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Spiva Center for the Arts Joplin MO


Jan 5- Mar 3, 2018

Native American Contemporary


Curator’s Statement

Before I accepted the Directorship at Spiva in May 2016, I had volunteered on the exhibits committee. I was familiar with the slate of exhibits coming the next year, and was thrilled to start bringing new ideas and contacts into the galleries.

In the fall of 2016, I walked the halls of Leggett & Platt to view and curate a Western art exhibit. Spiva exhibits this work every few years, as it is an outstanding collection in our very own backyard. As I looked over the paintings, there were lots of cowboys, not as many Indians. And it was the Anglos doing the painting, not Native Americans themselves. Right then I decided Spiva needed to restore a bit of balance. I would somehow curate an exhibit, in the Main Gallery, front and center, of Native American artists making art about Native America.

I know a lot about art. Visual art is my degree, my career, my practice. But I knew next to nothing about contemporary Native American art. I knew I needed help. I started with people I knew of personally, or a friend of a friend. Chief Glenna Wallace has been a force of leadership and knows her community, so I asked her to recommend a list of artists. I did the same with Jennifer Lunsford of the Quapaw Nation and Julie Olds of the Miami Nation. I also spent a weekend with Margaret Wheeler in Sulfur, Oklahoma. Margaret has exhibited pieces several times at Spiva, and I was aware of her body of work and kind spirit. We spent all weekend in her beautiful house looking at art on her walls from many Native artist friends. We talked about the potential exhibit. She encouraged me from the start, and told me I’d be surprised at the breadth and depth of the excellent work happening in the Oklahoma region. I also contacted Bruce Hartman of the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art in Overland Park, Kansas. The Nerman is an avid collector of Native art, and Bruce pointed me to a few quality artists.

So I started emailing these artists, cold. Asking them straight out if they were interested in showing in Joplin. Nearly all responded favorably. A common question was, “What is the theme?” I repeatedly said there was no theme, I wanted them to show a few pieces they felt strongly about, that represented their passion and aesthetic. I wanted this exhibit to highlight a small slice in time, of this moment, from these 18 artists and 13 tribes.

I was fortunate to meet several of the artists at the Santa Fe Indian Market in August. Then again in October at the Native American Art Studies Association conference in Tulsa, a biannual meeting of artists, curators, and others interested in Native art. I went to not only network, but to listen and learn. I met Christina Burke, Curator of Native American and Non-Western Art at the Philbrook Museum of Art, and heather ahtone, Assistant Curator of Native American and Non-Western Art for the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma. They both encouraged me to go for it; highlighting that it was important to curate this exhibit, that it wouldn’t be perfect, that this was a beginning.

And that is what this beautiful exhibit feels like, scratching the surface. I hope more local and regional Native artists surface and approach Spiva. I hope we can build our communities together, weaving stories and heritage and pictures and expression into a cohesive and stunning textile for all to view.

Viewers, look, listen, and learn.

Josie Mai, Curator and Executive Director

“Celebrate the creative experience – be a community catalyst.”

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