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How do curators at cultural organizations make decisions?

Thelma Golden and Glen Ligon

Thelma Golden and Glen Ligon

This week's essay, With Our Faces to the Rising Sun, provides an opportunity to reflect on the impact of culturally / ethnically-specific exhibitions. Thelma Goldman, the former Director of Exhibitions and Programs at the Studio Museum in Harlem (SMH), discusses this topic with artist Glenn Ligon. She raises key questions about this kind of exhibit:

  • Is it valid to use a specific group of people as a curatorial focus

  • How do earlier exhibitions of this type differ from the ones being organized today?

  • Should these kinds of exhibits continue to be organized?

To answer some of these questions, I visited A Song for the Horse Nation, an exhibit organized by Emil Her Many Horses for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (SNMAI) at the George Gustav Heye Center. After visiting this exhibit, I agree with Goldman that culturally / ethnically-specific curating often fails to meaningfully engage audiences when it is intellectually hollow, overly didactic in response to the lack of scholarship on the topic, or is a token effort at being inclusive of minority groups. This is because exhibition-making through these methods usually comes at the expense of the kind of creativity, experimentation, and risk-taking that could truly move underrepresented communities forward in their artistic development and in the public’s understanding of their contributions. However, it is important to take into account that the curatorial responses produced by different communities will be shaped by their histories, cultural traditions, status in the greater art world, and progress in attaining recognition of their human rights. Awareness of these additional factors provides deeper insight into the curatorial decisions involved in exhibitions about marginalized communities.

A photo from the early years of the Studio Museum in Harlem

It is important to begin this process of gaining greater insight by understanding how the curatorial decisions practiced by each culturally-specific art institution are dictated by their mandates. These mandates are influenced by the historical and cultural development of their communities and by what kinds of frameworks existed and currently exist for interpreting their artistic efforts. On one hand, the Studio Museum in Harlem (SMH) and Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (SNMAI) share a commitment to serving their communities by presenting the artistic contributions of their members. SMH describes itself on their website as “the nexus for artists of African descent locally, nationally and internationally and for work that has been inspired and influenced by black culture.” Similarly, SNMAI “is committed to advancing knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures of the Western Hemisphere, past, present, and future” (About NMAI). However, the circumstances under which these institutions were founded shape how their mandates are carried out. SMH was founded in 1968 during the civil rights movement as the first black fine-arts museum in the Unites States, while SNMAI was founded in 1989 through a Congressional Act, which rectified that “there [was] no national museum [or major research facilities] devoted exclusively to the history and art of cultures indigenous to the Americas” (About NMAI). The spirit of liberation and possibility during the 1960s combined with victories of the civil rights movement seemed to inspire and ground SMH’s vision of supporting the Black avant-garde. By contrast, SNMAI was formed out of two vast collections of Indigenous art (the Heye Museum in New York and the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of Native American objects) under government orders. Even though this institution was not founded by community members like SMH, Native American scholars and community leaders have substantial input on its institutional practices. For example, SNMAI extended the Heye Museum’s mission of “[preserving] […] everything pertaining to our American tribes” to include “partnership with Native people and their contemporary lives” (History of the Collections).

The Smithsonian’s George Gustav Heye Center at the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in New York City

To understand what kinds of frameworks existed and currently exist for interpreting Native American artistic efforts, it is important to be aware of three key curatorial decisions that SNMAI made. These decisions illustrate Thelma Goldman’s point that it is necessary to “break with the paradigms” of culturally/ethnically-specific exhibition-making in order to move forward (69). First, SNMAI’s mission to partner with living artists rejects an earlier curatorial strategy based on the belief that aggressive collecting was justified by the assumption that Native Americans were a vanishing race. Secondly, the museum addresses the problematic provenance of some of the items in their collection that resulted from aggressive collecting. They developed an ongoing policy for repatriation, which is a process for returning the “human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony” from their collections to the “lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Indian tribes, Alaska Native clans or villages, and/or Native Hawaiian organizations” that these items originate from (Repatriation). Thirdly, the next step was to reject the culturally insensitive ways that Native American art and artifacts were presented. The museum decided to “incorporate traditional “Native methodologies for the handling, documentation, care, and presentation of collections” and develop “new approaches to the study and representation of the history, materials, and cultures of Native peoples” (History of the Collections). These decisions grew out of the political reality that Native Americans were/are the targets of genocidal policies enacted by the U.S. government, which are accepted by most of American society.

The Native American genocide still impacts this community’s culturally-specific exhibition-making strategies. First, the Smithsonian continues to be aggressive in their collection efforts. Despite inheriting over 800,000 cultural objects and over 300,000 historical and contemporary images, they report “averaging at least 1,000 [acquisitions] per year” (History of the Collections). This high level of acquisition activity seems to be conducted out of the desire to counteract previous and ongoing efforts to destroy Native American cultural heritage. Secondly, the titles of some of SNMAI’s exhibitions express mournful yet hopeful sentiments about the state of their communities. While Goldman is annoyed by the numerous titles for Black art exhibits that celebrate the community’s cultural achievements through “baroque Black [overstatements] […] with all the great platitudes of overcoming,” (68) many Native American art exhibit titles express grief over the destruction of their civilizations and seek to honor those who survived. For example, A Song for the Horse Nation draws from the museum’s collection to depict how horses transformed Native American cultures and created a new way of life before it was curtailed by the U.S. government’s westward colonial expansion. But despite this decline, the curator asserts that “the bond between American Indians and the Horse Nation, […] has remained strong through the generations” by including work by contemporary artists (A Song for the Horse Nation). The exhibit displays clothing and personal items, carvings, ledger drawings, sculptures, quillwork, quirts, toys, saddle blankets, saddles, and bridles.

A Song for the Horse Nation at the George Gustav Heye Center

Increased knowledge of what motivates culturally / ethnically-specific curatorial decision-making would deepen audience appreciation and understanding of these kinds of shows. For example, Ken Johnson in his New York Times review was dismissive of the show’s thesis and its execution. He saw A Song for the Horse Nation as an overly didactic exhibit by claiming that “with loud graphics, interactive videos, [and] mural-scale reproductions of old photographs papering the walls [...] the show looks as if it were conceived with an audience of attention-challenged children in mind.” Instead of being annoyed like Johnson, I found these architectural and educational elements of the exhibit a dynamic and a joyful expression of the curator’s enthusiasm for the topic, which is shared by many Native American communities. Emil Her Many Horses grew up in the Plains region in South Dakota as a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. He is an Associate Curator at SNMAI who serves as an expert on his region. Additionally, his curatorial decisions express the museum’s belief in “[protecting] and [fostering] their cultures by reaffirming traditions and beliefs, encouraging contemporary artistic expression, and empowering the Indian voice” (About NMAI). The institution’s efforts to be a steward over its cultural contributions are why I am deeply disturbed by Johnson’s claim that the exhibit seemed designed to suit to the tastes of children. Describing the efforts of Native Americans as “childish” in a major news outlet is reminiscent of the propaganda that was used in the past to justify the conquest and control of Indigenous people. Furthermore, I am vexed by his assessment that “the modern paraphernalia [of the exhibit] threatens to overwhelm the historical materials, inadvertently recreating the collision of worlds that ended traditional Indian ways more than a century ago.” Johnson’s frustration with the exhibit stems from having his expectations challenged about how Native American art should be presented. Instead of displaying Native American objects divorced from their contexts and only explained through typed wall text, Her Many Horses decided to present the topic in a lively manner that brought in numerous perspectives. Johnson’s ire is based on the mistaken belief that this is a dead culture. In actuality, Native America is very much alive and its losses were not solely due to clashing perspectives and technological differences, but to a campaign of aggression that still has ramifications in contemporary society. It is astounding that he declares that “traditional Indian ways” ended after viewing the last galleries of this exhibit, which present the work of contemporary artists. Unfortunately, Johnson’s ignorance and cultural insensitivity resulted in him dismissing the exhibit and the curator’s efforts. This level of the denial of the humanity of Indigenous people is one of the biggest challenges facing curators of Native American cultural institutions. Breaking out of this paradigm will require much patience and persistence.

The histories and experiences of each community result in very different types of culturally-specific institutions, which are tasked with overcoming their own problematic curatorial legacies. Their activities reveal the level of progress attained by each group in mainstream society and what they believe their next challenges are. While the unique histories and cultural traditions of underrepresented communities will influence the content of their exhibitions, lessons on how to increase their status in the greater art world and make progress in attaining official recognition of their human rights can be shared by everyone. In particular, understanding the African American civil rights movement and the development of their cultural institutions can provide Indigenous cultural leaders with powerful insights into how to attain greater public acceptance of their perspectives, which would place them in a position to be more imaginative and adventurous in their scholarship and exhibition-making.

Works Cited

Golden, Thelma. "With Our Faces to the Rising Sun" What makes a great exhibition? Philadelphia, PA: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage, 2006. 62-75. Print.

Johnson, Ken. "'A Song for the Horse Nation' - At National Museum of the American Indian, Time in a Saddle." The New York Times. N.p., 12 Nov. 2009. Web. 22 Feb. 2011. <>.

National Museum of the American Indian. "A Song for the Horse Nation." National Museum of the American Indian. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2011. <>.

National Museum of the American Indian. "About NMAI." National Museum of the American Indian. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2011. <>.

National Museum of the American Indian. "History of the Collections." National Museum of the American Indian. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2011. <>.

National Museum of the American Indian. "Repatriation." National Museum of the American Indian. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2011. <>.

The Studio Museum in Harlem. "About | The Studio Museum in Harlem." The Studio Museum in Harlem. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Feb. 2011. <>.

#curatorialstudies #Indigenous #AfricanAmerican

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