The contemporary Native American fine art sculpture tradition is relatively new, with the artistic style of Allan Houser dominating its short history. This history is less than one hundred years old. The purpose of this exhibition is to feature the leaders of this fine art form as well as, to demonstrate the diversity of style and cultural context among the artists.
The end of the 1800s brought tremendous change to the Indian Nations within the United States. It marked the end of the Indian wars and the beginning of the Reservation period in American history. A large number of culturally diverse tribes from the various regions of the United States were relocated to "Indian Territory." This region was to become the state of Oklahoma. This large concentration of Indian populations within Oklahoma made the state one of the main centers for growth and development of American Indian arts and crafts. Historically, the Southwest and California were also regions that had equally large populations of Indian people. Today these three areas are the leaders in the promotion and appreciation of Native art.
The late 1930s and early 1940s marked a change in direction in Indian education. Two official special art programs, one at the University of Oklahoma and one at the Santa Fe Indian School were developed to encourage and nurture the growth of Indian painting as well as the traditional arts. Out of these programs, the leaders in the Native American Fine Art Movement emerged. The late 1930s and early 1940s also saw a growing interest by collectors and promoters of Indian art in the small wood carvings being produced by Native artists.
In the first half of the 1900s, museums were developing and growing in number within the United States, dedicated to collecting and exhibiting American Indian cultural materials. The number of collectors/enthusiasts of Native American cultural arts was also growing. Many of these collectors developed their own institutions such as the Thomas Gilcrease Museum of American and Western Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma and The Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona founded by Dwight and Maie Heard. Others donated their collections to institutions like the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
However, historically very few national fine art institutions have collected Indian art and even fewer have collected contemporary Native American fine art. The reasons for this are complex and involve the academic discipline of anthropology, issues of economic development, intervention by the Federal government and the politics of fine art museums. To further complicate the equation, very few Native artists work in the fine art tradition and even fewer work in the sculpture tradition of stone and bronze. Only a handful have explored the realm of monumental sculpture. All of these factors contribute to the reality that very few Native American artists are represented in national sculpture gardens or in the collections of fine art institutions. The challenge is to have this little known American art form recognized and acknowledged. This exhibition, Twentieth Century American Sculpture at The White House: Honoring Native America, is a milestone in the history of the Native American Fine Art Movement.
Curator of Fine Art
The Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona
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