Shelburne Museum launching new Native American initiative
By Chadd Scott
Artist formerly known [Tsitsistas/Suhtai (Cheyenne)], Beaded Pannier, ca. 1880. Collection of Shelburne Museum, gift of Ogden M. Pleissner.1961-182.36.1.
As 2022 rolled into 2023, the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, VT had exactly zero Native American items on view. The museum has possessed Native American artwork since its founding in 1947, but took all holdings off view roughly 15 years ago, rightly uncomfortable with its inability to appropriately display the material without a better understanding of it and its context.
In a swift and stunning course correction prone to deliver the museological equivalent of whiplash, the museum has since made public a stated goal of becoming, “a center of gravity for the study and exploration of Indigenous art and material culture in the region… redefining American Art, and cultivating new relationships and greater understanding across cultures,” in the words of director and CEO Thomas Denenberg.
Through the first half of 2023 alone, the museum has announced receipt of a major gift of Native American art, details for its first exhibition of Native American art debuting this summer, and plans for a new nearly 10,000-square-foot, $12-plus million dollar building to house its suddenly significant Indigenous art collection.
What outwardly feels like an abrupt 180 has long been thoughtfully considered behind the scenes. Crucially, Native American voices have shaped decisions from the outset.
A Native American Advisory Committee made up of regional and national Indigenous culture bearers, academics, museum professionals, and enrolled citizens of Tribes represented in collection artworks has been working with the Shelburne for more than two years on the collection’s care and presentation. Additionally, a Native American Collections Stewardship Advisory Committee has presented a series of cultural competency seminars to museum officials, further engaging Native American partners and experts. This instruction has focused on informing the museum’s long-term stewardship of Indigenous material.
Taking point on these efforts is Victoria Sunnergren, hired by the Shelburne in October of 2022 as the museum’s first ever curator for Native American Art. Sunnergren will lead the interpretation and exhibition of the museum’s collection of Indigenous art and material culture. She will also guide the museum’s new Native American arts program in collaboration with an advisory board of Indigenous artists, curators, and community leaders.
Maker formerly known [Haak'u (Acoma Pueblo)], Polychrome Water Jar, ca. 1880–90. Perry Collection of Native American Arts.
The Perry Collection
Impetus for the Shelburne’s new emphasis on Native American artwork comes largely from its receipt of the Perry Collection, more than 200 Native American masterworks assembled over several decades by Anthony Perry and Teressa Perry. Teressa Perry made the gift in memory of her late husband Tony, a noted businessman in Vermont with a deep connection to the region.
The Collection, which the museum has been in the process of acquiring for the past few years, a process which will continue in the years ahead, is comprised predominantly of items from Plains, Prairie and Southwest peoples. The Shelburne considers it the most significant acquisition both in size and importance since the museum’s founding.
“It also compels us to realize a long-held vision of our founder, Electra Havemeyer Webb, to present a more inclusive view of what constitutes American art by including Indigenous art,” Denenberg said.
Included in the gift are superb examples of beadwork, clothing, weavings and pottery predominantly from Plains and Southwest cultures. Collection items, largely acquired through the art market according to Sunnergren, emphasize craft traditions in the decades before and after the turn of the 20th century.
It is especially rich in ceramics from Pueblo peoples highlighted by a group of 48 finely painted water jars, monumental grain storage vessels and large bowls.
Moccasins form another area of depth for the collection. Fifty pairs from the late 19th century predominantly originating in Plains and Prairie cultures reveal the individual artistry of their makers and traditions of their cultures, and when taken together, create a rich overview of the form.
The importance of children and family life are interwoven into the collection. No sacred items or weapons of war are included.
A group of four beaded cradles of Kiowa, Crow, Cheyenne, and Nez Perce origin along with two Lakota beaded baby carriers are recognized as nationally important.
The representation of miniatures and children’s articles was a special interest of Tony Perry’s. Toy cradles, moccasins, and storage bags are included, and a remarkable assemblage of 50 dolls originating from Plains and Apache peoples includes numerous rare pairs.
“Tony was always drawn to the multi-dimensional nature of Native American art. He appreciated that this material not only surrounds you in beauty and history, but it also invites a sense of contemplation and spirituality,” Teressa Perry said. “The dolls come alive with their story; the textiles retain the vibrancy and energy of their weaver; and the beadwork tells of women creating the most sophisticated designs in firelit spaces. Each piece carries a part of a life and culture and is constantly alive.”
Artist formerly known (Iowa), Moccasins, ca. 1860–70. Perry Collection of Native American Arts. M23. Photography by Jennifer Hardman, ©2010.
The Perry Center for Native American Art
The Shelburne’s monumental vision for its new Native American initiative reaches peak ambition in the form of the Perry Center for Native American Art. The pavilion will be designed from the ground up in partnership with Indigenous voices guiding the culturally appropriate interpretation and care of Indigenous material culture housed there.
Two Row, a Canadian Indigenous architecture firm, was used during the concept phase of planning the Perry Center design to host listening sessions with local Indigenous leaders determining their needs and expectations for the building.
“Shelburne Museum has approached this project with an abiding awareness of the responsibility inherent in caring for a collection that represents living cultures. From the outset, partnerships with source communities have been a priority and focus of this initiative,” Sunnergren said. “To that end, the museum has worked to build relationships that will make the Perry Center for Native American Art a national resource for the study and care of Indigenous art that will reimagine the museum and its role in presenting American art and material culture.
The Shelburne is targeting a spring 2026 opening.
Built from the Earth
The public’s first opportunity to enjoy the Shelburne’s new commitment to Native American art comes via “Built from the Earth: Pueblo Pottery from the Anthony and Teressa Perry Collection,” an exhibition offering a captivating exploration of the masterworks of Pueblo pottery.
“Built from the Earth” centers around the skill and artistry of potters from eight Pueblo communities in New Mexico: Haak’u (Acoma), Halona:wa (Zuni), K’awaika (Laguna), Kewa (Santo Domingo), Kotyit (Cochiti), P’o Woe-geh Owingeh (San Ildefonso), Tamaya (Santa Ana), and Ts’iya (Zia). The Shelburne was aided by a group of cultural advisors from a number of the Pueblos who consulted on the presentation.
The focal point of the exhibition is the symbolic spiral motif present in Pueblo pottery which holds multiple meanings across the various cultures.
“Painted delicately on pottery using thin yucca brushes, it evokes feathers, prayers and the communities’ migration history,” Sunnergren said. “These spiraled meanings manifest in the very act of creating Pueblo pottery, wherein clay is carefully coiled in layer upon layer and meticulously smoothed into its final form—a vessel built from earth.”
That process of crafting Pueblo pottery is explored in the exhibition from gathering clay and hand-building the pots, to creating designs made with pigments derived from plants and minerals, culminating with the firing process.
“The Perry Collection forms the core of a museum initiative to collaborate with Indigenous nations, scholars and culture bearers to present a model of stewardship for Indigenous creative culture and presentation to a broad audience. ‘Built from the Earth’ presents visitors with a preview of what’s to come,” Denenberg said.
“It is my hope that visitors will gain a broader appreciation for the integration of Pueblo pottery into both Puebloan worldviews and everyday life, understanding how the methodical process of creating the pottery reflects Pueblo understandings of family, time, and themselves,” Sunnergren added.
“Built from the Earth” debuted June 24 and will remain on view through October 22, 2023.
Attributed to Monica Silva [Kewa (Santo Domingo Pueblo)], Dough Bowl, ca. 1920. Clay and pigment, 9 1/2 x 20 x 20 in. Collection of Shelburne Museum, Anthony and Teressa Perry Collection of Native American Art.2023-5.5. Photography by Andy Duback