Native American Art, Finally Happening

Native American culture is very diverse and full of rich traditions that have survived multiple changes throughout history. It has continued to thrive on the North American continent for thousands of years. Today, it is estimated that about 574 Federally recognized American Indians and Alaskan Native tribes and villages are located in the United States, each with their own language, history, and art. Despite the authentic and deep roots they have, Native Americans have experienced an unfortunate history of marginalization from the days of the American settler project and the Native American art was in no exception.

In many cases, works of art that indigenous Native American artists created tend to be pushed aside or lumped together in group shows with narrowly defined parameters and labels. They have not received their deserved spot and attention on the main stage. Despite years of being overlooked by American art museums, contemporary art centers, and the art critics’ circles, it seems that Native American art is preparing to find its place in the mainstream art world, finally.

Cannupa Hanska Luger, Life is Breathtaking, Time Devours Things (2017). Courtesy of the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery. | Source: news.artnet.com

Native American Art – Securing a Foothold in the Mainstream

Until recently, many Native American artists have been exclusively shown at institutions that focus on American Indian content and galleries that focus on indigenous or “minority artists.” However, this unfavorable tendency seems to be on the decline, thanks to popularizing venues like successful art fairs, contemporary galleries, and biennales that are willing to introduce maverick voices into their shows in the recent years. These new fairs and programs have stood out from the norm and gone against the status quo, and they were able to shift attention onto artists and art that was once marginalized and left out of such events. This is largely thanks to Native American, First Nation, and other indigenous artists groups who have utilized their amazing talent to create works that have raised and continue to raise institutional interest, critical acclaim, and higher prices.

There is clearly a growing interest in the Native American aesthetic, but getting it to the point of recognition and acclaim required a lot of work. Numerous non-profits from the Midwest and the Northeast have been committed to educating the market and supporting creators and artisans. These were two critical steps that helped the market grow dramatically. First, educating non-Native American gatekeepers and consumers about their art and unique athletics help grow the number of enthusiasts and connoisseurs who can appreciate the skill and versatility in their art. Then secondly, working with diverse groups of Native American communities and artists that lack the resources, connections, and business skills help these artists break into the growing market interest and demand. These movements are beneficial for Native American communities that can rely on art as their main source of revenue to alleviate poverty, in addition to supporting their artistic and craft traditions that have been passing on for many generations.

Thanks to the collective efforts of such organizations, institutions, and artists, Native American art has found its way into numerous events and institutions over the years. These are some of the most meaningful locations that have embraced the movement:

The inclusion of Native American artists’ work in these venues and events is a promising sign. And now results can even be seen in the New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has taken a huge step by integrating Native American art into its American wing. As they continue to break into the mainstream, they will slowly secure a place in more museums nationwide and their collections in the future.

Video report from the 2019 Santa Fe Indian Market by Native American Art magazine,  the official magazine for Native American Art Market.

Native American Art Markets

While Native American art gradually seeps into the mainstream museum world, it continues to thrive and support artists in art markets that are seeing increased numbers of visitors. These markets are huge cultural events that bring together some of the best artists from federally recognized tribes. Here are some of the biggest Native American art markets:

●    Santa Fe Native American Art Market (aka Santa Fe Indian Market)

The Santa Fe Native American Art Market (SFNA) is the most popular and largest destination for Native artists and Native American art collectors and admirers. In addition to bringing Native American art lovers, it is also the single largest cultural event in the southwest. The market is run by the Southwestern Association for Indian Artists, also known as SWAIA.

The market requires that all participants are tribal members with a verifiable identity, such as a Certificate of Degree of Indian or Alaska Native Blood. In order to keep standards high, they also demand that all items sold there must be in compliance with the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990. The aim here is to enforce quality and authenticity. In addition to having strict rules, the market also has a rigorous application process that permits around 1,100 Native American artists to participate.

The SFNA market is a big deal for both the city, artists, and collectors.

The City – The city experiences an influx of about 175,000 visitors, bringing in an estimated $120 million to the city annually.

Artists – The artists consider the Santa Fe American Market one of the biggest events for artists since a single weekend there can generate a year’s worth of sales. It is also a great networking opportunity that allows them to connect with museum staff, curators, gallery owners, and art collectors. Many artists have been participating in the market for years. They have amassed a loyal following that returns each year to look at their works.

Collectors and enthusiasts – Collectors get to enjoy the finest Native American art and craftsmanship, and they have no problem paying top dollar for spectacular works of art.

    Indigenous Fine Arts Market

The Indigenous Fine Arts Market (IFAM) is a competing market in Santa Fe that is run by former SFNA executives. It aims to provide an alternative to the popular Native American art market by setting up near the SFNA market in the same week. The application process is very similar to its competitor and aims to offer positions to artists who offer quality above all else.

    Annual Cherokee Art Market

The Cherokee Art Market in Tulsa is one of the largest Native American art shows in Oklahoma and is considered one of the finest Native American art markets in the nation. It represents numerous tribes that showcase their art, culture, and way of life in this 2-day event. Artists who participate in the event compete for their share of a $75,000 prize pool split among 27 categories.

A United San Antonio Pow Wow member dancing a ceremonial dance at the Inaugural Yanaguana Indian Arts Market (2014). Photo by Scott Ball. | Source: therivardreport.com

While it is clear that the Native American art market is on the rise, unfortunately it might slow down a little this year. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about extreme preventive measures, such as social distancing, quarantine, and closing borders, and the SFNA is following suit with other major events by postponing to keep people safe. However, artists are trying to make the most of it by going virtual. If you are interested in finding out more about their virtual program, visit their website.

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