It began nearly 20 years ago when leaders at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art realized that Native American and First Nation artists too often lacked access to the opportunities of other artists. Funding was scarce. So were opportunities to exhibit their work. So, the Eiteljorg curators reflected on their museum’s mission – “to inspire an appreciation and understanding of the art, history and cultures of the American West and the indigenous peoples of North America” – and established in 1999 the Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship (formerly the Fellowship for Native American Fine Art).
A grant from Lilly Endowment helped the Eiteljorg launch the biennial fellowship that supports and recognizes both renowned and rising Native American and First Nations artists who work with “contemporary media and ideas.” Through the fellowship program, the Eiteljorg has awarded more than $1.2 million in unrestricted cash awards to 50 Native artists. The museum has purchased and leveraged the contributions of more than 400 works of contemporary Native art since the fellowship began, helping to bring long-sought recognition to the field of contemporary Native art.
In late 2017, the Eiteljorg launched a series of special events to celebrate the fellowship’s 10th biennial and to provide space for both reflection and future planning.
Opened on Nov. 11, 2017, the survey exhibit, Native Art Now! showcased 39 pieces of contemporary Native art from the museum’s now extensive collection. It continued through Jan. 28, 2018. The exhibit explored a range of themes and styles and includes installations, textiles, paintings, photographs and other media. Some of the pieces called attention to the unjust and often contradictory aspects of contemporary indigenous life. Others were metaphorical or even comical in their use of contemporary themes. Longtime curator of contemporary art at the Eiteljorg, Jennifer Complo McNutt, said “[The collection] is a way to really understand native people, that they are alive, that they are experiencing the same kinds of things that we do, that their history has affected them.” After the exhibit closed it began touring cities across North America.
On November 11 and 12, Eiteljorg contemporary art fellows and scholars of Native art took part in a symposium facilitated by community activist and indigenous art expert, Betsy Theobald Richards. Using a roundtable discussion format, participants discussed the future of the fellowship and were “unanimous in continuing the program,” according to John Vanausdall, President and CEO of the Eiteljorg. A provisional plan for the program includes increasing the public’s exposure to contemporary Native art via national and international travel exhibitions and art loans, increasing access to the current collection through digital media such as videos, images and essays, as well as creating a searchable database, and increasing both scholarly and commercial promotion of the collection.
Focused on the broader field of contemporary Native art, the Eiteljorg published a scholarly book and a documentary, both titled, Native Art Now! The documentary, which incorporates artists’ narratives, was broadcast in Indianapolis in December 2017 by WFYI-TV Indianapolis.
Reflecting on the new exhibit and related events, Vanausdall noted that Native Art Now! “is an important way to fulfill [the mission of the Eiteljorg] and to introduce the public to Native people today.”