Spotlight on SPOTLIGHT
Bess Murphy, curator
It has been almost a year since America Meredith of First American Art Magazine reached out to us to create a virtual program in response to the COVID-19 shutdowns across the country. The Coe prides itself on providing meaningful, hands-on experiences of Indigenous art—through our collection and our public programs. It was admittedly a challenge for us to imagine how we could simulate the power of working with a piece in person, the incredible knowledge and understanding that one acquires through careful and respectful handling. However, the program which America proposed, while simple in premise, has proven to be an incredibly meaningful tool for creating virtual hands-on engagement with the Coe collection and the works of some of the most brilliant artists working today.
Since last May, the Coe and First American Art Magazine have hosted twelve Collections Spotlight virtual conversations. Each conversation is led by a leading artist in their field. The knowledge, generosity, and openness of these artists in sharing what they have learned and created over a lifetime has been profound. These guest artists select pieces from the Coe collection to highlight in their discussion, often pairing these pieces with their own work. Members of the public are invited to ask questions or share comments over the Zoom platform.
In many ways, these Spotlights function like any other artist talk on collections. There are artworks; there are artists; there is a public. Of course, it is over Zoom rather than in a darkened auditorium or curated gallery space. But for me, as the curator at the Coe, the local host of the conversations, and the hands behind the Coe collection pieces, these conversations have been far more intimate than I ever imagined possible.
For each conversation, I work closely with the artist searching through our database to provide them as much access as
possible to our collection over the digital distance. Normally, an artist would be able to walk through our spaces, freely pulling pieces from our shelves, scrolling through our catalog listings, and gathering their own story of artworks in person. The mediation required now is challenging. I always wonder if there might be other works that might not pop up in a simple database search, and that perhaps might not come to my mind, but might be truly significant to the conversation that a particular artist might want to have with our collection and the public. Despite this challenge, the searching through the collection has provided me an incredible opportunity to investigate our holdings in a way that I am not always able to in the day-to-day shuffle of deadlines, grants, and other projects.
In each conversation, I am struck by the power of sharing that happens in these digitized moments. In Melissa Shaginoff’s (Ahtna and Paiute) discussion of Dene art, she chose to include a puberty necklace (NA1083) from around 1875. Melissa worked with and studied this piece in person while interning with us as a student at IAIA. It was important to have the opportunity to revisit it yet again. But, it is also important to discuss and consider how museums or institutions come to hold
heirloom pieces like this and how we seek to preserve and steward them. Melissa points to the Dene potlatch practice and the reminder that in this view, objects are temporal and that gifting of them out through potlatch is just the way of being. It is a critical reminder for institutions to expand their view on how to view the lives of artworks and the pieces that we steward.
Elizabeth James-Perry (Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe) spoke about her art-making in wampum carving, weaving, and natural dyeing. The conversation was expansive and touched on the environment and climate change, materials, and sustainability. She discussed two Aquinnah Wampanoag Market Baskets from the late 19th / early 20th century, which the same woman might have made (NA0094 a & b). The baskets are beautifully decorated and highly functional and were most certainly used as market or carrying baskets, even with their small scale. This led to further conversations with Elizabeth and hopefully the beginning of more research on these baskets both by the Coe and Elizabeth herself.
These moments of engaging, thinking, listening, and learning have had the most significant impact on me, as both organizer and participant in these conversations. The Coe is so honored to be a part of this sharing and has discovered the possibilities of closeness even as our physical distance has maintained its hold.