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Interview with Joanna Bigfeather, Cherokee, Director of the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum (IAIA), Santa Fe, NM, USA, October 28, 2000

Entretien avec Joanna Bigfeather, Cherokee, directrice, Institute of American Indian Arts Museum (IAIA), Santa Fe, NM, États-Unis
Gérard Selbach
p. 79-84

Texte intégral


1Joanna Bigfeather was appointed director of the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in April 1999.

2A Western Cherokee brought up in New Mexico, Joanna Osburn Bigfeather graduated from IAIA in 1987 and moved to the University of California at Santa Cruz to study for a Bachelor of Fine Arts. Then she attended the State University of New York in Albany, where she obtained a Master in Fine Arts. While exhibiting extensively prints, ceramics and installations, she became the director of the art gallery at the American Indian Community House (AICH) in New York City for about six years. She then moved to Santa Fe where she felt she belonged.

3She resigned from her position as museum director in early 2002, rather unexpectedly according to Chuck Dailey who was called back from retirement to become the interim director until another director could be appointed. He had worked for more than twenty years as a professor of museum studies at IAIA and had also been the museum  director for some time.

4The IAIA Museum, home of the National Collection of Contemporary Indian Art, is part of the Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA) which is the only school offering four-year courses on Native American art. It was founded in September 1962 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, backed by the Rockefeller Foundation, Rene d’Harnoncourt, Dr. George Boyce and Lloyd Kiva New (1916-2002), a very successful Cherokee artist and teacher, who became its first director, then president from 1967-1978. 3,700 students have passed through its halls over its forty years of existence. Lots have become well-known artists, among others: Tony Abeita, Earl Biss, T.C. Cannon, Doug Coffin, Doug Hyde, Allan Houser, Alex Jacob, Tony Jojola, Peter Jones, Otellie Loloma, Linda Lomahaftewa, Estella Loretto, Don Montileaux, Dan Namingha, Wendy Ponca, Diego Romero, Kevin Red Star, Jacquie Stevens and Charlene Teters. From the opening of the school, the students have been encouraged to work from their cultural traditions and, at the same time, explore new mediums, new forms and new ideas. The influence of the art teaching has been huge and revolutionized Native American art, and American art as a consequence. The philosophy of the school is summed up in the title given to the catalogue published in 1992 for the “three decades of the IAIA”: Creativity is our Tradition.

5The 40th Anniversary Exhibition was held at IAIA Museum from September 20, 2002 to January 19, 2003.


Gérard Selbach (GS): What is the mission of the IAIA Museum?

Joanna Bigfeather (JB): The mission of the museum to me is about educating people in Native American arts and culture and also about contemporary art, and that is because of its mission at the very beginning. Lloyd Kiva New was our visionary who started the school in 1962. People would come with their traditions and use the material to create new expressions and to revive the art that has been lost, basketry and pottery in particular. This resurgence brought together Native students from all over the U.S. and Canada. So many amazing things were happening in the 60s. Even Life Magazine devoted a special issue and its cover to “the Return of the Red Man” in December 1967. It was so exciting. From then on, it started as a two-year college, now it’s becoming a four-year institution.

GS: What was it like at the beginning? Was it difficult?

JB: Yes, because they had not recognized us as contemporary people. We have always been stereotyped. But we now have this new art expression that happened here. Today we are the benchmark of contemporary art, going back 40 years. Students learn the traditional techniques: how to weave, to do traditional clothing, woodwork, pottery or jewelry. But we are experiencing difficult times right now as the Congress cut its appropriations from $11.6m six years ago down to $2.5m; they have risen again to $4.5m. We now have a new campus, our first home ever. We were temporarily at the College in Santa Fe for twenty years in World War II barracks, really awful. I was here in the 80s as a student. Now we have these beautiful facilities, wonderful housing, great classrooms. Now we can move forward. As part of my mission, the important part of the museum is showing the scholarship. We don’t have enough scholarship. For all along our lifetime, it is always somebody else writing about us. We have now been developing our own scholars over the last 15 years, our own art history. Most go into American studies for a Ph.D., though, rather than art, because it is broader, more socially based. We now try to go into art history; the museum should publish the scholarship. This is what we want to do. We have a symposium in the fall 2000 on art history so as to bring scholars, writers and artists. Natives want scholarship, as well as non-Natives, so that they can teach in the classroom and associate art history and literature. So the students can enter the image that they were seeing with the background of the history of 500 years, very often through literature and stories.

GS: Will there be art critics at the symposium?

JB: That’s my big thing. We never get art criticism because most people don’t understand our art. As an artist, we need to have art critique so as to put that on our résumé. I went to school at the State University of New York in Albany and it was such a racist place then, around 1990. When you looked round, you could see Asians, Latinos, African Americans. But, when I got into my art coursework, there was such narrow understanding of what Native contemporary art was about. They expected traditional art like basketry or pottery. And I was in printing and painting. So it was a daily struggle. I went to a community that did not try to help or support me. There is a lot of ignorance in America, especially among critics. They don’t have any knowledge of the symbolism we use, of our culture and history. They have not been educated to enter into our symbols, so they cannot appreciate our art. They simply can’t understand it, can’t connect. It is the same in our school system and curriculum. We don’t teach about Native Americans after the 4th grade. There is a Native American History Month in February, but it has no impact.

What lots of Americans don’t understand is that we are not studying the culture: we are a living culture. We are living the culture we should be writing about. We have a unique perspective. And it changes too, it’s not going to stay the way it was. People are growing, moving, watching TV. We are not doomed to doing basketry. We don’t want to live in a tipi, or without electricity and running water. It is a romantic notion.

I want to insist on that point: art critics have not plunged into Native history. So either they do not talk or write about Native art, or if they do talk about it, they do not have the information and so cannot enter the work. There are historical references, social references. The choice of materials and the subjects are linked to our roots they don’t understand. They simply ignore it. Take the book by Robert Hughes: American Visions, the Epic History of Art in America. He does not mention Native American art. Is it American art? It isn’t, it is absent from American art-history books.

GS: What about you? Is it something you experienced?

JB: When you look at my résumé, it has twenty pages. I have done a lot of shows, but only group shows. If you took them away, there wouldn’t be any. We are not distinct, we are groups, not individual artists.

GS: Can the museum play a role in improving the knowledge?

JB: The purpose of the museum IS education. It’s curating the shows that will open up new vistas, like the show Forty Years of Painting that will travel for two to three years. We hope to raise funds around the exhibition that will help educate the public in major cities.

GS: What relations do you have with IAIA, the art School?

JB: The IAIA School is our umbrella and is federally funded. It is a Congressionally-chartered school. There are only three in the U.S.: it’s a national treasure and a big responsibility for me. The other two are a Native school in Washington, D.C., and Harlow, a Black school.

GS: Do you get any funds from IAIA?

JB: We get funding of around half-a-million dollars a year for education programs, PR, marketing, a receptionist, a secretary and two other positions.

GS: Where does your collection come from?

JB: We collect contemporary art although we have wonderful objects from earlier periods from the IAIA own collection. But essentially, it comes from the students or exhibitions that we have here. The acquisition committee tries to collect from each student whatever is interesting. And students get paid. A good part of the collection comes from the early days because the museum collected everything that students made. We did not pay them then. Peter Jones did wonderful ceramics, he is now well known in New York. He came here once and identified a lot of his works. We have about 6,500 objects. Some are good, some are bad … Well, they are students’ works. When the school started, the 60s were such innovative times. People were looking at pop art, we can really see it in the collection and in our next exhibition IAIA Rocks the Sixties [February - September 2001]. We also had programs relating to various urban issues within our community, like the HIV / AIDS program, which was very moving. The New York Council on the Arts doubled the funding a year after I had taken over the museum because they liked what was going on, that is art about issues that were happening in the community. It was a gallery on a shoestring. [Cf. Savage Truths: Realities of Indian Life, June - December 1998]

GS: Who are your visitors?

JB: In 2000, we had 48,000 visitors, mainly non-Natives, mainly tourists. We work with the public school system. We have artists-in-residence who go round to public schools and work with kids of different ages. It works quite well. The demand is high. We also have more and more programs in the museum. We would like to renew our exhibitions more often – depending on funding – We want to be more visible. The visitors make up a small population, white on the whole, but growing, and they have changed over the last ten years, well-heeled, in the middle-income range, who come during the summer and buy small objects and jewels. Serious collectors don’t want to mix with them and come in off-season, in the winter. We also follow what is going on in the gift shops around Santa Fe, what the trends are. Researchers and students have access to our archives and collections of the museum. Alumni have access to them too. Part of our mission is to promote the Alumni; we are very supportive.

GS: What is the proportion of permanent and temporary exhibition?

JB: The permanent collection was 90%. In 2001, there will be a major painting exhibition: the years 1965-70. It will occupy the main part of the museum. The curator is an artist who can place the works in a certain date in time. There will be a lot of scholarship. It will travel to New York.

GS: When you are a curator and select works, what criteria do you use?

JB: Innovation. I am not interested in the works I see here in Santa Fe. They produce for the market, like the Indian Market, run by the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts which is held in August. The art market is pushed by art collectors. When the artist moves away from what they decide Indian art is, the work no longer sells. We have seen all these people creating a market and I am not market-driven and ran away. This is why I left for New York. After showing my works for ten years, I decided not to show them any more. They were not selling. The real collectors interested in art, Native and non-Native, are those interested in art on a broad scale. They know the artists across the US, know art history and they are looking for innovation, innovation in materials and in what it says too. I am not engaged with an artist who creates the same work over and over again. I want somebody who emulates, like sculptor Allan Houser, somebody who challenges the viewers. Yet I recognize, people have to make a living. It is a decision they make. If you start doing out of the market, people stop buying. Some keep on doing and get accepted like Truman Lowe, the sculptor. It may take a lifetime to be recognized. Lots of artists have teaching jobs, do other things. That is why perhaps the most innovative have been professors. It is hard to make a living outside the market.

GS: So this is your background …

JB: I worked for seven years at a gallery in New York and have a business background too. You have to find a balance. What artists need is credibility; they need to have the scholarship. Native art should be scholarship-driven if it is to be taken seriously. For example we wrote the “curatorial statement” for Indian Times, which you can see at present, three times [Indian Time, Art in the New Millennium, May 6, 2000 - May 7, 2001]. We still did not get it right. We only use Native curators who have the inside story. But you can’t have only artists. They don’t know how to write a statement, don’t know the mechanics of an exhibition, can’t keep a deadline, don’t know how to give the dimensions, to describe a painting. I need the works here. I can’t design the show in that way.

What we really have to do is educate the tourists, the visitors. They really need the education. We don’t pander to their tastes, we show them what contemporary art is. What happens is that they would come in, see contemporary art and say: “But, this is not Native art, not Indian art”. They should go to the MIAC [Museum of Indian Arts and Culture] for that. It is run by a non-Native American. It does not even have a Native director and Board, but it has the artifacts. People see the artifacts, that is what makes it Indian. But for the community, it is like a mix. You want to see contemporary works. They are a reflection of the living people. There are so many museums and galleries that show the traditional forms. We don’t need to do that. Moreover we don’t have the room to collect traditional art forms.

GS: What do you think about the future Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.?

JB: I have a mixed feeling about it. I was asked to work there. But I could not work with white anthropologists with my background, and I needed to be in New York, which is the place for art. There is too much politics in the Smithsonian Institute and so many regulations. They take the most money. It used to be $40 million. Now it is $100 million and they keep upping what they need. They drain from other places, and our patrons say: “Oh, but we gave to the National Museum.” It is a continuous struggle.

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Gérard Selbach, « Interview with Joanna Bigfeather, Cherokee, Director of the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum (IAIA), Santa Fe, NM, USA, October 28, 2000 »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°6 | 2004, 79-84.

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Gérard Selbach, « Interview with Joanna Bigfeather, Cherokee, Director of the Institute of American Indian Arts Museum (IAIA), Santa Fe, NM, USA, October 28, 2000 »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°6 | 2004, mis en ligne le 30 octobre 2009, consulté le 22 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Gérard Selbach

Dr. (Paris V, France)
Gérard Selbach, assistant professor at the University of Paris 5, France, and researcher at the CERLIS-Paris 5 and the National Scientific Research Center (CNRS), has as a main field of research American art, art museums, Native American museums and museology. Beside publishing articles and contributing to conferences, he has published Les Musées d’art américains: une industrie culturelle (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000) and is about to release Les Musées amérindiens: du vol du sacré à la métaphore identitaire (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004). He is also a contemporary art critic with <>

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