CHICAGO — In a move museum leadership is calling unprecedented, the Art Institute of Chicago has postponed a major exhibition weeks before its opening because of concerns over insufficient inclusion of the voices of indigenous peoples in the presentation.
“Worlds Within: Mimbres Pottery of the Ancient Southwest,” a display of some 70 pieces from about A.D. 1100 made in what is now southwestern New Mexico, was slated to open May 26 in Regenstein Gallery, the museum’s primary space for temporary exhibitions.
But James Rondeau, the Art Institute’s president and director, said that as the show approached it became increasingly clear that more work needed to be done to represent native voices in the project.
“The principal thing that we have not accomplished is to have an aligned indigenous perspective, scholarly and curatorial, with the project,” he said. “And I think that ultimately for us has been the crucial realization that our ability to reflect back what we were learning needed to be done in multiple voices, not just our voice.”
“This is amazing,” Heather Miller, executive director of Chicago’s American Indian Center, said of the decision. She was part of a “scholars day” for Native American researchers and community representatives that those putting the exhibition together convened in December.
“Members of the (scholars day group) were very adamant that this was not a good idea for them to move forward with,” Miller said. But the museum said it planned to proceed, she added, and “we left pretty discouraged and we’ve all been talking about it ever since.
“Now I feel great that our concerns and our issues were actually addressed by this institution.”
The essential problem the scholars had with the exhibit is that much of the pottery, owned by a Chicago collector and pledged to the Art Institute, are objects that were found in graves.
“It’s not art,” said Patty Loew, director of Northwestern University’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research, who was not part of the scholars day meeting but has followed the controversy within the community of Native American scholars. “If someone dug up your great-grandmother’s grave and pulled out a wedding ring or something that had been buried with her, would you feel comfortable having that item on display?”
The exhibition postponement occurs against a backdrop of museums’ increasing sensitivity to the cultures they present. The Field Museum in Chicago last fall announced a major rehabilitation of its outdated Native North American Hall, a project that will make Native Americans “partners” in the presentation and aim to better connect past and present, challenging the notion of them as merely historical figures.
And the Art Institute, in February, unveiled a freshly revamped presentation of its African art. “This multivocal and multidisciplinary approach exponentially expands upon the single curatorial voice that has dominated museum displays until the very recent past,” the museum explained.
“It’s done through an inclusion lens,” said Rondeau. “The introductory text, in the first paragraph, acknowledges the sort of violent legacies of colonialism, the problematic categories of art and non-art, of ritual and artifact, of the sacred, upfront. So for the first time that I’m aware of in this institution’s history, we problematize aspects of collection and display upfront.”
Rondeau, who has worked more than 20 years at the Art Institute, the last three as director, said he could not recall a show being pulled from the schedule as late in the process as is occurring with “Worlds Within.” But he said he sees the move, which will leave about one-third of Regenstein unoccupied alongside the roughly concurrent “Manet and Modern Beauty,” a major impressionism show, as a symbol of a new way of doing business.
“I think our message is positive,” he said. “I think this is: We’re trying our best and we need to do better. And I’m very eager to embrace a position of being perhaps in the forefront of saying that some of the points of reference here for how to deliver best practices, how to really create and speak within that ethical framework, that those paradigms are shifting and we need to shift with it.”
And so the museum is now “working to engage and collaborate with Native American nations who hold close connections to the Mimbres people, including Pueblo leadership,” said spokeswoman Kati Murphy. The current-day Pueblos are the people believed to include descendants of the Mimbres.
The scholars day gathering was the first formal discussion with Native American scholars and “was part of (the) larger process that led to our decision,” Murphy said.
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Andrew Hamilton, the Art Institute’s newly hired associate curator of the art of the Americas, said, “We just need more time. To me it’s a great step to be able to take this time and really reassess.”
Hamilton said his job, in the modern era, is essentially collaborative: “I see my role as a curator in this department as really a facilitator and really trying to build bonds and networks between the Art Institute and Native American communities, indigenous communities, throughout the Americas as well in Central and South America.”
The project was always complex because the Mimbres people, who developed their distinctive, black-on-white pottery depicting images of ordinary life while living in communities along the Mimbres River, seem to have dispersed from their traditional lands by about 1150 or 1250, depending on which source you read.
Further, to the extent these pots are understood by scholars, their primary significance is thought to be related to funeral rites, which comes with special cultural sensitivities.
Indeed, the Art Institute’s formal explanation of “Worlds Within,” long available on its website, said, “Interpreting these rich images and the vessels themselves, which carry significant funerary connotations, poses a challenge to scholars. Research has been limited, and many sites have been destroyed over the past century.”
Ed Harris is the collector whose Mimbres pottery will be the core of the exhibition, and he said he fully supports the decision to delay it. He speaks with reverence of the Mimbres people, comparing the flourishing of their pottery in the last decades of that civilization to the Renaissance and praising their apparent fascination with everyday life rather than exalting rulers and deities.
Beginning in the 1970s, collecting Mimbres pottery gradually became an “obsession” for Harris, a Chicago music publisher, he said. He and his wife, Betty, an Art Institute trustee, have what Harris said is “probably the best collection of this material that exists,” and he has promised it to the Art Institute, a donation that he said is not affected by what has happened with the exhibit.
“They didn’t want to do a show that was just half-baked. They wanted to do it right,” Harris said. “James and I made a decision to put off the show until we can face these issues.”
The show was to travel from the Art Institute, where it would have ended Aug. 25, to Princeton University Art Museum and to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
The show’s curator was Bryan Just, of Princeton, but he and that museum quit the show in February, Rondeau said, and “the loss of that partnership I think prohibited us from actually accomplishing our goals in that time frame.”
Reached by telephone Monday morning, Just initially agreed to speak to the Chicago Tribune but shortly before the appointed time of the call, emailed a statement: “The Princeton University Art Museum is not involved with the exhibition you referenced. We look forward to future opportunities to partner with the Art Institute of Chicago,” he wrote.
Just pulled out over some of the same concerns the Art Institute has, according to Rondeau.
“We had a partner; we lost the partner,” he said. “The project had no curator … and if there isn’t sufficient in-house expertise to cross the finish line ….”
Native scholars, though, suggest the curator shouldn’t have allowed this project so close to the finish line without their participation.
“I think that’s the right decision,” said Loew, of Northwestern. “It’s not fair to frame what you’re going to do and then bring in people to affirm the decisions you’ve already made. … There should have been consultation and communication from the very beginning.”
And while Rondeau, Harris and Hamilton talk about mounting this exhibition in a more enlightened manner, the very presence of grave objects suggests doing so will be difficult.
Miller, of the city’s American Indian Center, said she has warned the Art Institute that this issue touches a nerve: “Action from within the Native American community here in Chicago definitely might happen if the exhibit goes forward,” she said she told museum officials.
It’s a message that Rondeau seems to have heard: “For us this is first and foremost about best practices and preparedness, and I think in this particular case preparedness and best practices are more complex than they ordinarily are.”