Because art of the American West first came to notice as a record of historical times before there were photographs, it has been considered more history than art and is usually curated simply by establishing the date of its creation, the qualifications (Western or not) of the artist, and the accuracy of the depiction. Very little energy or expertise is available for aesthetic matters and mostly the audience doesn’t care. As art of the American West, like the French Impressionists, has become more and more a way of parking money (very convenient since thousands of dollars of art can be stowed in a vault somewhere, growing more valuable even as it is unseen), it has become highly commodified and curation consists in large part of telling people how much specific art is worth. Whole websites (www.askart.com) are devoted to tracking certain artists’ work through the auction turnstyles, as though they were stocks in a Wall Street portfolio.
At the same time, there has been a serious ebb of money OUT of the very historical institutions who attempt to capture and boast about art of the American West. Few are qualified to truly curate the works and historical societies/museums try to participate in the great market threshing floor without really having much idea what they’re doing. One can hardly expect the boards of these institutions, who in the Western states are often simply prominent citizens with political connections, proud of their own ancestors, to have the kind of experience and education that would justify the kinds of decisions they are asked to make.
This is particularly true when Indians are the subject matter. I suspect that part of the reason that the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls was anxious to auction off their Couse paintings last March (aside from dire need for money) was that they were paintings of Indians. The rationalization was that they were “southwest” Indians and the C.M. Russell Museum “specializes in the northern Plains.” First I heard of it. All those Junior League ladies who put in so much effort on behalf of the museum are not fond of Indians -- mostly because they don’t know any. They want their own ancestors celebrated. (The Montana legislature has had to pass a law to force public schools to teach Indian history.)
The Montana Historical Society usually has a token Indian on the board. The Indian artifacts that remained in the Scriver Estate were all surrendered to the Federal Fish & Game authorities, who gave them to selected Blackfeet. Some of the objects only looked like Blackfeet artifacts and were actually made and used by Scriver, but no one at the MHS had the expertise to separate them.
This summer there is a display of Scriver bronzes that were given to the C.M. Russell Museum by Ed Mitch, who had been buying “speculator’s bronzes,” that is, those created at the suggestion of a dealer who bought permission to cast them and sold them in much larger editions than are usual -- a hundred rather than ten or twenty-five. They are mostly smaller, done late in life, and still for sale through those speculators. Displaying them in a bona fide museum gives them more selling power.
The C.M. Russell Museum was given a tremendous gift of first-class Blackfeet portraits by Winold Reiss, a very fine and well-respected deceased artist who once had a studio at St. Mary’s Lake. These are gorgeous and accurate Indian people. They are brilliantly hung behind the Scriver bronzes. One of them is of “Old Lady Cree Medicine.”
Renate Reiss, Winold’s daughter-in-law, identifies this portrait above as follows:
“Deathly Woman Cree Medicine (Reiss Index A4-5) is the title of the portrait I sent you; it's pastel and tempera on Whatman board, 39x26", 1943. My database lists her name as Asená-Sami, daughter of Running Crane. The portrait was gifted to the CMR by Peter Reiss with many others. I have no objection to your posting it with the photo of the Cree Medicines!
“I am not familiar with the other version (the one you say is on exhibit right how) and have no image of that. It is listed in the Jeffrey Stewart checklist as 'unlocated', and without image.”
The one I remember is bigger and shows her wearing a split horn bonnet and blowing an eagle bone whistle, but maybe I need to go back and look again. Anyway, she was noted for her pipe making, which is why Reiss shows her holding one, and was an important informant for John Ewers and others. All this is easy information to access, for instance, through Adolf Hungry-Wolf’s “Blackfoot Papers.”
What was not realized was that “Old Lady Cree Medicine” was the ancestor of the family that was Bob Scriver’s foundry crew. Here they are at the CM Russell Museum on the occasion of the gala presentation of the Governor’s Medal to Bob Scriver:
On the left is Carma and Carl Cree Medicine and on the right is David and Rosemary Cree Medicine. These folks were more than just crew: they were family. When Bob broke his sternum, it was Carl who lowered him into bed at night. Late in life, Bob couldn’t walk without help more than a few steps and David carried a chair alongside him so he could rest every little while and thus get across the backyard to the shop. When Bob died in the shop basement bathroom, the Cree Medicines were pouring bronze in the foundry, only tens of feet away. It was David who broke down the door to get Bob out.
In the Sixties we used to cut Christmas trees, taking Carl along in the pickup and cutting enough for all the families. When we went to cut willows for trees in the backyard, Carl was with us and cut some for his own yard. Once Bob was threatened, told that if he rode horseback in the Indian Days parade, he would be roped and dragged. Carl rode with him so nothing would happen. When Bob first got a snowmobile, he and Carl went Courvetting through the snow together, chasing dogs. This is history as much as Charlie’s friends riding a horse into a bar without knocking.
But it appears that if any curating is going to be done, it's up to the families of the artists and the Indians as well.