Sunday, May 31, 2015

Rich on Red

From Memorial Day through Labor Day Santa Fe is celebrating “A Summer of Color”.  The State Museums and some private museums have all picked a color and many galleries as well.  It all began when Shelley Thompson, the Director, Marketing and Outreach at New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs and publisher of El Palacio the official magazine of the Museums of New Mexico, started to hear about what the museums planned for the summer.  One was planning to open a new silver and jewelry wing to the museum, another focusing on turquoise.  Since the bureau of tourism for the state had been looking for a public relations hook she suggested “Summer of Color” and they parlayed it from there.

I will probably write a number of Missives, on the exhibitions derived from this theme but I doubt there will be any that will surpass the one at the Museum of International Folk Art as far as International interest is concerned.

The exhibition is called “A Red Like No Other Color”, Red for short.  It is an international survey of the subject of cochineal which, I learned from the catalog is not about a restaurant in Marfa, Texas which many art lovers know since the artist Donald Judd made it a center for minimalist art but rather a tiny red bug found in the pear cactus.  For centuries it was the favorite source for the color red for artists in many media.  It was known in Mexico since Pre-Columbian times and by 1600 became the second most important commodity after silver that the Spanish exported from New Spain.  In fact, the ships carrying the cochineal were favorite targets of British piracy on the high seas.  The Earl of Essex became an instant hero in Britain when in 1557 he returned from a voyage having plundered 3 Spanish ships and returned with 55,000 pounds of cochineal.

I had never heard of this bug until Santa Fe began buzzing about several years ago.  I am sure that all participants in a summer of color will explain why their color is dominant above all others.  In the case of cochineal, however, they have a great argument in their list of Lenders including U. S. Museums such as the Getty, Denver Art Museum and the Metropolitan plus museums in Spain, Italy and Great Britain and from institutions in Mexico and the Canary Islands as well as others; plus all those who worked on this show for which there were over 40 international scholars and scientists who swarmed to the subject.  Red is a color that we all understand and can identify, unlike mauve and chartreuse.   Remember that red pencil on your term papers… but that may not have been cochineal.  We would only know by scientific analysis. That was done on each piece in the show either at the institutions themselves that had the equipment or in the New Mexico State Museum lab.  Its chief conservator, Mark MacKenzie went to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan to learn what equipment would be needed and what to look for.

In order to know when cochineal was actually used in works of art before contemporary times it took careful analysis without harming the work of art.  This became an expense not usually needed to put on an exhibition but clearly there was enough interest at institutions where all wish to use the wonders of science in the study of the arts that even the National Endowment for the Humanities thought it important enough to give their maximum grant of $400,000 allowing the museum to get some loans that otherwise they could not have been able to bring in. 

The cochineal dye gave the possibility of a rich color, which had a great deal of flexibility in its shades of red.  It was used for paintings, drawings, and decorating boxes and most often in textiles. It is not limited to the art world, however, it can be found in make-up and has even been used by Starbucks to color their brews until vegans began to complain about it!

The guest curator who led this six-year effort was Barbara Anderson who has just retired from the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs and was formerly the Head of the Getty Research Institute Exhibitions and Consulting Curator for Spanish and Latin American Materials.  Her cohort as editor and an author for the catalog was Carmella Padilla, a prominent freelance writer, who has written extensively about Hispanic art and culture in New Mexico.  The in-house curator was Nicolasa Chávez and the show was conceived of by the director of the Museum, Marcia Bol.

You may want to know what kind of art I am raving about.  It is what my father used to call a Mixtum Compositum, a little bit of everything bound together by the common denominator of cochineal and the quality of the work.  There are reasons that the greatest art made for the richest patrons costs more.  The artist took more care and was able to pay more for their materials.

The best known artist in the show is El Greco and the Museo del Greco in Toledo, Spain lent their portrait of El Salvador Apostolado. Though it is an excellent example of the artist’s work it is almost hidden in a corner rather than on an end wall showing that they were not looking just for names but fine examples of the cochineal technique.

Photo Credit: Tomas Antelo, Instituto del Patrimonio
Cultural de España, Madrid

Probably the most famous red in the world is that of the English Red Coat soldiers and there is a fine example from the National Army Museum in London.  Unfortunately, when I write about any museum exhibition I run into the problem of Rights to images.  In this case, however, the Folk Art Museum was not granted those rights.  But the Army Museum’s website has an excellent image.

The cochineal bug existed in the United States as well and Native Americans were always using colorful dyes for their art so naturally they adopted the cochineal red.   This Lakota Sioux headdress and trailer of the late 19th century was given to the Folk Art Museum by Florence Bartlett in 1955.

Photo Credit: Blair Clark

From Santa Fe there is a fabulous gown by Orlando Dugi lent to the Museum by the Navajo fashion designer and beadworker himself.  I just kept imagining how stunning it would look on some Starlet on the red velvet carpet at the Academy Awards!

In Santa Fe We have not had many world-class exhibitions that could stand in any museum in this country or abroad but this is certainly one of them.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

What Happens in Vegas Doesn’t Always Stay in Vegas

 The ultimate Fantasy Land is not in Orlando or Anaheim, but in Las Vegas, Nevada.  I had always wanted to go.  I had these visions of this beautiful place with luxury hotels offering all the amenities with a casino somewhere on the property.  Little did I realize that it is a city built up with unsightly skyscrapers along a single road, the Strip, and the initial impression is generally, uninviting.

What truly surprised me began when we got off the airplane and there was a ring of slot machines.  If you come with a child… well don’t, but if you do, be sure they don’t run right over to the glittering machines because a security guard will tell you immediately that your child is not allowed near them.   As one father responded, “Then why do you put them right off of the gates!"

I should explain that it was a birthday gift from my children that we would all get together in Vegas without grandchildren who are all underage.

We stayed for five days and four nights staying at two different hotels.  Here came another shock.  The hotels are huge and the casinos serve as the lobbies.  You have to walk for a quarter mile past slot machines and gaming tables just to get to the room elevators.

The first hotel we stayed at was the Bellagio.  Here I must say we lucked out.   At registration it took quite a while until we could get a room.  Everyone else was checking in quite quickly so I questioned the receptionist who said that she was trying to get us a better room.  Since we were checking in with my younger son and his girlfriend they asked if we would mind sharing a space.  At first I thought NO! But, then we found that it was two bedrooms which sounded okay.  When we got to our suite on the 34th floor we found a huge living room with two great bedrooms which each had two bathrooms, a his and a hers.  In case four bathrooms were not enough they gave us a powder room for good measure.  There was also a stocked bar and a large dining table to eat our breakfast on.  The Bellagio décor is quite fitting for Fantasy Land, including a ceiling of colored glass in the lobby by Dale Chihuly and a Japanese garden where I saw several Japanese taking pictures probably to show their friends back home who had never seen anything like it!

The next morning we moved to the Aria Hotel with a slightly shorter distance from the front desk to the room elevators but about half a mile through the casino from the garage to the front desk.  The Aria, with its towers has 54 floors  (here our room was only on the 12th) with a total of 4004 guest rooms.  They were expecting 1,425 people to check in on just one day.  Multiply this by all the hotels on the Strip, the visiting population is an incredible 40 million visitors a year.  In the case of a recession like 2008 and 2009 the losses can be immense! 
Lest I leave the wrong impression there are lots of things to enjoy in Fantasy Land.  The hotels all have swimming pools and some have several.   There are gyms and quiet rooms, which one needs after the noise of the slot machines and the musac or live music blasting through the casino. One designed space that I found very inviting was at the Venetian Hotel where they have a gondola rides and spaces evoking a Venetian Palazzo.

There are some great shows in Vegas.  The first that we saw was one of several Cirque de Soleil extravaganzas.  This was an Eastern fantasy called KA telling a heroic tale of twins who embark on an adventurous journey to fulfill their destinies.  The acts were amazing, Here is one of the high flying demonstrations.

We also saw one of the headliners, Jay Leno.  He was, in my opinion, much funnier live that on his TV show.  Like most of the celebrities he had someone open for him who was also excellent, Finis Henderson, an impersonator of all the famous vocalists such as Sinatra, Elvis, Michael Jackson etc.  After the show we were standing around outside, (when you are a group of 8 nothing happens quickly) and who should walk out not in the suit and tie he wore on stage, but casually dressed, as we were, Jay Leno, who said hello to all the stragglers.  When one of my kids announced that this was a birthday present for me he shook my hand in congratulation.  I didn’t wash it for a week!

In order to see the old Vegas we went to the Neon Museum which is a bone yard for old electric signs both neon and incandescent.  Today LEDs are favored.  I understand that at night a few of the signs can still be lit, but evening tours were booked up through the summer.  We then walked through a bit of the Old Las Vegas which is not the Vegas of today. What we saw looked very 1950’s with no evidence of the town that was founded in 1905 and incorporated in 1911.  Later it was run by the Mob and slowly became the Strip of today with huge resorts owned by corporations and foreign investors.

My three kids and their significant others treated us to all these events. The finale was a late night ride on the world’s largest ferris wheel at the LINQ where the kids got us tickets for a “car” with all you could drink as you watched the panorama below a perfect farewell to Fantasy Land.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Museum as More than Narrative

“Telling the Stories of the American West:  The New Frontiers of Narrative” was the title of W. Richard West, Jr.’s  lecture, currently President and CEO of the Autry National Center of the American West, in Los Angeles.  He was giving the final talk in a series titled “Exploring Narrative” presented in a collaboration between the School for Advanced Research and the Ralph T. Coe Foundation.

Rick West, as he is known, has a degree in American History from Harvard and graduated from Stanford Law School.  The first 20 years of his career were spent as a Washington lawyer at the prestigious law firm, Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson and then the Indian owned law firm in Albuquerque, Gover, Stetson, Williams & West, P.C.  Many of his clients were the Indian Tribes.  He is a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes and Peace Chief of the Southern Cheyenne.

I guess it should be no surprise that Rick West was chosen to be the founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington D.C. where he spent almost 20 years.  His law partner Kevin Gover took his place there as director.  At the age of 69 Rick West decided that rather than retire to Santa Fe, as he had said he would, he was going to take the reins at the Autry Museum.  It was founded in 1988 by the famous singing cowboy of Radio, TV and film fame, Orvon Grover Autry better known as Gene Autry (1907-1998).  The institution started with a large collection of Western Art and memorabilia and a mission to tell the story of the American West.

Having visited and lived in the Southwest for sometime now I can testify first hand that it is quite a different world from what we experienced back East.  The background, lifestyle and the thinking is different.  If we were in Europe it would be like comparing Ireland and Spain!  Therefore, it is a story that needs to be told.  We tell stories not just to educate the visitor but also those living their lives in that environment.  I always think of Winston Churchill quoting George Santayana, (in The Life of Reason, 1905) “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  First we need to learn it!

Though Native Americans have obviously lived everywhere in what we now call the United States a great part of their more recent history is part of the story of the American West.   Their history has been an oral one and art was just a part of life, not a course you took at school but rather something you learned from your family.  Therefore, the concept of telling a story through art in a museum context is quite new for them.  In the past and in some places still today Native American Art is used ethnographically, in order to learn about a culture.  As the Indians have gained their own voice in the Anglo world they are eager to express their ideas themselves and not filtered through the Anglo academic.

National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)

Viewed from the outside, NMAI was a political exercise where a multitude of tribal constituencies were asked to tell their history in their own way through their art.  As a result we did not get an art museum but another ethnographic and history museum telling many different Indian stories from the Native perspective.   In his talk Rick West made the point that this was the New Way, that the Old Way of curating by scholars was no longer valid and I believe he totally missed the point.  There can be little question that the Native Americans have to have their own voice and views heard and seen but that does not automatically invalidate art history and connoisseurship.  What about the American and European scholars of Islamic art, are they to now be totally discredited?  One wants to hear a multitude of voices when dealing with art.

At the Autry, Rick West said he is listening to all the voices and giving them all a chance to tell their stories.  That is as it should be, but again, it is one sided.  West seems to be only interested in telling stories, i.e. narrative, leaving out the beauty of the creations of a culture, or at best calling it incidental to the story. As said there is room for both and it is important that both be expressed.  It is probably a good thing to have both kinds of museums for art and for history.  While one constituency may be interested in the use and meaning of objects that can be supplied by current participants another may be drawn to the culture  through the esthetic quality of its creations.  

Rick West told us that there is authority outside the museum and that is absolutely true and every object tells a story but a work of art does so much more and it helps to have someone trained in the vocabulary of art to interpret it.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Jeri Ah-be-hill (1934-2015)

We went to a Memorial Service a couple of weeks ago and while I might not usually write about such an event, I feel compelled to.  Jeri Ah-be-hill was someone I became aware of very slowly.  It was mainly seeing this small distinguished looking woman who always seemed to be dressed up.  Not that she wore fancy clothes in the sense of designer togs but they were striking and extra ordinary clothes.  Ones, that made you aware of her without being startled by them.

It was pointed out to me that this person who had just dawned on my consciousness had been chairwoman of the Indian Market costume completion in Santa Fe for 17 years!  She had never presented herself as the main event but let the contestants ranging in age from infants, who could hardly walk, to adults, be the center of attention.

Jeri had two daughters.  Teri Greeves and Keri Ataumbi.  Teri is a beader who I have written about in the past and Keri a jeweler.  The last time we saw Keri was at the winter Indian Market. Where she sat in her booth with her mother by her side acting as assistant sales person, and boy could Jeri sell.  After all, she had run the Fort Washakie Trading Post on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming from the mid 1960’s to mid 1980’s.

We have bought some wonderful beadwork from Teri and I have gotten to know her better since she joined the Advisory Board and later was elected to the Board of Trustees of the Ralph T. Coe Foundation.   I learned from her that Jeri was very much her own person and marched to her own drummer.  After her divorce from Richard V. Greeves, a sculptor, she decided not to take her maiden name since her parents had also divorced, but rather her grand mother’s name, and was known in Santa Fe as Ah-be-hill.  She left her Wyoming trading post for Santa Fe with a very large inventory and worked with Mark Arrowsmith at the Relics of the Old West gallery in town.  Jeri knew many of the traders and artists who had visited her in Wyoming   When she acted as Master of Ceremonies at the Indian Market competition she would ask Rex Arrowsmith, Mark’s father, and a dealer as well as part owner of La Fonda, the historic Harvey Hotel in town, to assist her because of his extensive knowledge of the Southwestern Indian tribes.

Jeri had so many artistic interests.  Her greatest passion, no surprise here, was Native American women’s garments, not just that of the Kiowa people but of tribes all over the country from East to West and North to South.  In the 1960’s when most of the writing about Indians was by men, she decided to go directly to the source and speak with the women personally.  When she was particularly taken with a dress she would ask if she could buy it.  She was not, however, satisfied with just the dress she would want the entire outfit including shawl and moccasins that went with it. Her closets were full of these outfits that she had collected and sometimes would model for shows.  What she wore every day was very much her own style and wardrobe, possibly influenced by, but never the garments of other tribes.  As I said, she stood out but in a subdued way.  It slowly dawned as one looked around a room that this outfit was unusual and beautiful and was quite possibly unique.

Jeri never taught in a school but I have met many who have spoken of all they learned from this remarkable woman who was so generous with her knowledge.  She volunteered at the Coe Foundation quietly answering all kinds of questions from the public about various Indian objects in the collection.  I became captivated by her quiet distinguished personality and the more I learned the more curious I became.  I asked Teri if her mother would mind if I wrote about her.  Teri said that she would enjoy that so I put it on my list to go out and meet her on her own ground.  Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.  Within a few weeks of my question, and without warning, Jeri was gone.   When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, announced to the Nation, “Now he belongs to the Ages” or possibly he had said “Angels”, it is not known for sure.   I believe that either would have applied to Jeri.

In her trading post Jeri’s greatest interest was in beads.  On You Tube you can find a clip of her speaking about them:

She naturally became friendly with many bead artists.  One who brought Jeri a great deal of work was Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty.  After Joyce became well known enough that she could sell her own work on commission or in shows they remained friends, and a mutual friend of theirs was Ted Coe.  In this image Jeri is on the left and Joyce to Ted’s right.

Jeri loved to travel and when she went anywhere she wanted to visit culture spots and particularly museums.  When she went to New York Teri wanted her to see the Museum of Modern Art but Jeri preferred to go to the Metropolitan Museum where she could learn more about the culture of other peoples.  She traveled to Rome, Venice, in Spain and here is an image of her in front of the Louvre in Paris.  Note The New Mexican newspaper under her arm.

The memorial assembly in her honor was at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe. It brought people from all over filling the 200 seat auditorium.  It was appropriate for Jeri that it did not follow strict rules though there were traditional aspects.  Teri and Keri put the event together as they believed their mother would have liked it.  At the front was an altar with pieces of art from Jeri’s home and gifts she had received that were among her favorites, including a green robe that Jeri had collected and a yellow beaded buffalo hide that she used as a bedspread. Teri put her most recent beaded portrait of Jeri on the altar.  Laid out below were gifts to be given to members of the family and extended family.  Close friends are often adopted into a Native American family and treated as such. Ken Williams, who is also on the advisory board of the Coe Foundation, was given a gift and on the altar was a bag that Jeri had received from him.

Prayers and tributes in English and the Kiowa language were said, gifts were given and Jeri and her family were appropriately honored.  We had heard stories about Jeri such as how she had provided a weekly clipping service for her daughters to keep them informed of issues that she thought they would, or should, be interested in.   I had heard from Teri how her mother had kept track of every new restaurant in town and insisted on checking them out.  After the ceremony a huge feast was served. Teri had cooked up 60 pounds of bison.  Most of those who came added food, both ready made and cooked for the occasion, to the groaning board.  The desert table alone would have fed a battalion.  We spilled over from the three very long tables set out for the attendees into adjoining rooms and all told stories either about Jeri and her family or ones that Jeri would have enjoyed listening in on.

Keri and Teri have established a scholarship fund at IAIA for a Kiowa student to come and study at the Institute and asked that rather than flowers contributions be made to this fund.

I must also thank Keri Ataumbi and Teri Greeves for many of the photos in this missive.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Young Curators at the Coe

The Ralph T. Coe Foundation has just completed a new project. The President of the Foundation, Rachel Wixom, wanted to further one of her Uncle Ted Coe’s, goals,--education.  You could not be in a room with Ted for more than a few minutes that he was not enthusiastically teaching you about some area of art that he was currently involved with either as an advisor or a collector.

Rachel had the idea that the Coe Foundation should expose young students to how an exhibition is put together and through that teach them about something that they might not normally come in contact with.  Through one of our board members, Teri Greeves, Rachel got in touch with the art teacher, an artist, Andrea Cermanski, at The Academy for Technology and the Classics, a charter school in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  There were many students who were interested in the program but kids today have huge commitments not just at school but with extra curricular activities, sports or dance or family obligations.

In the end six students joined the program but again for the above reasons two had to drop out so we ended up with four dedicated students, three from 8th grade and one sophomore.  Since the Coe is working towards a major museum exhibition of Native American Art at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian this summer, the students were invited to organize a small in-house show of indigenous works from other cultures.

Their first instruction was to wash their hands as soon as they came into the Foundation so that they could handle the objects in the original.  They were then asked to select one or more objects that would be theirs with the goal of an exhibition curated by all of them together.  They picked objects from Benin the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Borneo, Pantar and Fiji.

A couple of masks had been chosen so they put them in front of their faces feeling the media that the mask was made of and the weight when worn for a ritual. Two similar clubs were chosen and by lifting them the student learned that their weight and sizes varied.  They were seated with their computers in the Foundation library to research their objects.

We have an expert on our board of directors, Taylor (Tad) A. Dale, who has been a scholar, dealer and collector all his life; he brought in from his own library books pertinent to the objects chosen. He also sat down with each student, individually, to guide them over any rough spots.  They learned how serendipity plays into research when by chance they came across objects that were similar to the one they had chosen and could extrapolate from them.

Tad and his wife, Sandy, invited the kids to their home where all surfaces are covered with so many works of tribal art that it would take weeks and months to study each one.  The students were allowed to pick up hats that they could try on and pose with. Having met the scholar at the Foundation they met the enthusiastic collector at home.

The students also visited the Museum of International Folk Art where curator Laura Addison took them through a current exhibition, “Pottery of the U.S. South: A Living Tradition”.  They learned what a didactic wall label was, what an object label was, why the walls were painted different colors, the reason that some objects are put in cases and others not.  Then she took them to an empty gallery, which was being readied for installation.  Surprisingly, this sparked their imagination, how an exhibition starts out as an empty unpainted room.  After they visited a storeroom where many museums hold the majority of their collections they went to visit the conservation lab.  This was a revelation to all of them, exciting those interested in science the most.

Back at the Coe Foundation, Rachel carefully guided them in picking a new color for the main wall and pedestals, showed them a format and size for a wall label and what kind of content was needed to go with each individual object.  They also came up with a wonderful title for the show, “Hands On: Culture Shock”.

Then opening day arrived. The students came with their families and were joined by a number of fans of the Coe curious to see this pilot program. Two of the students, Oscar Loya and Alexis Willis gave a short presentation about their experience.  Ashley Barrows and Manpreet Sandhu also spoke about their objects and then the students answered questions from the audience.  They had said that in doing this project they had learned “backwards” working from the object to the books.  Those of us who are regularly involved with the actual art feel that going to the book first is backwards!  Already there was a lesson learned.  They also learned that there are different approaches to a work of art and many ways to interpret it.

I read recently that the Cleveland Art Museum has a program called Teen Co-op where high school students are mentored by staff over an entire year.  The opportunity to learn about museums from the inside out seems to me the best way to ensure the younger audience that administrators are always talking about.

Before the Coe program ended the students were asked what they liked about the program and what name they might like as a title or the program.  I had suggested Rachel’s Kids but they rejected that as belittling, there were already other programs with titles such as Young Curators but when Curatorial Mayhem was suggested they loved it and said that is what their fellow students would want to attend.  What do you think?

For two of our students further opportunities were offered.  One was asked if she would like to come back to the Coe as an intern this summer for a few hours a week.  Another was offered by Landis Smith, conservator at the Museums of New Mexico, the opportunity to gain some experience in the conservation lab, learning about the preservation of museum collections and how the application of science is applied in the conservation of art.

Bottom line:  Through this project eyes were opened on both sides of the equation and Rachel is looking forward to continuing and even expanding the program.