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"A Revolution in Museum Practice"

“What’s in a name?” A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, or so we’re told, but artists might argue that a work displayed under any other name would not be sweet at all. Attribution, the right of an artist to have his or her name attached to his or her work, is a moral right, and also a legal right under the Visual Artists Rights Act [17 USC 106A(1)(a)].

Over the years, however, it has been customary for museums to display works of Native American art without naming the individual artists. Instead, the works are classified by and attributed to tribes. It seems a logical curatorial practice at first, helping viewers to place works in their social, ethnic, geographic, and historical context. Even contemporary artists belong to tribes, or movements. However, imagine every work by Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin were simply displayed under the name, “Young British Artist.” Or every Picasso simply identified as “French Impressionist.” It would offend our sensibilities.

Dan Monroe, Director of Peabody Essex Museum acknowledges that most museums “continue the practice of labeling historical Native American in relation only to tribe simply because it has long been ‘standard’ practice. Few museums have given thought to the meaning and significance of this practice though none would consider labeling Western art in the same manner.”

Therefore, The Denver Art Museum has boldly announced that it will begin displaying all of its Native art works with the names of individual artists, where such information can be found. This comes as part of a re-installation of its Native American Indian art galleries. In a New York Times article by Judith Dobrzynski, this announcement is heralded as “a revolution in museum practice.”

This announcement may have a ripple effect across the museum industry. “Recognizing that Native American art was made by individuals, not tribes, and labeling it accordingly, is a practice that is long overdue,” Monroe told the Times.

The ripple effect may even spread into other areas of the art world. In response to Dobrzynski’s article in the New York Times, a dealer who advises Christie’s reports, “in the Native American auction at Christie’s two weeks ago, we made a conscious effort to identify and write about the individual artists.”

It will be interesting to see whether these works will now be viewed more as “Art” rather than as objects of cultural heritage. Such changes in perception may even impact the practices in displaying works by contemporary Native artists. Under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, an artist will only be deemed a “Native American” if it is enrolled in a federally or state recognized tribe, or has been certified by such a tribe. But who should set these definitions and how should museums respond? What’s in a name, anyway?

Read the New York Times article here.

And read Judith Dobrzynski’s follow-up posts at Real Clear Arts here and here.