Center for Native American Art at Portland Art Museum
The Portland Art Museum, in its ongoing commitment to education, is developing in 1999 a Center for Native American Art as part of the expansion of the Museum complex into the Hoffman Wing. The Museum's collection of Native American art is the most frequently requested aspect of the Museum's overall collection and is one of the three most important collections of its type in American art museums. The Portland Art Museum was one of the first art museums in the nation to establish a collection of Native American material, an area which previously had been considered the domain of ethnographic and natural history museums. The Museum's collection is remarkable for both its depth and diversity, consisting of over 3,000 objects crafted by more than 200 indigenous groups from throughout North America, including prehistoric, historic and contemporary works of outstanding quality.
Two primary components comprise the majority of the collection. The Axel Rasmussen Collection is of enormous historical importance as it is one of the last collections of its kind to be collected in its place of origin by a single collector. Collected by Axel Rasmussen in the 1920s-1930s, the collection was acquired by the Museum in 1948 through a public subscription campaign after Rasmussen's death in 1945. Made up of some 800 objects, primarily from the Northwest Coast and Arctic regions, the Rasmussen Collection is uniquely representative of the Northwest's indigenous cultures and captures a lasting visual record of the magnificent art and unique culture of the Northwest Coast Native Americans before the end of the 19th century.
The second major component is the Elizabeth Cole Butler Collection. Consisting of more than 2,100 objects, this collection is encyclopedic in nature and forms the bulk of the Museum's Native American collection. The Butler collection includes articles from nearly every tribal culture of North America, with the majority of objects created between 1800 and 1960. The collection includes excellent examples of clothing, adornments, masks and basket work. Mrs. Butler, who herself is of Native American heritage, began donating the collection to the Museum in 1986 and continues to make periodic additions to the collection. The remainder of the Native American collection has come through other generous donations and long-term loans from members of the community, as well as a number of well-considered purchases.
The new Center for Native American Art will be a distinctive and innovative statement concerning Native American art. Occupying approximately 8,000 square feet on the second and third floors of the newly renovated Hoffman Wing, the installation will feature objects of the highest aesthetic value and interpretive interest. This extensive facility will begin with an orientation area on the second floor that provides visitors with a general introduction to the collection. Following the orientation area, the installation will be divided into cultural - geographic areas, emphasizing the artistic traditions of cultural - geographic regions such as California - Great Basin, Southwest, Plains, Woodlands, Arctic and Plateau. The Plateau gallery will be dedicated to those tribal groups which historically lived along the Oregon and Washington coast and Willamette Valley, as well as those that lived inland along the Columbia River. Focusing on these "local cultures", the Plateau gallery will be located on the third floor where it will serve as an important introduction/transition for visitors as they enter the new Center for Northwest Art galleries, which will offer a historical overview of all arts in the Museum's region.
Within the Center for Native American Art, a variety of objects will be displayed from each cultural/geographic area, and each area will maintain its own particular chronology in order to emphasize the continuity of Native American artistic traditions and illustrate that traditionally made contemporary works are the result of dynamic, ongoing traditions. Other contemporary works (i.e. paintings and sculpture) will be displayed at various points throughout the installation as an "exhibition within an exhibition." Displayed in this manner, visitors will gain a better understanding of the range of Native American art, particularly as it relates to contemporary issues that are of concern to Native and non-Native peoples alike.
The goal of the installation, and its accompanying public programs, is to provide visitors with the artistic context for the works on display. A variety of interpretive methods, including didactic panels, gallery guides and handouts, vintage photographs and hands-on displays will be employed to help visitors discover the purpose of the objects, how they were made, what they were made from and who made them. This approach will result in a lively and innovative installation that provides visitors the opportunity to learn about and interact with Native American art. Through the exploration of the various cultural/geographic areas, visitors will gain an understanding of the extent of Native American artistic expressions; the distinctive art forms, materials, designs and techniques of the various tribal cultures represented; and the original purposes for which the art and implements of daily life were produced and how they impacted the people who used them.
The interpretive objectives of the installation of the Museum's Native American collection will be furthered through comprehensive educational programming. The quality and depth of the collection, along with its tremendous historical and regional significance, represent one of the institution's greatest teaching opportunities. It is the collection area most requested by area educators for school tours and supplementary curriculum materials, and Museum educators will be able to extend learning outside the galleries with expanded educational programs and activities made possible through the new PGE-Enron Education Center.
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