I did a double-take last week upon seeing the Wall Street Journal‘s belated rave for what the newspaper’s art writer, Lance Esplund, described as an “enchanting, community-curated show” of Pueblo pottery (Grounded in Clay, to June 4, 2024). It had opened at the Metropolitan Museum some three months before the WSJ’s review appeared.
As CultureGrrl readers know, I had serious reservations (no pun intended) about how that show of Native American works was being organized: The mishmash that I saw at the July 13 press preview confirmed my doubts. To me, the show represented an abdication of the museum’s curatorial responsibilities.
Here’s how I had described my misgivings in my June 16 blog post, in advance of my actually seeing the show:
According to the press release for that upcoming show (July 14, 2023–June 4, 2024), members of a newly established Pueblo Pottery Collective, described as “a group of more than 60 individual members of 21 tribal communities,” will “lead the selection of objects for Grounded in Clay” (as the Met’s Pueblo pottery show is titled):
I noted that I had authored several WSJ reviews of museum displays of Native American material over the years [including: here, here, here and here], and I fully understood the need to incorporate Native American voices and perspectives in exhibitions of their work. Such consultation is essential. The Met in 2020 had (belatedly) hired its “first ever full-time curator in Native American Art” (as described by director Max Hollein, quoted in the Met’s announcement) and I asserted (in my advance post) that Patricia Marroquin Norby (Purépecha) “should have been the curator for ‘Pueblo Pottery.’”
As described on the Met’s website, the show was curated by the Pueblo Pottery Collective, “in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum [emphasis added].” That collective was organized by the not-for-profit, Santa Fe-based School for Advanced Research (SAR) and the Vilcek Foundation—a New York-based nonprofit established in 2000 by Jan and Marica Vilcek, immigrants from the former Czechoslovakia, according to their foundation’s website. By my count (from the illustrated checklist), some 43 of the objects in the show are from SAR’s collection; 10 from the Vilcek Foundation, five from other sources. As Norby revealed at the press preview, all of the show’s texts were written by the Pueblo Pottery Collective.
Here’s what SAR’s website says about the Met project’s Methodology:
The Grounded in Clay project aligns with the tenets of the SAR Guidelines for Collaboration, which call for a more equitable exchange and partnership between communities of origin and those who steward museum collections. This exhibition applies the SAR guidelines by acknowledging and embracing the complexities of community-based work.
Community curators chose one or two works for this exhibition and wrote about their pieces in whatever format or style they wished. SAR staff offered editing, oral history recording, or transcription assistance as needed. Participants were compensated for choosing a piece, writing an entry for the catalogue, and working on the overall project. From that point, staff worked with the group to organize the chosen pieces into themes defined by the Pueblo Pottery Collective.
Although most Pueblo pottery exhibitions focus on historical timelines and Western-derived concepts of fine art, this exhibition focuses on the lesser-known and intangible aspects of pottery that are intrinsic to the art and enduring cultures of Pueblo people.
Two of the objects in the show flout the exhibition’s title: They’re landscape paintings (not pottery) by Mateo Romero and Michael Namingha, respectively (L to R). The Met’s press release describes them as “a diptych by artists and members of the Pueblo Pottery Collective”:
To my eyes, “Grounded in Clay” is an odd assortment of objects of mixed quality, many in compromised condition—falling short of the Met’s usual goal of presenting the finest examples of world culture. A case in point: the Met’s label that tried to make the best of this homely clay cooking jar (ca. 1880-1900) from the San Felipe Pueblo:
Here’s the accompanying text:
And here’s an odd assortment in a nearby display case:
Still, there were some pieces that did resonate with me, including the pot below—a Melon Bowl that was among the objects featured in the Met’s signature image for its exhibition:
As I had noted here, it resembles a modestly priced melon jar that had caught my eye during my vacation visiting Southwestern pueblos many years ago:
That said, I felt a palpable sense of relief when I crossed the threshold from this hit-or-miss agglomeration to the more consistently satisfying array of gifts to the Met from the Charles & Valerie Diker Collection—a long-term installation consisting primarily of promised gifts, donations, and loans from that couple, accompanied by a few pieces from other patrons.
That said, questions have been raised about the collection’s provenance.
One of the Diker Collection’s guest curators at the Met was Gaylord Torrence, about whom I had written in reviewing for the WSJ (here) the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s reinstallation of its sizable Native American collection.
Here are a couple of Diker highlights by preeminent Native American potters, who are well represented in museum collections of indigenous American art:
While community input matters, curatorial standards should still hold sway in deciding what merits display at our country’s preeminent art museums.
A NOTE TO MY READERS: If you appreciate my coverage, please consider supporting CultureGrrl via PayPal by clicking the “Donate” button in the righthand column of the desktop version or the “DONATE” link in the menu at the top of the desktop and mobile versions. Contributors of $15 or more are added to my email blast for immediate notification of new posts.