Sunday, December 14, 2014

Getting Ready for an Exhibition

The Ralph T. Coe Foundation is just starting out as a going concern under the leadership of Rachel Wixom, President & CEO and Bruce Bernstein, Executive Director & Curator.  As a trustee, and volunteer archivist,  I am delighted with our progress. It has been just over a year that the Coe has had its own unusual two-story space in Santa Fe and already it has received attention with two exhibitions that it created, one in conjunction with a fair and the other on its own premises.  A collector has even expressed the wish to donate objects to the Foundation. 

We have lent works of art to other museum exhibitions but now, for the first time, the Coe has been asked to organize an exhibition for another institution!  There are over 2,000 works of art in our collection so it should be no problem but no museum exhibition is that simple.  Probably one of the most difficult parts of creating a show is picking the objects that tell the story that you wish to tell.  In this case, the theme quickly became apparent: The exhibition will tell the story about our founder and his collecting journey. 

Ralph T. Coe was known to all his friends and colleagues as Ted. He started out professionally as a curator in several institutions in this country and abroad.  His longest stint was at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri where he rose from curator to director of the Museum.  He left there in 1982 and after a short period at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. he came to Santa Fe to pursue what always interested him the most, collecting and learning about indigenous peoples.   He collected art from all over the world but mostly that of the Native Americans and many of them became his close friends. 

Ted was born in 1929 and acquired his first pieces of indigenous art in the early 1950’s.  He never turned back and continued, often with very little money to collect.  He went to some very good dealers and received guidance from them but he also went out on his own, travelling thousands of miles on a single journey, which would take him all over the United States and Canada.  A single trip of 7,000 miles was not at all unusual.

How are we going to get a handle on this exhibition?  First of all our Executive Director assembled his advisory committee, consisting of dealers, artists and museum professionals to make a quick and dirty tour of the collection pointing out objects that they would like to see in the show and then asking them to explain why.  In some cases the reason was as simple as the fact that the object was something Ted regularly wore or that it was central to one of the stories he told, like the piece he bought from a Cherokee gas station attendant.

The next step in putting the exhibition together was to review all these, not necessarily related works, and try to make an aesthetically pleasing assemblage of them that told Ted’s story.  Bruce decided that an excellent guide to Ted’s essence was the three exhibitions that defined him.  The first was called “Sacred Circles” which he curated in 1976 and was very proud that it did not just show in this country but was also presented at the Hayward Gallery in London.  He was looking to demonstrate the artistic merits of Indian art and overcome neglect and prejudice.  As a matter of fact, our Native heritage was better preserved abroad than at home and Ted set out to change that.

The second exhibition was “Lost and Found Traditions” which traveled to many institutions here and abroad.  Ted conceived of it as evidence that though we are always saying that some tribe is no longer making art in a certain medium such as textiles or basket, it turns out that they never stop, though there may be ebb and flow as to how many artists are working in the medium. 

The final exhibition that was done just for him took place at the Metropolitan Museum in 2003.   About 200 wonderful works of art from his collection were shown and eventually donated to the Museum.  It was called, “The Responsive Eye” and told of Ted’s collecting legacy, passed down from his parents, and his passion for people, education and connoisseurship.

Note, that this all sounds simple but each object has to be carefully taken out of its storage unit and put to one side (in this case metal racks) to see it in the newly-established context.  Thank goodness the Coe had the good fortune to find a student intern who had recently graduated from Williams College, Mariam Hale, who has handled and worked so well with the objects over the last few months that our curator has said “she is at least a curatorial assistant by now!”

Once the objects are out and mostly on racks they must be carefully scrutinized for conservation purposes and to make sure that no material would offend any cultural entity.  The committee was then again called together to see other works of art such as textiles that had been kept in boxes in the dark until now for reasons of space and  conservation.  When one piece, a painted buffalo hide, was shown to us we learned from Teri Greeves, of the Kiowa Nation and a board member, that since the painted decoration was abstract, it was probably created by a woman.  When I asked how she knew that she explained that men were the historians so they painted figures on hide to tell specific stories, leaving the women to do the abstract work which could be appreciated for its decorative and artistic value.  At this particular meeting another board member, Tad Dale, one of Ted’s oldest friends who sometimes even went on buying trips with him was able to point out Ted’s first acquisition as well as tell stories of other purchases they made together.

Have I forgotten something?  Oh, you may be curious as to where and when this exhibition will take place.  The opening is scheduled for mid July of 2015 at Santa Fe’s Wheelwright Museum, the preeminent museum devoted to Southwest Indian art.

One of the next steps will be to find out whether the director of the museum, Jonathan Batkin has any personal wishes as to what he would like to see or not see in the show as well as continuing consultation with their curator, Cheri Falkenstien-Doyle.  Then a very exciting moment will come when we show their designer, Lou Gauci if he is available, what we have put together and discuss with him how he will install the exhibition ... stay tuned for further developments.


  1. Fascinating! Thanks for sharing this insider's view!

  2. Kate, you put together wonderful exhibitions all the time.
    Hope we will see you New Year's Day. I sent out your invite twice.