All my life I’ve relied on this measured process of aesthetic absorption, whether the work is a Renaissance plaquette or a Native American wearing blanket. It involves returning over and again to the individual work of art. I revisit and bear constantly in mind the objects of my own collection, however large or small, to gain new insights. They are not trophies but instruments of passion, with the power to unexpectedly reveal mysteries.
—Ralph T. Coe, 2003
Ralph T. Coe, known as Ted to his family and friends, was an early champion of North American Native Art and one of the foremost authorities in the field. His interests were vast and grew in his need to understand the human condition. He felt if one sincerely took the time to look at objects, they would “draw us into the circle.” His passion for knowledge is evident in the varied collections he left behind and his legacy by creating the Coe Center.
Ted, born in 1929 in Cleveland, Ohio, grew up in a family heavily involved in the art world. His father, also a collector, created one of the finest Midwest collections of French nineteenth-century and modern paintings, including Cézanne, Monet, Matisse, Modigliani, Renoir, and Courbet. His sister, Nancy, became a researcher at the Cleveland Museum of Art, where she met her husband, William D. Wixom, then curator of medieval art. William went to become the chairman of the Metropolitan’s medieval department and the Cloisters.
After graduating from Oberlin College, he went on to study western art history at Yale. He became a teaching assistant to the scholar John Pope Hennessy, who invited him to train for a year at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Ted worked briefly at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Then in 1959, he became curator of paintings and sculpture at the Nelson-Atkins Gallery in Kansas City, where he later served as director.
For its time, his scholarship of Native American material was extraordinary. It resulted in his curating two landmark exhibitions: Sacred Circles: Two Thousand Years of North American Indian Art which opened at the Hayward Gallery as part of the American bicentennial in 1976 and later at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. This led to “Lost and Found Traditions: Native American Art, 1965-1985,” an unprecedented examination of contemporary Native American work and which toured museums across the U.S for a decade. Both exhibitions heightened aesthetic appreciation of American Native art. His last major exhibition was The Responsive Eye: Ralph T. Coe and the Collecting of American Indian Art in 2003 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This led to a gift of 200 pieces to the Metropolitan, creating their core collection of Native art from North America.
Over his lifetime, Coe’s collecting was consistently informed by his appreciation of beauty and finding it in the most functional to elaborate objects. He remained innately focused on education—about aesthetics, its production, and appreciation, as well as the cultures and people who made and the objects. He created a continuing legacy embracing worlds not always known or understood and for future generations to learn from and experience.
The Ralph T. Coe Center for the Arts, Santa Fe major exhibition of Native American Art, Connoisseurship and Good Pie: Ted Coe and Collecting Native Art was held from July 25, 2015–April 17, 2016. Ralph T. “Ted” Coe was a curator, museum director, connoisseur, and collector known to travel hours out of his way to …