Sunday, April 28, 2024

Is Native American Art Going Mainstream?

Native American Art has always seemed to be somewhat divorced from the mainstream.

There have always been exhibitions presenting ethnic groups of artists but recognizing these artists individually as rightfully belonging in an art museum collection is quite a different matter. My father used to say, “There is no such thing as Jewish Art, it is either art or it is not”.

When I wrote about how museums were now open to the work of Black artists, I heard from the widow of a former director of the Metropolitan Museum that she and her husband had loved that work and why had the curators not called it to their attention at the time.

It is always a matter of getting on to the radar and going viral within the art world. In the last few years, I have perceived a change in regard to Native American art. In my opinion, a milestone was the commissioning of two monumental paintings by Kent Monkman (Canadian Cree) for the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum where they made quite a splash for several months starting in December of 2019.

Another indicator of a new level of interest is the New York public art installations by the artist, Rose B. Simpson (Santa Clara Pueblo) who I wrote specifically about a number of years ago.

Simpson’s two-part outdoor work titled “Seed” was commissioned by the Madison Square Park Conservancy art program. It will be on view in two Manhattan locations from April 11 to September 22. One is Madison Square Park, and the other is Inwood Hill Park, which has the last natural forest and salt marsh in Manhattan attracting 150 species of birds and where there are traces of Native American encampments.

Until recently Native American Art was included with other tribal arts in the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas in a department created for the collections of the Rockefeller Museum of Primitive Art that were transferred to the Metropolitan in 1976. Of course, the term “primitive” was subsequently discontinued, but only in 2018 was a gallery created for Native American Art in the Museum’s American Wing. A new position of Associate Curator of Native American Art was established in 2020. Last year the Director declared his desire for cross-fertilization asking the various departments to work together and, in essence, not to stick to their traditional fiefdoms.

In an article in Smithsonian Magazine titled “Who Gets to Define Native American Art,” Susannah Gardiner wrote about Oscar Howe (Yanktonai Dakota) whose letter of protest was part of his retrospective exhibition in 2022 at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York. The latter expressed his fury at his abstract work being rejected from the Philbrook Indian Annual Art competition in 1958. Jurors had found his submission of paintings with bold planes of color and jagged abstract shapes did not conform to what Indian art should look like. Needless to say, he objected, and his protest foresaw a change in attitudes. Of course, at the time you could use the word Indian for Native American.

Many Native American artists look back to their troubled history to find their sources but that is true for any artist or writer who draws on their personal and cultural history for inspiration.

This past January the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC closed an exhibition curated by artist Juane Quick-to-see Smith (Citizen of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Nation), called “The Land Carries our Ancestors“. This exhibition brought together works by an intergenerational group of nearly 50 living Native artists underscoring the self-determination, survivance, and right to self-representation of Indigenous peoples. A wonderful photo from that show expresses the theme. It is by Will Wilson (Navajo), and called “Auto Immune Response 2”. The curators at the National Gallery agreed and acquired the work.

I will leave you with a question. Is there a change in the attitude that art museums have towards Native American art and artists or is it simply that it is being written about more?

Sunday, April 21, 2024

A Painting That Doesn’t Belong

Recently there has been an interesting story out of Munich Germany.

The first report came out in the Suddeutsche Zeitung earlier this month. It occurred in February and was only discovered by a journalist through a police report. A technical worker and an aspiring artist at Der Pinakothek der Moderne Museum had slipped his own work of art into an exhibition of art chosen by the curators.

The exhibition called “Glitch” was about errors and malfunctions in art and the art of Interference. The catalog noted it was to “uncover normative orders and sociopolitical disparities” and “make visible what is invisible”. My “art speak” is not up to untangling that statement! In any case, “insiders” said that it was not just a case of a technician/artist trying for his fifteen minutes of fame, but rather a critique of elitism in the art world by one who helps make an exhibition possible but remains invisible. Here is an image of the offending work of art.

It seems the painting was hung in the show after hours and by the next day the painting had been removed. The artist’s name has still not been revealed.

Clearly, the museum wanted to play it down as a hoax and that is why the caper was only revealed two months later by the newspaper’s sleuths. Although the incident had been reported to the police based on damage to government property because the perpetrator had made two holes in the wall to hang his picture, the complaint was later withdrawn. However, the technician was fired and barred from employment with all state painting museums for three years.

As they say, “there is nothing new under the sun” and though this is not a frequent occurrence it is not unprecedented. In fact, it happened just last year when an artist, Danai Emmanouilidis, slipped one of her works of art into a show at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn. The exhibition was called “Who We Are: Reflecting a Country of Immigration”. The curators only realized the addition when they took down the exhibition and found they had an extra painting on their hands.

It turns out that the museum in Bonn had a different attitude from the museum in Munich. The administration let it be known that they were not upset and would like to know the identity of the artist, promising that there would be no consequences. In any case, the artist caused no lasting damage to the wall since she used double-sided tape. She did eventually reveal herself and managed to sell her painting at auction for Euros equaling $4,000!

If you think about it, you will realize who the most obvious artist would be to slip a work of art onto a museum wall…Banksy. He, however, was not satisfied with adding his art in just one museum. Between 2003 and 2005 Banksy inserted works in quite a number of museums in London, Paris, and New York. Each, as is his wont, had a message. Early on during this two-year period he entered the Tate in London dressed as a pensioner (an old, retired person) and found a blank space in a gallery where he hung a painting in the spirit of the artist Constable and put police tape over it. He called it Crimewatch UK Has Ruined the Countryside for All of Us. He said of it in part, “The amount of paranoia and fear about violent crime and pedophilia makes mine a more accurate drawing of the English landscape we actually live in."

Bansky also placed an object with a label and fake inventory number in the British Museum. It took several days until Museum personnel realized it. The label refers to the “post-catatonic period” and “man venturing towards the out-of-town hunting grounds”. Do notice the shopping cart in the image.

In 2004 he hung this parody of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. You can read his reasoning under the image.

There are many more examples since Bansky hit four museums in New York City alone. This one titled “Graffiti Lord” he placed in the Brooklyn Museum. It represents a traditional 18th-century depiction of an aristocratic soldier but this one is depicted holding a spray paint can in front of anti-war graffiti messages.

These actions have been called hoaxes, pranks, and crimes, but, in any case, they make an interesting commentary on the art world.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Cyber Security for Museums

It seems that not a day goes by that we don’t hear about some breach in cyber security. But why should Museums be concerned with this relatively new aspect of crime? After all, museums don’t hold vast amounts of money in their vaults. They deposit their checks as we all do. We want our financial institutions to be as secure as possible.

What if your home were destroyed in a fire or hurricane. You would want to retrieve what you could of the surviving family memorabilia, documents, and photographs to put your life back together again.

So it is for the provenance and history of an object in a museum collection. Over years of scholarship information has been gathered. When, where, and by whom was it made? Who has owned it since? With an ancient piece where and when was it found. Imagine in a collection that has 10’s 100’s of thousands of objects, or even in a few cases millions, where this information might have to be relearned.

This leads to ransomware. The perpetrator will lock the computerized information system so that an institution and its audience can no longer access its collection information or make it available online until they pay the demanded ransom.

For the museum staff, this is critical as it includes not only scholarship but essential operating information like storage location, and documents like loan agreements. The public has come to make use of information on museums’ collections through their websites. Where would I be either as an art dealer, a blogger, or just an art aficionado if I could no longer see what a museum has in its inventory? As a scholar or art-lover, I would want to identify the museums holding works by an artist I am interested in. As a dealer, I want to know which museums have works related to the one I have to offer.

In The New York Times, Zachary Small reported this past January that major museums such as The Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston, the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, and the Crystal Bridges Museum had experienced disruptions in late December caused by hackers targeting the software they use.

Gallery Systems one of the major service providers admitted that on December 28 computers running its software became encrypted and could no longer operate.

One precaution was to take other potential target clients offline. You can imagine the progression of all museums using this well-known software would all go offline at once. The company had to hire cybersecurity experts in their investigation and involve law enforcement as well. Although the Whitney Museum and Metropolitan Museum use Gallery Systems they did not experience disruption as they host their own databases.

In an article for the Insurance Journal this past February Elizabeth Blosfield,

quotes John Farley, managing director of Gallagher’s cyber practice stating that cyber criminals are “going after key suppliers in the supply chain, so we’re talking about software providers. And the reason they’re doing that is because they know that those software providers probably have hundreds, if not thousands, of other clients whose data they take in” as well as details about their members.

As we have learned we need to be ever vigilant as must the organizations that we trust and rely on.


Sunday, April 7, 2024

Protecting the Image of a Work of Art

No, this is not about copyright law for a relatively recent work of art which usually is no longer potent in Europe or North America 50-100 years after an artist’s death depending on the jurisdiction. At that point it is in the Public Domain.

About a year ago I wrote a piece called: “Art as Promotion in Advertising”

As an example, what do you think of the Mona Lisa promoting an Aeron office chair?

There is one museum that does not approve. In an article written by Colleen Barry appearing in the Associated Press (AP) she writes about Michelangelo’s 1504 monumental sculpture of David. Curators and the Director, Cecilie Holberg, at The Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence are concerned that the political and religious significance is being diminished by, for instance, magnets sold in Florence with a focus on David’s genitalia. Not going to show the latter but here is the director gazing at her prized possession.

The Director may be offended but according to the article, she is the David against the Goliath i.e. Capitalism. In this country, we hold Freedom of Speech as the holy grail but don’t give that much reverence to a work of art or what it symbolizes.

At Holberg’s urging “the State’s attorney office in Florence has launched a series of court cases invoking Italy’s landmark cultural heritage code which protects artistic treasures from disparaging and unauthorized commercial use”. As a result, the museum has profited with hundreds of thousands of Euros in fines. I might ask if that is not a different kind of profiteering if, one might say, for a better cause.

I cannot imagine such an issue in this country. One painting that could still be under copyright has been reproduced, adapted, and imitated over and over again. It is Norman Rockwell’s 1943 painting “Freedom of Want”, published on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post and even though that was in March of that year it became a symbol of the Thanksgiving feast.

Here is Emily Shur's interpretation of Rockwell’s painting ...

Maybe a better example is the use of Emanuel Leutze’s painting from 1851 “Washington Crossing the Delaware” ...

Here is the add for Lloyd J. Harriss Pies ...

Andy Warhol’s silkscreen comment on consumerism is just one of the iconic works from Vermeer to Munch animated in the “Masterpiece“ commercial for CocaCola. The Andy Warhol Foundation has gone on record as having no objection.

Combining an advertisement with a well-known painting, of course, helps the advertiser cement the item in the public’s mind. I would argue, however, that it works the other way around as well. Would Michelangelo’s David be as famous and revered if it had not been seen far and wide and made people want to see how the original looked?

I have spent a lot of time over the years on issues of Cultural Patrimony and today we have the issue of repatriation bringing back works of art to their countries of origin. Is the current case of images of David another form of reclaiming patrimony or a bridge too far?

Museums have long tried to control images of works in their collection and the profits to be gained by gift shop sales and licensing reproductions. However,  NO PHOTOGRAPHY signs in the galleries are slowly disappearing in larger institutions in all but temporary exhibitions where lenders have not waived restrictions.

Clearly, there is a distinction between reproduction and adaptation. I have to agree that many of the commercial uses of the image are in bad taste but who is to make that decision as to whether they should be banned … the courts?