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Norman Tait totem returning to view at Heard Museum thanks to conservation grant

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Norman Tait painting Friendship Totem in 1977. Courtesy the Heard Museum

Norman Tait painting Friendship Totem in 1977 | Courtesy the Heard Museum

Each year, hundreds of cultural institutions from around the world vie for Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project grants hoping to secure funding for priority preservation needs on objects under their care. For 2023, 23 recipients representing a diverse range of artistic styles, media and cultural traditions across China, Colombia, France, Lebanon, Mexico, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S. have been selected.

Among them, the Heard Museum in Phoenix.

Norman Tait’s (Nisga’a Nations, 1941-2016) Friendship Totem (1977) will be the beneficiary, with the museum using its grant money to restore the artwork, allowing it to be returned to public view hopefully this fall.

The Provincial Government of British Columbia commissioned the totem pole as a gift to the city of Phoenix in 1976. Provincial Minister Grace McCarthy presented the gift, referring to it as a “Friendship Totem.” 

In October, British Columbia sent Tait to Phoenix to represent the province for the annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives. During the weeklong conference, Tait carved the 20-foot artwork inside the city’s convention center.

Unable to finish the piece by the time the conference ended, the pole was relocated to the Heard and placed in the museum’s Gallery of Indian Art.

There, Tait continued working on the totem pole, carving and painting in the gallery.

Norman Tait's Friendship Totem being transported to the Heard Museum in Phoenix for completion in 1977. Courtesy the Heard Museum

Norman Tait's Friendship Totem being transported to the Heard Museum in Phoenix for completion in 1977 | Courtesy the Heard Museum

“For 12 days, museum staff and visitors, including groups of school children, were able to observe Tait as he carved the 20-foot cedar log, forming the totem,” Heard Museum Chief Curator, Diana Pardue, explains. “Upon its completion, the City of Phoenix gifted the Friendship Totem to the Heard Museum. The totem was raised outdoors on the Heard’s 8-acre campus with Norman Tait and others from British Columbia present.”

The word totem comes from the Algonquian word odoodem meaning “his kinship group.” 

“In keeping with this tradition, the Friendship Totem represents Tait’s clan,” Pardue explains. “The artwork features an eagle at the top, followed by a beaver, and at the base a human figure. The eagle is the symbol of his clan, the beaver is one his clan’s crests, and the human represents membership to his clan.”

Deinstalled after more than 20-years to accommodate a building expansion on museum grounds, the totem – too large for indoor storage – has since been placed in a resting, horizontal position and covered out of public view in a small courtyard utilized only by staff. Repairs to damaged wood, replacement of one small missing section and manufacture of an armature to mount and support the piece when it returns to view in its standing position are required.

Sculpture conservator Ron Harvey, who annually visits the Heard to inspect and clean the collection of outdoor sculpture will handle the restoration work. He will be assisted, if needed, by members of Tait’s family, including his daughter, Valerie, and his brother, Alver, a sculptor himself.

Since 2010, Bank of America’s Art Conservation Project has supported the preservation of paintings, sculptures, and archeological and architectural pieces of critical importance to cultural heritage and the history of art. More than 237 projects across 40 countries managed by nonprofit cultural institutions have received funding to conserve works of art in danger of deterioration.

Demonstrating the significance of Tait’s totem at the Heard, other projects chosen for the grant this year include Royal Portraits from the Hawai’i State Archives, Peter Paul Rubens’ iconic The Judgement of Paris painting at the National Gallery in London, a pair of Cézanne paintings at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and gold and silver objects from the Hong Kong Palace Museum.

Institutions from across the U.S. West were well represented. In addition to Friendship Totem, Chris Burden’s Urban Light sculptural installation prominently greeting visitors outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was selected, along with a Clyfford Still painting at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, six modern sculptures at the San Diego Museum of Art and preparatory works by Japanese American artist Chiura Obata for a large, four-panel screen in the collection of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City.

Outside of the Heard, Tait’s monumental totems can be seen in Grant Park in Chicago, Vancouver's Stanley Park, the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology, Bushy Park in London and Osaka, Japan.

Heard Museum Amphitheatre

Heard Museum Amphitheater | Courtesy the Heard Museum

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