How is the Coe?

by | Jan 22, 2021 | Articles


When talking with friends, colleagues, and supporters, these days I often get the question, How is the Coe? and What are you doing at the Coe? Not surprising questions provided the times we are living through, particularly for a small organization like the Coe which depends on visitors enjoying handling and learning from the collections and meeting artists and other people interested in Indigenous arts.

In our COVID closure, we have used the time to take stock of who we are and what we do. During this past summer, with our Board, we developed a new strategic plan, re-committing ourselves to working in partnership in all things we do and to the care, preservation, and use of the collections. You have seen some of this commitment through The Virtual Coe and Collections Spotlight. Over the past ten months, we have produced seventy-some detailed stories about Coe collection objects and virtually met with twelve artists in public presentations (with a big shout out to First American Art Magazine for their support and critical assistance). In addition, because we had to postpone our 2020 and 2021 exhibitions and public programs, we have been developing more rich content for each of our planned 2022 programs.

The activity that has consumed many hours over the past months is the twenty-five grant applications we have written. While we are a small group, we have mighty aspirations to change how collections are cared for and used by public arts organizations. As a team, the four of us have written and honed our thinking and approaches to working with Indigenous peoples and collections. The grant writing is assisting the Coe by clarifying our vision and instigating exploration and expanding horizons. While we worked with some of these objectives in mind over the years, because of the hours and words spent thinking and writing about ideas and making them doable, we have a greater focus on how we might achieve them.

The Coe works to create opportunities for and build meaningful collaborations with those descendant communities for whom we steward collections. We work to share curatorial authority through our open collections access, community-centered knowledge building, and artist-led curatorial projects. The grants we are writing range from re-organizing the collections for improved care and accessibility to building a new online accessible collections catalog that centers Indigenous perspective and narrative in describing the Coe collection objects. We intend to find ways to improve the usability of the collection for education and inspiration in the present and focus on training a future generation of scholars and the continuing critical need to connect Native communities with their cultural patrimony.

With every grant, we discover and hone new and diverse ways the Coe might transition a formerly private collection with a mono-vocal database and collections records to a multi-vocal, culturally sensitive, and responsive public art collection accessible online, as well as in person, enabling the Coe to become wall-less. The current collections records and database were created towards the end of founder Ralph T. Coe’s life (1929-2010). Relying principally on his prodigious memory but in declining health, Coe dictated provenance and object identification which was transcribed into a FileMaker Pro collection record. While preserving Ted’s words, we also must find a way to assess and update.

The Coe collection is over 2,300 works of art, 1,800 of which are Native North American. The legacy information held in the database contains numerous inaccuracies, voids, out of date tribal names and nomenclature, and object descriptions that include only Coe’s narratives and/or interpretations. The Coe is built upon Coe’s private collection, who was a passionate and knowledgeable collector of global arts. He was particularly driven by a desire to purchase pieces directly from artists and communities. This is evident in the object records and descriptions held within the Coe’s current database, but the Coe has outgrown these object records created by its founder. The Coe collection is both contemporary and historic, from fine one-of-a-kind art objects to everyday arts and crafts items. This broad-spectrum is the collection’s uniqueness and holds its value for research and learning about Indigenous arts.

Coe’s influences that helped ignite his collecting no doubt began with his father’s collection of Impressionist art, that in keeping with then-current practice, included a few pieces of Tribal art serving as a reference. Coe’s first personal acquisitions came while he was an undergraduate at Oberlin. In the late 1950s, Ted began frequenting and purchasing from the recently opened Primitive arts galleries in New York City, such as J.J. Klejman and Julius Carlsbach. They sold works originating from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. The Coe’s collection of art objects from Africa and Oceania includes many pieces purchased from these galleries. These galleries were part of a competitive but collegial circle of émigré dealers that Ted visited often on and near Madison Avenue. This set of post-war antiquities dealers opened American eyes to the beauty and cultures of objects sold in their galleries, becoming the most influential galleries for antiquities. Ted’s interactions with the galleries refined his sense of connoisseurship and appreciation of world Indigenous arts.

As a curator at Kansas City’s Nelson Gallery, Coe reinstalled the Indigenous art galleries in 1960 and continued his personal collecting. In 1976, he mounted his seminal Sacred Circles: Two Thousand Years of North American Indian Art exhibition, which opened in London, followed by its opening in the Spring of 1977 in Kansas City that included nine weeks of public programming led by Native artists and cultural groups. One cannot help but believe that witnessing and meeting so many Native peoples from throughout North America was a revelation and what would become the driving purpose that led him to spend the final three decades of his life traveling to the United States and Canadian Native communities, learning and collecting from artists. A direct outgrowth of his familiarity with Indigenous arts and crafts was his Lost and Found Traditions: Native American Art 1965-1985 traveling exhibition (1986-1992). As he purchased hundreds of objects from artisans from throughout North America for the exhibition, he would often buy a similar piece for himself, and in many cases, continued to visit with these artisans over the next thirty years.

Our on-going education work through our Hands-On Student Curatorial Program creates opportunities for high school students to gain in-depth, hands-on knowledge of the global cultures represented by the Coe collection. Our curatorial programs, including recent exhibitions and public program series such as How It Was Handed to Me: The Caesar Family Legacy, is an example of a successful collaborative approach between Coe curators and artists. It expanded interpretation and perspectives on contemporary Native jewelry from the Coe collection through cultural dialogue and social exchange. Our Collections Spotlight public conversation series engages with internationally recognized Indigenous artists to hold focused discussions of cultural objects from the collection in monthly Zoom conversations open to the public.

The Coe works to activate the collection as an entrance point, encouraging and embracing new and diverse conversations. To facilitate this process, the Coe takes the viewpoint that every piece is “unfinished” or part of a larger set of ideas that continually expands and contracts. These ideas go beyond the physical object to include stories, memories, and community perspectives. The Coe is built around the concepts of responsible and respectful education and unprecedented access to collections through hands-on and experimental learning via collaborative approaches, modeling new partnerships in collections-use methodologies, curatorial principles, and practices. By encouraging the respectful handling of the collections, the Coe ensures each visitor gains a fuller and deeper understanding of the object(s) and the peoples and communities they represent.

Bruce Bernstein, PhD
Director of Innovation, Chief Curator


Photos (top to bottom)
Ted Coe, c. 1984
Coe Center, Boxes of artworks just arrived and waiting to be unpacked c. 2013
Interns at the Coe with Executive Director Rachel de W. Wixom, c. 2014
Dr. Bruce Bernstein with artist Jason Garcia in conversation at the Coe Center, c. 2018
Board Director, Gerald G. Stiebel in the archives, c. 2015
Photo of artwork at the Coe, c. 2018
Cover of Circles: Two Thousand Years of North American Indian Art exhibition catalogue
Cover of Lost and Found Traditions: Native American Art 1965-1985 exhibition catalogue
Ted Coe, c. 1984

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