The Southwest in Motion: Students Curating Native American Art

Over the summer, this blog  focused on the experiences of my students in ART 4813 Museum Exhibition / History of Photography—but at the same time that they were working hard as a class, an intrepid and dedicated group of students from my ART 4763/5763 History of Native American Art and Material Culture course were also putting together an exhibition for the OSU Museum of Art. Volunteering to get involved above and beyond their coursework, these students—Roxanne Beason, Calli Heflin, Katelynn Pipestem, Chestiké Williams, and Amanda Zimmerman—experienced the challenge of curating Native American art from soup to nuts.

The resulting exhibition, “The Southwest in Motion: Navajo, Pueblo, and Hopi Paintings from the Charles Little Collection,” opened on June 11, 2019. The closing reception, featuring guest speakers Dr. Farina King and Myron Beeson, will be Thursday, September 5, from 5-7pm. The show will be on view through September 14, 2019. This week and next week on the blog, I recap our curatorial process, inviting you behind the scenes. How were these students’ experiences different from those in the Museum Exhibition course?

Just after the Spring 2019 semester started, we were invited to curate an exhibition drawn from the Charles Little Collection, a recent gift to the OSU Museum of Art. The director of the Museum had reached out to Elizabeth Payne, director of the Center for Sovereign Nations at OSU, seeking students interested in curating an exhibition with a proposed opening date in June. Because I’m a faculty partner at the Center, Elizabeth knew that I was teaching Native American Art, so she passed the invitation on to me straight away. I, in turn, offered the opportunity to my students—and their enthusiasm was immediate!

I knew that we’d have to be disciplined in order to fit this unexpected opportunity into student (and faculty!) workloads that were already brimming over with coursework, jobs, and family commitments. My first step, therefore, was to enlist some help. I turned to Dr. Trever Lee Holland, then a visiting assistant professor in the English Department at OSU, whose expertise in 20th-century Native American performance and literature, as well as his skill and experience teaching students writing and composition, were both assets I was eager to add to the project.* He, too, was intrigued by the opportunity to help students curate an exhibition.

Streamlining our approach to the collection

A former faculty member at OSU, Charles Little is eager for his collection to be of value to students. As with many large gifts, the collection is arriving at the museum in stages over time, so our registrar, Cindy Clark, sent me a list of works that were potentially available to the students for their exhibition. I immediately noticed that an appropriately-sized subset was from the Southwest—paintings and drawings by Pueblo, Hopi, and Navajo artists, most of which were created between 1940 and 1980. Here, then, was an easy way to jumpstart the students’ research: instead of trying to find a common thread among a hundred paintings, they could focus on these thirty.

Visiting the museum

For some of the students in the group, our visit to see those thirty artworks in person was their first trip to the OSU Museum of Art. As we looked at each piece on our list, we made observations about its condition, its relationship with other artworks in the selection, and its potential appeal to museum visitors. We also discussed symbolism and subject matter—in some cases, applying our existing knowledge to our interpretations or hypotheses about the work, and in others, simply asking questions based on its imagery. By the end of our visit, students had confirmed a checklist for their show, and each had selected specific artworks they were committed to researching further.


Students Roxanne Beason, Amanda Zimmerman, and Chestiké Williams looking at artworks from the Charles Little Collection.

We had a set of artworks, but the students also needed some background knowledge and a methodological framework. My second task, therefore, was to coordinate our existing course material with the curatorial timeline—and then work out supplementary learning opportunities so that students could most effectively apply their coursework to their curatorial research.

Already on deck: existing coursework

We began the semester reading Michelle Raheja on visual sovereignty, Hilary Weaver on Indigenous identity, and a mainstream press article about the “evolution” of Indigenous art. From the beginning, in other words, students were having conversations about who defines Native American people and art, and how expression through visual culture is an important (and often overlooked) aspect of Native sovereignty. As the semester went on, we read essays by and about artists, including museum catalogues and exhibition reviews, that directly addressed questions of how to interpret and curate Native American art in ways that highlight sovereignty.

In the second and third weeks of the semester, we studied the history of art in the southwest. Our textbook offered an invaluable overview, and an article by Sascha Scott about the San Ildefonso painter Awa Tsireh offered a powerful model for finding meaning—and expressions of visual sovereignty—in the formal qualities of individual artworks.

Field trip!

By happy coincidence, in the third week of the semester I had also scheduled a field trip to visit a variety of exhibitions and curators in Norman and Oklahoma City. Newly engaged in a curatorial project of our own, I encouraged my students to arrive for the trip prepared with specific questions for the curators we were going to meet: Michelle Lanteri, a graduate student and curator at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, heather ahtone, Ph.D., senior curator of the American Indian Cultural Center and Museum, and Eric Singleton, Ph.D., curator of ethnology at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. In preparation for the trip, I had assigned two essays about Indigenous curating: heather’s 2018 essay for Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art, and an essay by Michelle McGeough published a few years earlier in Wicazo Sa Review.


The results of our in-class discussion with curators Michelle Lanteri, heather ahtone, and Eric Singleton.

After our field trip, we spent a class period discussing what we’d learned from each curator, and highlighting approaches we hoped to emulate in our own curatorial practice. One significant result of this experience was that it highlighted the variety of strengths different curators bring to the table, and implicitly, the value of collaboration in bringing all those diverse skill sets to the table. Even though the students were new to curating, they all brought useful background knowledge to bear on the show we were putting together.

Next week: research and writing, community collaborators, and most challenging of all, coming up with the exhibition’s title!


*As of this writing, Dr. Holland has joined the English faculty at Mohave Community College in Kingman, Arizona.


About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
This entry was posted in museum exhibitions, permanent collection, student curating, student research. Bookmark the permalink.

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