Hopi Festival the Hopi Cultural Preservation Officer, Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, thanked the visitors for coming and implicitly buying their Hopi works of art.

Robert Breunig (Director)
w/ Leigh Kuwanwisiwma (Hopi Cultural Preservation Officer)

The Hopi Festival was conceived of by the wife of the founding Director of the MNA,  Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton, in 1930.  This was at the height of the Depression and she wanted to help the Hopi get some income.   Later she helped the Hopi develop their own unique style of overlay silver with Hopi motifs so that their work could be easily distinguishable from that of their neighbors, the Navajo. The festival has continued until today with a few years left out during World War II.  (It has always been a wonder to me that in spite of the barbaric treatment the Native Americans have received at our hands, they have been the most patriotic of citizens and have enlisted and fought for our country in great numbers.)

Sitting in the middle of Indian Country the museum today does a festival for each of the Navajo, Zuni and Hopi tribes during the year.   Flagstaff being the gateway to the Grand Canyon it attracts a great many tourists, especially July 4th weekend.

After the preliminaries we were invited in and there was art and artists everywhere.  It is not that large a museum and almost every gallery was crowded with artists and the several courtyards had artists under the portals. In all between 50 and 60 tables had one or two artists at each.  There was also a consignment gallery where artists not exhibiting had given one or two objects for volunteers to babysit and hopefully sell. It turned out that the awards for Best of Show and Director’s Choice went to pieces in the consignment gallery.

Many of the artists brought their tools to demonstrate their work, which is always interesting and they are always willing to discuss their techniques, inspirations, and stories behind their pieces. There was a healthy representation of traditional Hopi items like pottery, jewelry, and carved katsina dolls but there were also paintings and novelties like beaded hair bands (a huge hit with little girls).

Fermin Hawee, Silver Artist

The opening night was a “members only” event with only about 300 invited guests it was ideal for viewing all the exhibits.  When the general public came in the next day, it was a mob scene.  There were about 3,000 visitors over the weekend.  Entire families from grandparents to toddlers enthusiastically ogled the wares, picnicked on Indian food sold from stands in the parking lot and listened to traditional and contemporary Hopi music and watched youth dancers under a tent. Not only were cars parked in the usually ample parking areas near the museum but they ran a shuttle driven by museum staff to and from their conservation center up on the hill, opposite, and still cars were parked for between a quarter and half mile along the road.

"Ed Kabotie playing the flute"

Though we did not find anything that might be considered museum worthy we did buy some pieces that tickled our fancy.  Actually, that is not entirely accurate.  A Hopi quilt which I would think a museum would be happy to have was up for a raffle for the benefit of The Hopi School and we bought quite a number of tickets.  Since I have never gotten anything I wanted in a raffle I am not holding my breath but we can enjoy the anticipation.  We should know soon!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Shan Goshorn’s Photo Baskets

Two years ago there was something new at Indian Market, the annual event in Santa Fe.  It was baskets made out of paper with photographic images on them.  The artist was from Tulsa, Oklahoma of Eastern Cherokee heritage, her name Shan Goshorn.  She was, as far as we knew a basket maker.  She had just won first prize for Innovation.

Now she has an exhibition of her work called “We Hold these Truths” at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe.  My wife and I have been extremely taken with the work.  Not only are they wonderful baskets (made of paper!),  they also have images or words on them and sometimes both.  Shan calls herself an activist artist because her baskets often call our attention to issues that specifically concern Native Americans or indigenous peoples in South America.

I took lots of photographs of works in the exhibition but they were taken through plexi vitrines. When I reached the artist by phone and explained she supplied superb images which, as in most of my Missives, can be clicked on to enlarge.  I should not have been surprised how good the images were because her BFA was in painting and photography.  What did surprise me was that she made her first basket only in 2008 and her first double weave baskets in 2010!  I wanted to know what gave her the idea.  She told me that early in her career she had been commissioned by Qualla, the Cherokee Arts and Crafts Co-op in North Carolina, to do a dozen drawings of their baskets.  She realized then that she could make them herself but at that time her first love was painting, drawing and photography and she was making a living at it.

Probably her most recognizable image is the basket that everyone calls Redskins but Shan is adamant that the title is “No Honor”.  For obvious reasons the Native Americans do not feel they are being honored by the name of the football team, The Washington Redskins  and the team recently had their patented trademark revoked. If you put the text together that is woven through the image it has the definition from the American Heritage Dictionary for Redskin and Nigger both say “Offensive Slang”.  That basket asks why is one term acceptable and the other not?!


The sifter basket called “Separating the Chaff”, which is the actual function of the basket shows images around the inside that come from 1960’s reference books about Native Americans and they are not much different today.  The question that this basket asks is how do we, Native Americans, wish to be portrayed?  Are we going to accept these misrepresentations?

In the show there is a set of three baskets called “They Were Called Kings”.  In 1762 three Cherokee warriors went to England to meet King George III.  They made quite an impression on British Society and in their exotic garb it was thought that they must be foreign royalty. Inside the baskets are quotes from historical accounts of their visit and the King’s Royal Coat of Arms.  On the outside are three images of contemporary Cherokee in clothing of the period.

A real tour de force is titled “Cherokee Burden Basket: Singing a Song for Balance”.  Burden baskets had leather or cloth straps so they could be put on one’s back to carry corn, bedding or firewood.   This basket has a compendium of commentary of items like the burdens of the Indian people, high statistics of domestic violence, Boarding School Mission and many other unflattering items but also Cherokee Morning and Evening Songs.

I don’t believe that the artist expects us to read every word though it is fun to “weave” bits together as one looks at the baskets.  It does not take too long to get the idea but for those of us unversed in the history of the Cherokee, Shan supplies explanations.  You can find additional illustrations of her work at

I asked her how come she did not have a gallery on a regular basis and she talked about the pressure she would have to produce work.   In the past 4 years she had created about 150 baskets.  How long would that supply last?  On the other hand she doesn’t need a gallery since she has been getting regular phone calls directly from museums and collectors.  You can find her baskets at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D. C., the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Heard in Phoenix and a number of other institutions.  There is literally a line forming for her work.

Personally I can’t wait to seek her out at Indian Market this August.

Just before Market the Ralph T. Coe Foundation will open an exhibition, “Plain & Fancy: Native American Splint Baskets”.  The exhibition was at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown last year showing mainly Eastern Baskets from the Coe foundation.  The show in Santa Fe will include additional baskets from the Southwest.