The Annual MNA Indian Art Exhibitions

By: Duffie Westheimer

Originally Published in 1994

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In 1984 I was sorting piles of Navajo rugs for the Museum of Northern Arizona’s Navajo Artists Exhibition. I think it was then that I first became enthralled with the Museum’s annual Indian art exhibitions. Not only did I find the artwork appealing, but the very peo­ple whose artifacts appeared in the ethnology galleries were alive within the Museum for at least a few days of each year. I decided to stay with the project.

I decided it was time to go ahead with the project. From the start, the exhibition was intended to be an annual culmination of ongoing involvement with both seg­ments of the market—producers and consumers (Fig. 2). Mrs. Colton would work with the native artists/craftspeople. Potential customers would be educated by the exhibits, by the people demon­strating their arts, and by the prize ribbons, which signaled the experts’ judg­ments of quality. She chose to work first with the Hopi people. Mrs. Colton believed that creating a reliable base of customers for the “high-quality” and (therefore) higher priced work would give the Hopi people a consistent source of income to help them improve their liv­ing situation. In addition, through the arena of the public exhibitions the Hopi would be able to share their distinctive aesthetics with the encompassing Euro­American society.

Due to the localization of the Hopi people in north central Arizona, the pro­ject could include every Hopi artist. Each exhibition would display at least one piece of the “best” work by each artist and craftworker. Each Hopi Craftsman exhibition, therefore, would display a representative sample of a whole population’s (best) art/craft production. Exhibi-tion records would result in an annual collection of valuable data about the objects produced by these people. Indeed, the project was described by MNA personnel as “a scientific experi-ment, not a commercial enterprise” (M. Colton 1931:8).

As stated in the MNA journal Museum Notes (M. Colton 1931:8), the project had four objectives:

(1) to encourage the manufacture of objects of artistic and commercial value which have fallen into disuse and are becoming rare

(2) to stimulate better workmanship

(3) to encourage the development of new forms of art of purely Indian design

(4) to create a wider market for Hopi goods of the finest type.

These objectives, which include two “encouragers, one “stimulate,” and one “create,” were quite an ambitious under-taking for the small new institution.

Mrs. Colton believed it was important, even necessary, to communicate personally with the artisans. Together they discussed aesthetic attributes of individual artisans.As I worked, I became aware that the methods for producing the exhibitions—Hopi, Navajo, and, later, Zuni—were very similar and that the consistency I sensed did not end there. Not only have the pro-duction methods remained constant through the years, but the structure, the concepts, and the public presentation have also changed very little. Of course the exhibitions were appealing, for in addition to displaying beautiful and interesting art, they fit neatly with my training as an American scholar; they re-created what I had been taught throughout my life. For beneath the public presentations of Native American art lie the ideas and categories of a non-Native American viewpoint. American culture of European origin forms much of the foundation of the Museum of Northern Arizona’s Indian art project. By acknowledging my own culture and experiences in the context of this project I learned a great deal about how cultures approach work. I discovered that the annual shows were not necessarily only what I assumed they were. The process of teaching us to recognize the art we call “Indian” included much more than just learning about the artists and their work.

Euro-American Concepts in Action

Prior to the actual establishment of Flagstaffs Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA) in 1928, Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton, one of its founders, formulated a project for the proposed institution. She envisioned the Museum working to pro­mote the arts and crafts of those who lived in the vicinity of Flagstaff, Euro­Americans as well as Navajo and Hopi.

She referred to the already established Santa Fe Project—what we now call Indi­an Market—as her models for working with native peoples and their arts. Draw­ing on her own training in fine and applied art and that of her husband (Dr. Harold Colton) in science, the MNA project would revive “high-quality” tradi­tional Indian arts, create a reliable market and income source, and at the same time amass scientific data (Fig. 1).

During the MNAs second year of operation (1929), Mrs. Colton, now Curator of the Art and Crafts Division made, and the Indians, found to be true artists, are responding enthusiastically” (Art Digest 1931:19). The 1930 Hopi show was referred to as the “First Annual,” and preparations for the second exhibition began before the first was concluded. A successful mold was cast and the exhibi­tion would be re-created for years to come.

Two years after initiating the project, Mrs. Colton described it to an audience with whom she shared a “mutual interest in Indian Welfare.”

As you are all aware, a gradual degeneration in Indian Arts has been taking place over a long period. This is due to a series of complicated causes—chief of which are, lack of intelligent appreciation of the Indian as an artist and consequent cheap commercialization of his products. His markets have been extremely limited. The advertising which he has received has displayed him as a curiosity rather than a people possessing a folk art rich in drama and the creative arts…

Our western Indian is struggling through a distressing period of transi­tion  and readjustment in an attempt to reconcile the old and the new. He is hampered by poverty, disease, result­ing in a bad “inferiority complex.” There is no “Cure all” but there are many ways in which we can assist him to regain his self respect, his pride of craftsmanship and his economic independence.

We have bitten off, what we con­sider [to be] a very small portion of this job and selected the Hopi on their isolated mesas, for our first experi­ment…This exhibition is backed by three weeks of personal work in the pueblos each season. Its purpose is to stimulate the Indian to preserve and perpetuate the best in his arts and at the same time to put him directly in touch with the type of customer able to appreciate the quality of his crafts­manship. (M. Colton 1932:1)

The Coltons and early MNA staff worked hard to successfully fuse compassion with the “objectivity” of science. The project eventually expanded to include the Navajo and the Zuni. In 1936 the Colton assisted in the production of the Navajo Arts and Crafts Exhibition held at Wupatki National Monument, northeast of Flagstaff. Although the Wupatki exhibition was intended to be repeated annually it lasted only one year. MNA itself held its first annual Western Navajo Arts and Crafts Exhibition in 1949 and its first annual Zuni Artists Exhibition in 1987.

All of these exhibitions were influ­enced by two earlier events in New Mexico—the Santa Fe Indian Market and the Gallup Intertribal Indian Ceremoni­al, both established in 1922. These efforts were in turn influenced by the even earlier World’s Expositions and by the Arts and Crafts Movement, which encouraged individual artistic expression and promoted sales exhibitions of hand­made articles (Fig. 4).

Problematic Assumptions

There are two widely held assump­tions relating to the museum as an educational setting. One is that informa­tion is, in effect, trapped within objects of either man-made or natural origin. Through the use of scientific, or objective methods, this information can be released to reveal unbiased truths. The other assumption is that museum exhibits are compiled (and/or judged) by scien­tists or other authorities and therefore present truth. The uncritical may con­clude that the exhibited prize-winning work is the most authentic, the “best,” the most accurate representation of Hopi culture (Fig. 3).

A museum show implies that the visi­tor’s experience will be educational, and the focus on objects suggests they are the source of information. And indeed, placed conspicuously by MNAs front door for many years was the adage, “This Museum Displays Ideas Not Things” (Fig. 5). Yet where ethnic artifacts are presented in an educational situation, do visitors actually learn anything more than to recognize certain types of work made by, in this case, Hopi, Navajo, or Zuni people? (Fig. 6). How much do they learn about Hopi culture, for example, from the objects the Hopi make?

I have asked artist-entrants if visitors to MNAs shows can learn about their culture from the objects they make. Con­sistently I have been told “no, not solely.” Visitors learn about culture, they say, from personal interaction. Talking with the people demonstrating their arts is, in the view of the artists, the educational aspect of the exhibitions (Fig. 7). Unfor­tunately, however, of the thousands of visitors who attend an exhibition few actually share a dialogue with the artists. In fact, most just look at them, almost as though the artists too were objects.

In addition, most visitors do not ques­tion the ways in which objects in these exhibitions are organized for judging and display. They probably do not realize that the organizational scheme has been designed solely by Euro-Americans. Cat­egories that artists/craftspeople might choose are not necessarily reflected in the exhibitions. The issue of what these categories might be is not addressed. Nor is the issue of how the categories of one group (Zuni, for example) might differ from those of another (Hopi, for exam­ple), nor indeed whether they would choose to place the objects in categories at all.

From Tamala to Types

In texts accompanying the earliest MNA Hopi Craftsman exhibitions the Hopi word tamale (translated as “work”) was used in reference to all Hopi prod­ ucts, and Hopi terms were used in con­cert with English words. But within only a few years Hopi words were dropped. With few exceptions English words for object types were used exclusively in the organizational framework of categories (divisions were a later addition to the tax­onomic structure).

After more than a decade of produc­ing MNAs Hopi Craftsman exhibition and participating in similar efforts else­where in the region, Dr. Colton outlined MNAs guiding principles for organizing materials (1940). Believing in their value for other Indian art projects, MNA made these principles available to anyone upon receipt of ten cents to cover costs.

Categories and Cultures

Although the cultures of the artists who enter the three annual shows (Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni) are different, the divi­sions of material types used for the exhibitions are very similar (Table 2), The 1992 Hopi Artists Exhibition had eight divisions, the Navajo Show seven, and the Zuni Show six. All three exhibi­tions share five of these: pottery, jewelry, fine arts, student, and general. The Hopi and Navajo shows have an additional two in common: textiles and basketry. The Hopi show adds a Kachina Doll division, and the Zuni show adds a Fetish division (Fig. 10).

In reality there are many more differ­ences between the cultures of these tribes than the organization of materials in MNA’s three exhibitions indicates. Yet the Museum consistently treats the three culture groups as being basically alike (Fig. 11). It even has a single publicity brochure for the three exhibitions.

The Museum is proud that the Indian art project has not changed in more than six decades. Recognition of any change at the annual MNA Indian art exhibitions is passive, at best. Indian people are presented as contemporary, but still unchanging and traditional, just like the Museum.

Maintaining Traditions

Mrs. Colton’s overriding goal was to help Indian peoples maintain their unique cultures even as they adjusted to inevitable change. She believed that through continued production of their “best” arts—usually those considered most traditional—they could improve their own lives. It is impossible to know how the project would have developed had she been able to remain involved and with the inspiration with which she start­ed. After this “reflexive” review of an American institution that has produced shows for 60 years, I am left wondering whose traditions are best maintained by these exhibitions.

Based on MNA’s theoretical founda­tion, as expressed in the motto that hung by the front door for many years, and the assumptions associated with museums and truth discussed earlier, one would expect each of the shows to be different. But all three exhibitions are basically the same. Only the practical aspects really vary: the collecting methods; the actual objects; and the people demonstrating their arts.

Although our own culture may seem invisible to us and we must work hard to recognize it, this may not be the case for people who are bicultural or have other cultural training. I once informally asked a Hopi artist if the Hopi people would have ever organized an exhibition project like MNA’s (without urging by Euro­Americans). Before he said a word he cracked a smile and chuckled softly, Perhaps the traditions best maintained by MNAs annual Indian art exhibitions are those of the institution, which like others of its type, are not established to promote change, but to preserve cultur­al (and natural) artifacts into perpetuity. The institutional emphasis on continu­ity may have created a generally un­noticed yet powerful legacy in these shows: a tradition of concepts and pro­duction methods based on Euro-Ameri­can culture.

Cite This Article

Westheimer, Duffie. "The Annual MNA Indian Art Exhibitions." Expedition Magazine 36, no. 1 (March, 1994): -. Accessed February 29, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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