August 26, 2012

SWAIA: A Call for New Directions (Again)

Alright, let's get serious here for a second.

Last weekend I attended the 91st anniversary of the Santa Fe Indian Market, hosted by the infamous Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (I like calling them 'infamous' because this title has a dark ominous feel to it, which I think is appropriate.)

The day after the Market ended, the SWAIA Board of Directors announced that they will not renew Director Bruce Bernstein's contract for another 3 years. The Board stated that they wanted a "different business model" to lead them into the future.

Since Bernstein took the director position years ago, I've grown to know him through the Santa Fe scene. I recall him asking about my work at an art opening, and I was floored that such an accomplished guy associated with SWAIA would at all be interested in young perspectives and fresh research.

You see, up until very recently, SWAIA was gaining a negative reputation in the contemporary Native art world. Sure, there are the rock-steady Native artists who stand by SWAIA's side through thick and thin, but in the early 2000s, I wrote a rather scathing review of institutions like SWAIA for a class paper. I did my research and I focused on the numerous rules and regulations used to categorize Native art by non-Natives (and reinforced by Native artists as well) as a way that actively sought to stifle creativity. This obsessive need to categorize Native American art (as Traditional or Contemporary, as Native or not, as Painting or Sculpture, as Sculpture or Diverse Arts, etc) still actively works against Native American artists, and actually excludes many of them from the discussion (which is a very basic discussion at this point, stuck on repeat, focusing mostly on questioning an artist's identity and their materials and techniques).

Now, back to that aforementioned "business model": Economics and business are important elements to any art world, however, institutions like SWAIA put the collector at the center, and Native arts are then aligned accordingly.

Some have said Indian Market is a time when all of the best Native American artists are in one spot at one time. This is false. In fact, to reassert themselves (and pat themselves on the back?), SWAIA positions themselves as the authority on high-quality Native American art. This is also false. No single entity can claim to be the end-all authority on something as subjective as quality, especially when it comes to art. Remember, SWAIA was founded with preserving Pueblo pottery traditions as its focus, which is an important task, but the principles that apply to preservation do not necessarily apply to continuance.

During a panel presentation, I stated that if SWAIA wants to position themselves 'at the forefront of quality-claiming,' then they need to do two things: 1) they need to invest in the youth, regardless of if they are 'good' or regardless of what medium they work in. The young minds are the ones that are going to elevate the discussion and carry on the arts. And 2) SWAIA needs to collaborate with their opposites. They need to seek out individuals and institutions that are not obsessed with standards, not obsessed with defining quality, and not obsessed with categorizing. If SWAIA can accomplish these two tasks, then they can grow to be an important contemporary Native arts institution. But again, they can't do it alone, and that's why collaborations are important.

As the director of SWAIA, Bernstein was already starting up programs that met these two needs. SWAIA is at a very critical juncture right now - they can either continue to grow, or retract to their previous position and continue to obsess over standards, rules, and categories. And in some art-making traditions, rules have a place, but when those same rules get placed upon other art-making traditions, that's when things take a turn south. I do believe that the next director will determine which route the organization will take. To balance all the factions in the Native art world is not an easy task, but it is a necessary dance, and it is important to hire someone who is open to ideas of growth and change.

But that's just my two cents.