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February 22, 2007

The Burke shows off its best contemporary Native American art in ‘Spirit of the Ancestors’

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What exactly does “contemporary” mean?

That was the first question curators of the Burke Museum’s new exhibit, In the Spirit of the Ancestors: Contemporary Northwest Coast Art, mulled over as they began choosing items from the permanent collection for display. The exhibit will run from March 3 to Sept. 3.

The question came from Robin K. Wright, the Burke’s curator for Native American art, and was posed of her three fellow curators for the exhibit — Bill Holm, professor emeritus and Wright’s predecessor at the Burke, as well as printmaker and carver Shaun Peterson of the Puyallup and Tulalip tribes and artist Susan Point, of the Musqueam tribe.

Holm said, “I thought, maybe somewhat facetiously, that anything that was made since you can remember is contemporary, but that goes back a long way for me.” Back to about the 1930s, in fact. Another thought was to include pieces from the 20th and 21st centuries. But both approaches would have resulted in a selection far too large to display.

In all, Wright said, there were 2,460 pieces in the permanent collection from which to choose. “We all set out to pick the very best examples that show the strengths of the collection,” she said. “Initially, we all went away without consulting each other and picked 215 sculptural or nonsculptural, or printed, pieces, and then compared notes.”

In order to reduce the list, the curators moved their date forward, now to about 1965. “That got it down to about 100,” Wright said, but they could not fit that amount either. So they took a cue from the Burke’s own history and dated “contemporary” to 1985, the centennial of the museum itself. That was also the year that a book by Holm titled Spirit and Ancestor: A Century of Northwest Coast Indian Art in the Burke Museum was published. The exhibit, then, would become a sort of sequel to Holm’s book.

Finally, the four curators settled on 74 different pieces to include in the exhibit, representing the work of about 60 artists.

“The goal was to have a mix of prints and sculptural pieces,” said Holm, and cutting the list was difficult. “If we were to put in all the pieces we really felt were appropriate to the show, we’d have no room in the museum for it.”

He also said the exhibit reflects the Burke’s transition toward reflecting more contemporary art. “Now we have a pretty major collection of what we are calling contemporary Northwest Coast Art.”

Peterson, one of the two Native American curators, said he based his choices on the quality of each item, regardless of its style. “I’m constantly looking at the historical pieces versus the contemporary,” he said. “I have a great deal of respect for people who understand their past.” He said the lack of insight into past art and cultural heritage hampers the appreciation of more modern works the way a basic understanding of math concepts might reduce one’s grasp of more complex math problems. “Looking at contemporary art without understanding art history, you’ll have a harder time coming to the relevance of it.”

He praised the Burke along the way, calling it “a vital resource.”

The artworks in the Spirit of the Ancestors exhibit draw from significant collections donated to the museum by Arthur B. Steinman, Simon Ottenberg, Margaret Blackmon and Ed Hall, among others.

As a complement to the main exhibit, The Burke also will host Our People, Our Land, Our Images, an exhibit of contemporary Native American photography, from March 3 to May 28. This traveling exhibit was organized by the GN Gorman Museum at UC Davis.

For more information on both exhibits, visit online at http://www.washington.edu/burkemuseum/