UNR’s new museum might change the way you see art
A new art museum opened at the University of Nevada, Reno, on Jan. 25. On the surface, it looks like just what you might expect from a new art museum. The three-story brick exterior blends in with UNR’s other recent constructions, and the lobby and two galleries feel airy and pristine, with glass railings, polished cement floors and plenty of filtered daylight streaming in through large windows.
But you might be surprised by your first glimpse of the artwork, especially if you start on the second floor, where the new walkway from the Church Fine Arts building will deposit you. No blue-chip artists or splashy paintings from the pages of Juxtapoz in this museum. The pieces that greet you first are Hopi earthenware vessels, the kind that are often in history museums. The display case that holds them contains no labels, and the whole exhibition, To Have and To Hold, has no wall text. But packets of exhibition notes are available to borrow, and they’ll tell you that these vessels are not labeled “anonymous Hopi from a previous century” but made by people with actual names, such as Adelle Nampeyo from Arizona, born in 1959 to a well-known family of potters.
The exhibition also includes beaded baskets by Washoe and Shoshone tribe members, a 10-inch-long, three-horned ceramic rhinoceros from about third-century China, paintings by Rousseau and Dali, an Albrecht Dürer print from the early 1500s, and some of the gallery’s recent acquisitions of work by African American artists from the 20th and 21st centuries.
These works, pulled from UNR’s collection of around 5,500 pieces, are arranged not by era or region, but juxtaposed in ways that invite telling comparisons. From one vantage point, you can see a woven tule and cattail duck, made in 2015 by Shoshone Paiute tribe member Joe Allen, who stayed true to traditional imagery. Beyond the duck is a piece that might upend—or even offend—your notions of traditional imagery. A bright red, wool and cotton rug, decorated with what appear to be Nazi swastikas, hangs on a rack. It’s not there to tout anti-Semitism or white supremacy. It’s there to point out how symbols are used. The rug is Navajo, made sometime between the 1870s and 1905, after the swastika was used in India and Greece, before Germany’s Third Reich adopted it. Some Great Basin tribes also used the symbol before the Nazis did and later made a pact to not use it. In recent years, a few young Native Americans have made moves to reclaim it. Meanwhile, the version that’s hanging on a display rack in the Lilley can easily come off as shocking.
“It’s provocative—it’s arresting,” said museum director Paul Baker Prindle. “But I think there are a lot of ways to talk about it.”
And that is the whole idea behind this museum—to talk about how art and artifacts inform us, and who’s traditionally made the decisions about how that should work. Although, here, the distinction between “art” and “artifact” is one that Baker Prindle would like to see minimized. Museums—art museums and history museums alike—have long been guilty of supporting colonialism, creating what Baker Prindle called “false distinctions between art and craft,” with “art” made by wealthy, white, European men and “craft” made by pretty much everyone else.
Baker also put “propping up gender divisions” on the list of traditional art-world habits he’d like to see reconsidered. If you’re wondering what that means, here’s a timely side note: seminal feminist artist Judy Chicago spoke at the Nevada Museum of Art last week and told a story about working in Pasadena in the 1960s, the only woman in a thriving art scene, always ignored by critics. Decades later, a critic told her he had recognized the merit of her work but taking a woman artist seriously would have spelled career suicide for him. In another timely side note, Reno artist Tia Flores said in an interview last week that, early in her career, advisors insisted she go by “T. Flores,” as no one with a female first name stood a chance of establishing a career. In a lot of other timely side notes, women artists who came up before the 1990s or so tell versions of that same story all the time.
Changing times for museums everywhere
“The entire [museum] field has been having a philosophical discussion for the last 20 or 30 years,” said Garret Barmore, director of another museum at UNR, the Keck Earth Science And Mineral Engineering Museum. Some of the industry goals he listed are “to be more accessible, decolonize, directly address the racist history of museums past.”
These goals are being addressed internationally. France’s President Emmanuel Macron, for one, announced in November that a Paris museum would return 26 objects, seized by French colonizers in 1892, to the West African nation of Benin.
They’re also being addressed close to home. In 2002, the Nevada State Museum in Carson City replaced its exhibition of Native American wax mannequins and dioramas from the 1940s with a new exhibition, Under One Sky.
“They invited a community advisory of Native Americans,” said Barmore. “While this sounds like a no-brainer, it’s something that museums are still struggling with, to bring in the communities they’re interpreting.”
In the Nevada State Museum exhibition, Barmore said, “Native people themselves are talking, telling their own stories—no mannequins.”
Changes are on the horizon for the Keck Museum, too. “The only perspective is the white, male geologist and historian,” Barmore said. “We want a more diverse story. … I would like to have a more diverse interpretation of the Comstock and Virginia City mining. Right now, the only story told about Virginia City city is that of the rich, male miners. … I want to bring in Native American groups to talk about how they interact with geology. There’s been ancient mining going back in Nevada for thousands of years. [I want to] tell that story.”
And at the Lilley Museum, Baker Prindle explained, one of the big questions to reexamine is: “What responsibilities and what functions do museums have in the production of knowledge? And those fundamental questions lead to a lot of other questions. We ask ourselves, ’Who do we serve? Who are we responsible to?’”
As many people as possible, he hopes.