America’s Big Museums on the Hot Seat — Holland Cotter

The New York Times, 03.21.2020

Along with expanding the choice of art they show and histories they tell, museums need to loosen up their ideas about who’s qualified to do the choosing and telling. The Brooklyn Museum made a smart move when it asked Jeffrey Gibson, an artist of Choctaw and Cherokee descent, to organize an exhibition combining his own art with work culled from the museum’s holdings, including its Native American collection. The resulting show, “Jeffrey Gibson: When Fire Is Applied to a Stone It Cracks,” is fantastic. (Fortunately, it will be up through January 2021.)

For it, he hauled out from storage a lugubrious life-size early-1900s bronze titled “The Dying Indian” by Charles Cary Rumsey, a non-Native artist, and fitted it out with snazzy beaded moccasins (the beading is by the artist John Murie) and an upbeat new title: “I’m Gonna Run With Every Minute I Can Borrow.” From archives he pulled photographs of Indians smiling and laughing — there are many — and sifted the 1920s field notes of Robert Stewart Culin, the curator of ethnology who initiated the museum’s Native American collection, earmarking both Culin’s insights and his period blind spots.

And he gives us a heady sampling of his own work, including a rainbow mural made for the occasion, which riffs on, updates, and queers Native art forms and traditions. In a United States that has long promoted the history of its First Peoples as an extinction narrative, he insistently does the opposite. The show, doubling as a solo and collection re-installation, joins present and past, studio and archive, and feels completely of a piece. It’s art history as action.

In Brooklyn, Mr. Gibson has applied his expertise as artist-curator by invitation. Sometimes, though, a corrective expert voice can arise unbidden, as happened at the Art Institute of Chicago last year shortly before the scheduled opening of a show called “Worlds Within: Mimbres Pottery of the Ancient Southwest.” The exhibition, composed of ceramics made in what is now southwestern New Mexico around 1100 A.D., drew protests from several Native American scholar-researchers. The excavated ceramics were, they said, funerary objects, private and sacred, not art in the Western sense, and certainly never meant for public display. They asked that the show not go forward in its planned form.

The museum might, for practical reasons, have pushed ahead with their plans — publicity had gone out, related events scheduled — after inserting last-minute disclaimers. But in an act of cultural cooperation still too rare in big museums, the Art Institute’s director, James Rondeau, removed the show from the schedule so that it could be rethought with indigenous input. His acknowledgment of expertise of a kind once considered to lie outside the discipline of art history was, in terms of both scholarship and ethics, absolutely the right one.