Sunday, October 29, 2023

Keeping Indigenous Art Indigenous

What a strange title. Well, it is not mine. That is the title of an article in the October 9th issue of Bloomberg Business Week by Erin Vivid Riley. What is even more surprising is that the article centers on Santa Fe. Not that this is not an issue, but Santa Fe and its art world are not a subject usually found in an international business magazine.

Personally, I am very happy to see it. I found I did write about this subject 8 years ago in a Missive called Truth in Marketing. At that time the Mayor of Santa Fe recommended to the State Legislature a Truth in Marketing law but there has been little result.

The 1990 federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which addresses the issue says “It is illegal to offer or display for sale, or sell any art or craft product in a manner that falsely suggests it is Indian produced” and the penalties can be quite severe.

Unfortunately, it is rarely enforced and there are no state or city regulations against false advertising.

The issue is especially important to Santa Fe as the city depends on tourism and Native American art is a major draw, yet so many shops offer counterfeit wares.

Over half a century ago I remember a story about a Japanese town named USA where they could label their production “Made in USA”. In more recent times it is said that in China there is a town calling itself Zuni so that they can sell fetishes made at Zuni. Traditionally for the people of the pueblo of Zuni, fetishes, the small carvings made primarily from stone, have protective significance. They have also become a form of Native American art for collectors and tourists. While some made with sought-after stone like turquoise may be expensive many made by Zuni artists can be acquired for under $100.

Larry Barker of KRQE News posted a story in May of 2021 and wrote about an Albuquerque businessman with several shops of so-called Native American art. His source, however, was not the artists but rather a sweatshop in Cebu City, the Philippines which produced millions of dollars worth of fake Native American-style jewelry. They would obtain legitimate pieces make molds and reproduce the objects over and over again. Once in a while, the Feds do step in under the Indian Arts and Craft Act (IACA). At that time they arrested three people involved in selling counterfeit Native American art from the Philippines, but that is the exception, not the rule. The possible penalties are not meted out severely enough to stop the illicit market.

The fake art, especially jewelry, is often cheaper because the real thing is laboriously handmade by Indian artists who depend on that income to support their families. I don’t understand why bother coming to Santa Fe if you will settle for a fake. Do people go to Paris in order to buy rip off designer couture? If you feel that your friends won’t know the difference, why not buy online? Here are some images of the real thing.

It should not be a question of “caveat emptor” but the best way to be sure of authenticity is buying from trustworthy dealers, and there are many. Ask at the museums that exhibit Native art, not for a list that they won’t give you, but for galleries you might visit to find specifically, katsinas or ceramic pots or jewelry etc.

You can also come to Santa Fe for the SWAIA Indian Market, where, on the third weekend of August, more than 200 Native American artists gather to exhibit and sell their art. Authenticity in techniques and materials is vigilantly regulated at this event. I know that when we have friends and relatives coming to town, we are very careful to tell them which shops and galleries they can trust to sell the real thing.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Losing a Language

My parents were German refugees, and I was born before the end of World War II. They did not want me associated with Germany, which was still the enemy, so they were determined that I be as American as possible and therefore only spoke English with me. Having lived both in England and France after escaping Germany they spoke all three languages fluently, so this was not a problem. Of course, they spoke German with each other, so I had to learn some in self defense! I have a friend who came over somewhat later and her parents did not wish her to forget Germany, so they only spoke German to her at home. Today I wish that my parents had spoken German to me, but they were right not to at the time.

I recently read a story in the Smithsonian Magazine and the National Museum of the American Indian in an article called “Waking a language from its slumber” by Kasike Jorge Baracutay Esteve. He has been a cultural activist wishing to bring back the Taino language to the indigenous people of the Caribbean. This has become an important issue to many tribes in the States as well. My first thought was … why?

A fascinating paper called “Native Language Revitalization: Keeping the Languages Alive and Thriving” by Amy M. Gannet at Southeastern Oklahoma University goes into the subject in great depth. Every other sentence is footnoted so maybe it is a Phd thesis. She says that there are approximately 7,000 languages in use today and that by the end of this century 50-90% will be extinct. Again, why is this happening?

I believe I have found a major reason as regards the Native Americans. You have probably heard about the Indian Boarding schools where the relatively new Americans wanted to “tame the savages” by teaching the Indians Anglo ways. You have maybe heard Governor Ron de Santis say, something to the effect that there was nothing here until we came. This unfortunately was, and seems still is, the attitude of many.

Native Americans have kept much of their culture alive with traditional arts and ceremonies that differ in each tribe. However, as Native languages were forbidden in Indian boarding schools and any use was punished, graduates seeing the Anglos were taking over, and many wished to have their children assimilate, which was the idea. As a result, a dwindling number of tribal elders retained fluency.

Some of the Native American Languages

In 1990 Congress passed the Native American Languages Act (NALA) to allow the use of Native American languages as a medium of instruction in schools giving the children the right to express themselves and be educated in their native language. In 2006 Congress went further enacting the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act to help keep Native American languages alive through language immersion programs.

Language is part of cultural heritage. An element of understanding is lost in translation, particularly in imparting stories of the past where words have no modern equivalent. Even though Latin and ancient Greek lie at the root of modern Western languages and continue in scientific vocabulary their study has been dropped from the school curriculum. Only specialized scholars can access the great works of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Homer in the original. Per example

A fragment of the second book of the Elements of Euclid, the ancient Greek mathematician, was discovered in 1897 at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt.

My wife speaks French fluently and can get along in Spanish. I can get along in French and German though the latter is better. Obviously English is our native language yet there are certain words and phrases we say to each other in another language because their exact meaning cannot be translated. Here is a simple expression, “attention”. It is even the same word in English but in French, it might be said to someone as a warning, ie watch out if there is a step or other hazard ahead.

Bringing back all languages that are dying out may not be possible but for those that can be revived an important understanding of history and identity can be passed on to future generations.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Protecting Cultural Property and Preemption

I have written quite a few times on the subject of Cultural Property including a whole series of Missives last year. If you go to and put cultural property into the search box you can scroll down through them ...

This, however, is from a different angle, the laws on Preemtion. In 1976, about the time I started to get involved in this isssue, a paper was published by Pace Law Faculty Publications called “Protecting America’s Cultural and Historical Patrimony”. The author, James J. Fishman made a case that we should have a law of preemption in this country. He cited the example of an auction where marble bust of Benjamin Franklin by the important French sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon, that had been in this country since 1785, went to a European collector outbidding an American who was considering giving it to the the White House House… a noble idea, no doubt. What goes around comes around and the bust bought at the time by the British Railway Pension fund as an investment has found its way back home and is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art!

Fishman compared this to a small bronze relief of the Virgin and Child by the master Donatello. In that case after the bronze was sold in England to an American art dealer, Eugene Victor Thaw. The British government refused to grant the buyer an export license. This was necessary at the time, for any object worth over £4,000 purchased by a foreigner. The buyer was stuck between the preverbial rock and a hard place! The Donatello was held for the mandatory three months and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London acquired it.

France also has an export law but they have an additional interesting twist when it comes to an auction. Just a few months ago The Gazette Drouot, the publication of the Paris auction building where various auction houses stage their sales, announced the sale, in Versailles, of a very rare intact terracotta by François Anguier (1604-1669). It is the model for a funerary monument for Jacques de Souvré (1600-1670). It sold for the record figure of $2.85 million. The winning bidder, who must have sweated through a heated bidding war, was in for a very unfortunate surprise. From a far off corner he heard that a French museum was preempting the sale!

I have witnessed this outcome more than once sitting in a Paris auction room, when after the hammer dropped, I heard a voice shouting “préempté” and saw the face of the would-be purchaser. The museum curator, in this case from the Louvre, has a maximum figure at which he is authorized to buy the piece. If the object brings that price or lower they pay the price and it is theirs. In this case the Louvre could match the unprecedented figure because the terracotta was the preparatory work for the marble which was already in the museum’s collection.

If you want to know more about preemptions here is an excellent French article.

UNESCO has a list of 3,111 National Cultural Heritage Laws regarding export and import laws many covered by Memoranda of Understanding (MOA). Should you wish to find out all of them

Often these laws exempt from regualtion works of low value or from more recent periods.England and France have become more liberal requiring export licences only for works with higher values. In 2020, after years of lobbying, the Italian authorities, who are the most stringent, relented a little. The rule that only works by living artists or those that died less than 50 years ago could be exported without licensing review was amended to those by artists who died over 70 years ago and were valued under €13,500. Older works of art, regardless of value, still require an export license.

In 2022 the U.S. Congress passed the first law to protect American cultural property and it was in aid of Native Americans. The full title of the new law is the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act (STOP Act). Kate Fitz Gibbon, a lawyer with a specialty in Cultural Property, wrote in “Cultural Property News” “The STOP Act’s stated goal is to prevent the export of objects that were obtained in violation of federal laws, the Native American Graves Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA). However, the STOP Act has also been described as giving Native American tribes the power to halt overseas sales of a far broader range of Native American objects, effectively locking them within U.S. borders.”

The new law is meant to protect objects deemed sacred by the tribes from leaving the country. The regulations that must follow remain to be seen and hopefully they will reflect the guidelines and not stifle the legal trade and collecting of Native American art.

Sunday, October 8, 2023

Museum Insider Theft

The vast majority of museum employees are honest hard-working people, but those who are not are more intriguing.

As you know from my Missive on September 17 “How Many is Too Many” the British Museum has fired the curator who was accused of stealing 2,000 (now rounded down to 1500) objects and selling them on eBay.

Much if not most of a museum collection remains in storage. Therefore, it is the easiest place to pluck objects from as you don’t leave any blank spaces on a wall or in an exhibition case.

On April 7, 2023, Daniel Cassady reported in Art News that two years earlier an aide at the Museum of the Plains Indian on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana went on a 4-month pillaging spree. He was caught on a security camera trying on various moccasins to see which might fit. Not all the objects he filched have yet been retrieved. The piece that was featured was a Great Plains Men’s fur necklace with grizzly bear claws and brass beads.

Most published examples of employee theft that I could find happened abroad. It may be that since American museums depend on donations from the public to survive, they keep inside jobs as quiet as possible. It could also be that in the U.S non-curatorial museum employees prefer cash. At the Field Museum in Chicago, an individual in charge of ticket sales pleaded guilty to pocketing cash receipts of over $335,000. At the Whitney Museum employees in a similar position, one was accused of stealing $850,000 and another a paltry $30,000!

In Guangzhou, China a former library curator at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, was charged with selling authentic art works and replacing them with fakes that he forged on his own. Prosecutors claim that he took advantage of his post to steal more than 140 works between 2002 and 2010, including traditional Chinese paintings by renowned artists Zhang Daqian and Qi Baishi.

In the Macedonian Capital, Skopje six employees including the museum’s director were convicted in 2015 of stealing 162 artifacts from the state-owned museum and selling them abroad.

Most thieves get caught eventually even though they try to sell their purloined goods as far away as possible from where they stole them and as annonymously. But some don’t and are caught right away. On September 25 Jo Lawson-Tancred reported the following story in ArtNet News regarding a serious “dummkopf” and I use the word advisedly for the translation of the German word is bonehead or fool.

This unidentified employee worked in the collections management department of the Deutsch’s Museum in Munich. His modus operandi was to take paintings that were in storage and put copies in their place. He stole 3 paintings between 2016 and 2018 then gave them to an auction house, Ketterer, in the same city telling them they had belonged to his grandparents. One painting, Franz von Stuck’s “The Frog King” of 1891, sold to a Swiss gallery for $74,000 leaving the employee with around $50,000 after various fees were deducted. When questioned about their research of the provenance a spokesperson for Ketterer said it had “simply not been possible to identify them as stolen”!

Note to thief, do not put art you have stolen from the museum in a public auction for all to see and certainly not in the same city as your museum!!!

Sunday, October 1, 2023

ChatGPT Art Exhibit

At a museum an exhibition curator comes up with the concept and is responsible for its realization. It is not just picking out the works to be assembled but also negociating loans beyond their museums own holdings. This often means arranging for conservation of the works to be shown. Then they work with an exhibit designer so that the installation conveys the story they wish to tell.

Sometimes a life changing experience can begin with a joke. (Our living in New Mexico is such a story but for another time.) In the case I am writing about it is an exhibition that started that way. The chief curator, Marshall Price, at the Nasher Museum at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, offhandedly suggested at a curatorial meeting that considering a shortage of staff and the need to fill a hole in the museum’s exhibition schedule why not outsource an exhibition to Artificial Intelligence (AI)! His staff enthusiastically latched on to the concept.

Logically enough they decided that the title of the show would be, “Act as if you are a Curator: an AI Generated Exhibition”. This addresses what people fear most: that AI will take their jobs away. To begin Price’s colleagues Julia McHugh and Julianne Miao had to enter their dataset (a structured collection of data associated with their concept for the show) as well as some prompts to refine the idea. Why? For one thing the show was to come from the museum’s own holdings and how could AI know the collection without the information first being put into the database. AI made a suggestion for a title from a description of the collection already on-line, “Art Across Cultures: Celebrating Diversity in the Nasher Collection”, but I am not sure that would have brought in a great number of visitors.

In a review in the New York Times Zachary Small quotes from his interviews. Chief Curator Marshall Price said of the exhibition created under his auspices, “I would say it’s an eclectic show, visually speaking it will be quite disjointed, even if it’s thematically cohesive.” Price added on the positive side, “It was a new lens through which we could see and understand our collections”.

Curator Julia McHugh said of their exhibition, “It made me think really carefully about how we use keywords and describe artworks,” McHugh said. “We need to be mindful about bias and outdated systems of cataloging.”

The success of an AI exhibition basically depends on the algorithm that creates the show, i.e.the process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.

AI had already been used in the artworld. The Bucharest Biennale last year was organized by an AI named Jarvis. Dorian Batycka in an article in Artnet News wrote that Jarvis was developed by DERAFFE Wien, led by Răzvan Ionescu, a Romanian software engineer. Right off the bat It spit out the following, “I am AI Jarvis […] I can do whatever human curators can do: research, write texts, select artists, and in the future, I will be able to work with architectural structures.” However, it is “still unable to complete many of the mundane, administrative tasks often left to curators”, “we do not yet have a system that implies programmatically checking with the artists if they can attend, if their paperwork can be completed, and all the other administrative aspects.”

I read a 2021 article by Flavia Rotondi about a museum in Bologna, Italy using cameras and AI to see how long people stood in front of works of art, what they pointed to and what they ignored. There were unexpected findings. For example, regarding visitors looking at a 14th-century diptych by Vitale degli Equi, data showed that “attention was immediately attracted to the ‘busier’ representation of Saint Peter’s blessing, to the right,” said Bologna Musei President Roberto Grandi. He was surprised to find that many visitors simply skipped the diptych’s left half. These findings can lead to ways to bring more attention to installation, juxtaposition with other works and lighting.

A Nasher press release sums it all up: “While museum professionals are far from relinquishing control of exhibition making and interpretation, this exercise is a powerful way to explore the applications of AI in the creative realm as related to curatorial authorship and expertise, the subjectivity of the selection process, and the future impact of technology on museums.”