American Indian Art

The Denver Art Museum’s American Indian collection offers visitors the opportunity to experience the artistic vision of generations of American Indian artists from across North America. From ancient puebloan ceramics, to 19th century Arapaho beaded garments, to contemporary glass work, the museum offers a look at the rich diversity of art forms, histories, and artistic styles coming from American Indian artists and communities.

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American Indian Galleries, Levels 2 & 3, North Building

The Denver Art Museum’s American Indian collection offers visitors the opportunity to experience the artistic vision of generations of American Indian artists from across North America. From ancient puebloan ceramics, to 19th century Arapaho beaded garments, to contemporary glass work, the museum offers a look at the rich diversity of art forms, histories, and artistic styles coming from American Indian artists and communities. True to the organizing theme of the galleries, Artist’s Eye, Artist’s Hand, visitors are reminded that American Indian art is a vibrant and continuing tradition advanced by individual artists and craftspersons.

As an example, during most of 2011, visitors entering the American Indian galleries via the elevator were greeted by a massive sculptural work in progress. From January to September, Santa Clara sculptor and ceramicist Roxanne Swentzell developed her piece, Mud Woman Rolls On, directly in the gallery space. From building up base layers of straw coils to refining and burnishing the final layers of unfired clay, museum goers had the opportunity to witness this contemporary Native American artist at work and also to work with her.

While Roxanne Swentzell’s work is now complete, Mud Woman continues to figure large at the entry of the American Indian gallery. Even though you may have missed the artist at work, time-lapse video of the project runs in the gallery so you can see the process from start to finish. In June 2012, we will inaugurate our artist-in-residence program with Navajo printmaker Melanie Yazzie working and interacting with visitors in our new studio space – another unprecedented opportunity to see the artist’s hand at work.

Native Arts Department

The Native Arts Department is composed of the arts of the indigenous peoples of North America, Africa, and Oceania. Supporting these collections is a library of books and periodicals on specialized topics in native arts.

The American Indian collection in the Museum’s North Building represents the artistic works of nearly every tribe across the United States and Canada and all artistic traditions created within these cultures from prehistoric times to the present. Beginning in the 1920s, the Denver Art Museum was one of the first museums to use aesthetic quality as the criteria to develop such a collection and was the first art museum in the United States to collect American Indian art. Over the past century the collection has grown to encyclopedic proportions and now contains nearly 20,000 art objects.

The African collection in the Frederic C. Hamilton Building consists of approximately 1,000 objects, and focuses on the diverse artistic traditions of Africa, including rare and exquisite works in sculpture, textiles, jewelry, painting, printmaking and drawings. Although the strength of the collection is west African art, with emphasis on Yoruba works, there are important masterpieces from all regions and mediums of expression including wood, metals, fibers, terra cotta, and mixed media compositions.

The Oceanic collection, also on view in the Hamilton Building, includes all major island groups, with particular strength in late 18th and early 19th century wood carving and painted bark cloth from the islands of Samoa, Tonga, and Hawaii. Most impressive is the Melanesian collection, consisting of masterpieces from Papua New Guinea and New Ireland.  

In the American Indian, Oceanic Art, and African Art collections, important modern and contemporary artists are represented; reflecting the continued but evolving artistic practice of indigenous artists and cultures.

The Collection

Plains & Plateau

The aesthetic achievements of peoples living between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains are the museum’s greatest strength. Numbering more than 4,000 items, DAM’s collection of Plains material is encyclopedic in its representation of all tribal groups from the Arapaho to the Wichita, and includes nearly every art form created by these peoples. This includes six full-sized tipis, painted parfleches, beaded cradleboards, ledger drawings, weapons, and horse trappings to name a few of types of objects found in the collection. The Plains clothing and textile collections number nearly 2,000 objects—including belts, blankets, headdresses, robes, shirts, dresses, pants, leggings, footwear, and hair ornaments—representing 200 years of clothing traditions.

Southwest

The second greatest collection strength is from the Southwest, with nearly 4,000 pieces. The Southwest clothing and textile collections number 1,000 items and represent twenty-five tribal traditions. The Navajo collection alone numbers nearly 500 items documenting 200 years of the weaving of serapes, saddle blankets, rugs, and contemporary tapestries. 

The southwestern pottery collection is comprised of 2,000 examples ranging from the work of Ancestral Puebloans through the emergence of prominent twentieth-century families such as Nampeyo, Martinez, and Tafoya, up through the innovations of contemporary potters Al Qöyawayma, Roxanne Swentzell, Preston Duwyenie, and Diego Romero.

There are significant basketry holdings as well, especially Hopi and Apache coiled vessels. DAM’s basketry collection is also distinguished by a thoroughly documented body of Havasupai baskets made in the 1930s and 1940s. 

In addition to the basketry, pottery, and clothing, three other significant southwestern art forms are represented in the collection: Navajo and Pueblo jewelry, Hopi and Zuni carved and painted katsina dolls, and two-dimensional art from the Santa Fe Indian School up through the contemporary innovations of artists such as Dan Namingha and Mateo Romero.

Arctic

Two major collections from the Arctic represent prehistoric and contemporary artistic traditions. The Potosky Collection consists of archaeological and ethnographic specimens collected by a husband and wife team on St. Lawrence Island. A remote, but significant location in the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska, it was a crossroads for artistic diffusion for thousands of years. The more than 2,000 objects amassed by the couple document 2,500 years of art and material culture of the many peoples who lived and traded throughout the region.

Complementing the archaeological and historic collections are the museum’s holdings of contemporary Inuit graphic art. More than 300 examples of woodblock and stone-cut prints produced by Inuit artists of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s are represented in the collection, including such artists as Kenojuak Ashevak and Pudlo Pudlat.

Northwest Coast

The extraordinary wood, stone and bone carving traditions of the Tlingit, Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, and Nuxalk peoples are represented in great depth, ranging from both historic and contemporary monumental totem poles to ceremonial items such as masks, staffs, rattles, clothing, basketry, and jewelry, to highly decorated utilitarian objects such as storage boxes, fishing clubs, hooks, pipes, spoons, and dugout canoes. Masterpieces such as the Chief Shakes house screen, house posts by Douglas Cranmer, and masks by renowned artists Albert Edward Edenshaw , George Walkus, and Willie Seaweed are cornerstones of DAM’s Northwest Coast holdings.

Great Lakes, Northeast and Subarctic

The major art forms of these three regions are well represented by historic beadwork, basketry, ribbonwork, and sculpture, as well as the work of such notable contemporary artists as Jolene Rickard, Norval Morrisseau , G. Peter Jemison, and David Bradley, to name some

Great Basin and California

Basketry is a great strength in these areas, from openwork winnowing baskets and beaded baskets of the Great Basin region to feathered Pomo baskets by artists such as Annie Willum Boone and May John. Karuk master weavers Elizabeth Hickox and her daughter Louise are represented by five exceptional pieces made possible through the extensive collecting network of prominent dealer Grace Nicholson. Rare objects such as a condor feather cape and a Maidu feather blanket, both from the mid-nineteenth century, are signature works.

Southeast

Three art forms from this region are significantly represented: The first is Seminole patchwork clothing. Second is the mid-twentieth-century cultural revival of Cherokee and Choctaw basketry by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, including pieces by weavers such as Bessie Jumper and Lucy George.  And finally, we have five exceptional Cherokee and Seminole beaded bandolier bags from the early 1800s. Works by contemporary painters Kay WalkingStick and Jeffrey Gibson are recent acquisitions.

Supporting Collections

The museum’s Native Arts Department also has an extensive research library on the art and culture of the indigenous peoples of North America, Africa, and Oceania, consisting of 20,000 books, periodicals, field notes, and photography archives. In addition, the department holds the work of early non-Indian artists and photographers (Karl Bodmer, Charles Wimar, McKinney and Hall, Edward S. Curtis, and D. F. Barry, among others) who sought to document Indian life and art in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Signature Programs

Biannual Symposium on American Indian Art

Every other year the Native Arts Department hosts a symposium on topics related to American Indian art. Through this event the scholarly dialog on American Indian art is advanced. 

Annual Friendship Powwow and American Indian Celebration

The powwow is one of Denver Art Museum’s longest running annual events. It offers an opportunity to experience living traditions of the local Native American community including traditional dance and regalia, arts and crafts, and foods.

Artist-in-Residence Program

Inaugurated in the summer of 2012, the Native Arts Artist-in-Residence program brings contemporary native artists into the museum to work with the public and to create art in response to the vast history of American Indian art represented in the collection.

American Indian Bead Studio

Located in the third floor galleries, visitors can delve into beading intricate patterns, exploring materials, and creating their own designs. Also in the studio, visitors can touch beaded objects created by local artists and learn about their inspirations.

Douglas Society Lectures

Each month the Douglas Society hosts lectures by recognized scholars and artists in the field of Native Arts. For more information, visit www.douglassociety.org

Support Group

The Douglas Society is the support group of the Native Arts Department at the Denver Art Museum.  It was founded in 1974 to advance the understanding and appreciation of the museums Native Arts collections. The Douglas Society organizes lectures and meetings with distinguished scholars, native artists, and performers. Members also enjoy special workshops and programs, receive a quarterly newsletter, and can attend the annual dinner. For more information, visit www.douglassociety.org. Read more about it and all DAM support groups on the Support Groups page.

Current Staff

  • Nancy Blomberg, Chief Curator and Curator of Native Arts
  • John Lukavic, Associate Curator of Native Arts
  • Eric Berkemeyer, Curatorial Assistant of Native Arts
  • Heather Nielsen, Master Teacher

Past Staff

  • Edgar C. McMechan, Curator
  • Frederic H. Douglas, Curator
  • Kate Peck Kent, Assistant Curator
  • Royal B. Hassrick, Curator
  • Norman Feder, Curator
  • Richard Conn, Curator
  • David Irving, Assistant Curator
  • Ryntha Johnson, Assistant Curator
  • Roger Echo-Hawk, Assistant Curator
  • Polly Nordstrand, Associate Curator

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