Sunday, August 17, 2008

A visit to the Wheelwright Museum's Native American curio trade show

A major exhibition has opened at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Entitled, "From the Railroad to Route 66: The Native American Curio Trade in New Mexico," it traces Native American art and craft from the mid-19th Century to today. The exhibition coincides with the release of Jonathan Batkin's new book of a similar name, The Native American Curio Trade in New Mexico. The book and the exhibition follow 20 years of research by Batkin, the current Director of the Wheelwright.

The visitor's tour through the time tunnel of Native American curio and craft work starts with the first dealer to open a store in Santa Fe, Aaron Gold and his son, Jake. The owners worked with Native artisans to create crafts that could be sold to visitors and to the world at large.

At the time, the interest in things Indian was explosive. Items were created by the thousands at the direction of trading posts and dealers. Actual Native significance was less important than attractiveness to tourists.

Others entered the field. Jake Gold joined up with J. S. Candelario, a first rate promoter on his own, who extended the reach of the curio trade to eastern cities.

Shortly after the start of the 20th Century, Maurice Maisel opened his store in downtown Albuquerque. Maisel set up his shop so that customers could lookdown from the sales floor to a table below with Native silversmiths at work.

(J. L. Hubbell, the Indian trader at Ganado, had witnessed increases in interest and sales when potential buyers could watch Native silversmiths as they created their exotic jewelry.)

In Maisel's shop, each artisan had a workbench and would hand assemble the silver items being created. Hidden away and unseen by customers, were punch presses and mills that were used to stamp out the silver forms that the artisans assembled. This was the first appearance of mechanized manufacturing in a field that was appreciated in large measure because the jewelry was believed to be hand-made.

For several years, this manufacturing approach stirred a lot of controversy, which gave birth to the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act that required accurate labeling and truthful representation of Native American art.

Even today, disputes arise about what constitutes jewelry hand-made by Indians and what is made in an assembly line and presented as hand-made.

The Wheelwright Museum exhibition is a spoon-fed version of the material covered in the 317-page book by the same name, including several actual examples of the items offered and the advertising and catalogs that promoted them.

If you are in Santa Fe while the show continues, through April 19, 2009, I recommend you take the hour or so it requires to absorb the full story of the Native American Curio Trade in New Mexico. Admission to the Wheelwright is free, although donations are encouraged. If you can't get to the museum, I recommend you get a hold of the book.

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