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published: April, 2002

© Archives & Museum Informatics, 2002.
Creative Commons Att
   ribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0  License

MW2002: Papers

Native American Art In Cyberspace

Alex Traube, New Mexico CultureNet, USA

Abstract

Along the south side of the Palace of The Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico, sit Native American artists and craftspeople who sell their handmade goods to tourists and locals almost every day of the year, rain or shine. The over 900 vendors represent forty-one tribes, pueblos, chapters and villages in New Mexico, the Navajo Nation, and some parts of Arizona. Each morning the Vendors Committee conducts a lottery to see who will occupy the eighty spaces available under the portal that day.

The Vendors Committee creates and enforces rules for those who sell their work under the portal. The rules emphasize authenticity (a maker's mark is required on all goods), traditional materials (sterling silver is permitted; silver plate and commercial liquid silver is not), and handmade work made as generations of Indian artisans have made it. Because of space limitations, the distances that many of the vendors must drive to participate in the lottery for a space under the portal, and the vagaries of clientele and weather, the Portal Program has sought alternate venues to sell their goods.

The Portal Program's coordinator has raised the vendors' interest in the Internet as a viable "location" that could expand their market as well as accomplish other significant goals. These goals include education and member training. The vendors want the world to know what defines authentic Indian art. They also want non-Native people to have greater understanding about the diverse cultures and art traditions represented in the Portal Program. Finally, the artist-vendors recognize that they need training in the use of electronic media in order to expand their income potential. It is appropriate, if ironic, that contemporary technology can work so effectively to preserve traditional American art forms and cultures by serving a population that is underserved, rural, and unique.

Montage of the Portal of the Palace of the Governors

Fig. 1: Montage of the Portal of the Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, New Mexico; also seen on the Web at http://www.newmexicoindianart.org
(detailed image)

Introduction

Along the south side of the Palace of The Governors in Santa Fe sit Native American artists and craftspeople who sell their handmade goods to tourists and local Santa Feans almost every day of the year, rain or shine. The over 1,000 vendors represent forty-one tribes, pueblos, chapters and villages in New Mexico, the Navajo Nation, and some parts of Arizona. Each morning the Vendors Committee conducts a lottery to see who will occupy the eighty or so spaces available under the portal that day.

The Vendors Committee also creates and enforces the rules for those who sell their work under the portal. The rules emphasize authenticity (a maker’s mark is required on all goods), traditional materials (sterling silver is permitted; silver plate and commercial liquid silver is not), and handmade work made as generations of Indian artisans have made it.

The Portal Program's coordinator has raised the vendors' interest in the Internet as a viable "location" that could expand their markets as well as accomplish other significant goals. These goals include public information and member training. The vendors want the world to know what defines authentic Indian art. They also want non-Native people to have greater understanding about the diverse cultures and art traditions represented in the Portal Program. Finally, the artist-vendors recognize that they need training in the use of electronic media in order to expand their income potential. It is appropriate, if ironic, that contemporary technology can work so effectively to preserve traditional American art forms and cultures by serving a population that is underserved, rural and unique.

History of the Palace of the Governors and Native American Vendors Program

The Native American Vendors Program has been an official educational outreach program of the Palace of the Governors since 1922. The Museum of New Mexico was established by the territorial government of New Mexico in 1909. Originally located in the Palace of the Governors, the Museum has grown to include sister museums in Santa Fe - the Palace of the Governors History Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of International Folk Art, and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture - as well as five state monuments throughout New Mexico. The museums share centralized support services, including exhibitions, conservation, travelling exhibits and state-wide programs and education.

The Palace of the Governors has been a center of activity since its construction as New Mexico’s second capitol in 1610. Said to be the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States, the Palace has housed such diverse occupants as Spanish governors, a Pueblo Indian community, and the territorial governments of the Mexican and American republics.

At the time of the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, the Palace of the Governors was abandoned by the Spanish, like the rest of New Mexico, to the indigenous Pueblo Indian people, who held the building for the next thirteen years, converting it into traditional “apartment house” dwellings. When don Diego de Vargas led his Army of Reconquest back to Santa Fe in 1692, he found that the Palace resembled the multi-storied Taos Pueblo.

Since its founding in 1909, the Museum of New Mexico has worked to protect and promote traditional Southwest Native American arts and crafts. Museum policy has traditionally reserved, and, in 1979, won the legal right to reserve, the portal of the Palace of the Governors for the exclusive use of Native Americans to display and sell wares they or members of their households have made. As was mentioned above, the Native American Vendors Program became an official organ of educational outreach for the Museum of New Mexico in 1922.

Portal of the Palace of the Governors
Fig. 2: Portal of the Palace of the Governors, 193?,
http://www.newmexicoindianart.org/pog.html
(detailed image)

Vendors, with a few exceptions, are members of New Mexico pueblos or tribes. The exceptions are spouses of New Mexico Native Americans who are enrolled members of Native American groups outside New Mexico and graduates of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.

rtist demonstrating for Vendors Committee member
Fig. 3: Artist demonstrating for Vendors Committee member
http://www.newmexicoindianart.org/rulesregs.html#section8

There are over 1,000 authorized participants in the Native American Vendors Program. All program participants must demonstrate their technical mastery of craft skills as part of the application process. The program is monitored, and work inspected, on a daily basis by a ten-member Committee of vendors elected by their peers at the annual meeting held each April. There is a complex set of rules and regulations governing the conduct of the program and the quality of the items sold under the portal. These rules are continually evolving. New rules, rule changes, revisions and refinements are proposed jointly by vendors and the museum administration and voted on at the annual meeting by program participants. Rule changes are reviewed by the state attorney general's office and presented to the Museum of New Mexico Board of Regents for final approval. These rules, incidentally, are more stringent than any craft show, consistently enforced, and frequently requested as guidelines by other organizations.

The portal market has been of real economic benefit to New Mexico Native Americans for generations, providing a reputable and reliable outlet for their arts and crafts. Unlike most pow-wows and arts and crafts shows that sell space to artists, the portal spaces are available free to the vendors 360 days a year. Administrative and maintenance costs are minimal and are paid by the Palace of the Governors.

The question, "What is traditional?," in reference to Native American pottery, sandpainting, silversmithing, lapidary, and weaving has as many answers as respondents. It is, as J.J. Brody wrote in Indian Painters and White Patrons, "a semantic booby trap." However, it is indisputable that the majority of vendors live on the reservations and are deeply conservative people with many traditional obligations - both civic and ceremonial - at home; these can be extraordinarily demanding, and frequently unpredictable, in terms of time.  The portal as a workplace provides vendors with the scheduling flexibility to fulfill these obligations without jeopardizing their livelihoods. 

In addition, the Native American Vendors Program is an ongoing experiment in multicultural cooperation. Members of all nineteen New Mexico pueblos, the Navajo, Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache tribes, and Anglo and Hispanic museum staff work closely together daily. From the pueblos, reservations, villages, towns and cities of New Mexico, they come together to form a tentative and fragile community which endures, despite past enmities and contemporary tensions.

This program has evolved organically over eight decades. It provides visitors to and residents of New Mexico with the opportunity to meet contemporary Native American craftspeople. It is a rare and authentic venture.

Project Background

New Mexico is the fifth largest state in the nation, with 121,367 square miles. Most of its approximately 1.5 million residents live in rural, remote parts of the state. This is particularly true of Native Americans living in the state’s nineteen pueblos and three tribal reservations, particularly the Navajo Reservation. Life in the pueblos and on the reservations is economically depressed, a situation that is changing somewhat with the spread of gaming casinos.

While the Native American Vendors Program provides a viable opportunity for Indian artists to sell their goods, there are a number factors that negatively affect the many of those who are members of the program:

  • There are only 80 spaces available to sellers, whereas there are more than 1,000 individuals in the program. Each morning, at 8:00 a.m., the vendors line up for a lottery to see who gets to sell that day. Not surprisingly, in the summer there are many who are unlucky with the draw, some who have come a long way.


Contemporary photo of the portal, not on Web site
Fig. 4:
Contemporary photo of the portal, not on Web site

  • Because of the great distances in New Mexico and the expense of getting to and staying in Santa Fe, those who live in the Santa Fe-Albuquerque area have a great advantage over those who live outside the north central corridor. Thus the program has little effect on the area most desperately in need of economic stimulus, the Navajo Nation.


Fig. 5:
Map of Pueblos and Nations http://www.newmexicoindianart.org/tribespueblosmap.html
(detailed image)

  • Because the vast majority of sales at the portal are made to tourists, the prices of items for sale must be “impulse-friendly,” not too expensive. This means that less costly and unique items are offered for sale. It also means that jewelry is mostly what is offered for sale at the portal. There are few vendors at the portal who sell paintings, weaving, pottery, beadwork or leatherwork.

Technology, Economic Development and Cultural Preservation

In the mid-1990’s, I worked with the Museum of New Mexico to create a Web site (http://www.nmculture.org) of public collections held by New Mexico museums, parks and monuments. This was my first opportunity to work with the Palace of the Governors. Subsequently, I did other consulting work with the Palace, each time getting to know staff, and vendors, a little better. About three years ago, I organized a meeting at the Palace of the Governors with members of the museum staff, Vendors Committee and some artists and traders from the Four Corners area. At this meeting we discussed the viability of creating a Web site devoted to the work of the artists in the Native American Vendors Program. Resistance to change outweighed interest in something quite so new.

At that time, very few if any of the vendors had computers. In less than three years’ time, the picture has changed considerably, with many of the vendors owning computers in their homes. Perhaps not surprisingly, those computers are used mostly by their children and grandchildren; that is, until this project.

What changed attitudes towards technology in this conservative group of people was a combination of factors. For one, every American is inundated with references to the Web, e-mail and dot coms. However, it was a new program coordinator who caused the ‘tipping point’ in the vendors’ attitudes towards computers and Internet use. The program coordinator, Deborah Davis, who is Arapahoe and Shoshone, employed her technology skills in a seemingly small way that turned out to really help the artists.

Deborah started making business cards for the vendors to include with their jewelry and other objects when they made a sale. On the business cards Deborah put her email address. The day after Christmas, 2000, she came into work and found 80 e-mail inquiries about work by vendors who distributed their business cards to buyers. This single event made us realize that creating a program that utilized technology in the service of economic development and cultural preservation was a heck of a good idea. We saw that the artists could greatly expand their market, that those who lived in the more remote parts of New Mexico could join this initiative, and the public could benefit by purchasing certifiably authentic, traditional works at reasonable prices. 

Creating the Web Site


Fig. 6: Homepage of Web site
http://www.newmexicoindianart.org/index.html
(detailed image)

Scope of the Project

New Mexico CultureNet, in partnership with North Central New Mexico Economic Development District and the Museum of New Mexico, is working with Native American artists and craftspeople who are members of the Portal Program at the Palace of The Governors to create a Web site where traditional, handmade, unique jewelry, pottery, bead work, sand paintings, and leatherwork are offered for sale. Also hosted on the Web site (http://www.newmexicoindianart.org) is historical and educational information about the traditions and cultures of the people who make these goods, as well as information about the Portal Program and the Museum of New Mexico. The third aspect of the project involves training the Indian vendors to use computers, make use of the Internet, send and receive e-mail, and maintain the Web site, all of which will contribute to their economic development.

Targeted Audience/Market

The market for the traditional artwork of Southwestern Native American artisans includes a broad spectrum of people. They include serious collectors as well as tourists who have visited Santa Fe, perhaps purchased work from the vendors at the Portal, and wish to purchase additional items. As people all over the world are interested in Native American art, we believe many will be eager to view and purchase artwork online; this is particularly true because the works will be offered by such a reputable source, one that has the imprimatur or both the Portal Program and the Museum of New Mexico.

This project enjoys a built-in publicity network: the Portal Program exists under the auspices of the state history museum, the Palace of the Governors. The Palace, in turn, is part of the Museum of New Mexico, a four-unit museum system that also consists of a Laboratory of Anthropology, five state monuments, and a gallery in the governor’s office. The Museum system generates a constant flow of press releases, newsletters, and related information in which this project will be featured. In addition, the Portal Project will be publicized to Web search engines and in print ads in publications such as New Mexico Magazine and Native American Arts.

How Native American Artists Will Benefit From This Project

These are the ways Indian artists participating in this program will benefit from it:

  • They will be able to increase their sales by selling from the Web site. Also, participants will have opportunities to sell work that it is not possible to offer at the portal because of size, price or both.
  • Members who live far from Santa Fe will have the option of selling from a virtual venue, the Web site, that has the same standards and rules of the mother program.
  • By educating the public about their art and its authenticity, vendors will be creating a more discriminating audience for their work.
  • By participating in training, vendors will realize new capabilities to develop and participate in commerce globally as well as locally.
  • This project will contribute to cultural preservation, and maintenance of traditional and authentic ways of making art.

Indicators of Project Success

We hope to see the following indicators of project success by the end of Y2002:

  • Increased interest in and sales of the artworks of vendors in the Portal Program
  • Increased public understanding of what is genuine, authentic and traditional Indian art
  • Increased knowledge about the unique  Portal Program and the Palace of the Governors
  • Increased public knowledge and understanding by the public of Native American cultures
  • Increased interest in the Internet and its uses by greater numbers of Native American artists
  • New knowledge and skills in the use of the Internet by vendors in the Portal Program
  • Application of new skills by members of the Portal Program to sustaining and nurturing the economic initiative proposed here
  • Increased participation by Native Americans in the North Central New Mexico Economic Development District activities.

Lessons Learned, Looking Ahead

Culture Preserved; A Culture Changed

This project is changing the culture of the Portal Program. Three years ago, almost none of the vendors had computers in their homes. This project is giving the artists themselves exposure to computer technology and empowering them to make use of it. Significantly, the project will expand the audience for their work. This fact has particular implications for those Indian artists who live outside the Santa Fe/Albuquerque area.

This Project As a Model

 It is the hope of Portal Program Coordinator Deborah Davis and myself that this project will serve as a model to those pueblos and nations which are not located in North Central New Mexico. For example, we hope to work with the Farmington Museum and the Navajo Nation, both located in northwestern New Mexico, to create a mirror program, a virtual marketplace and information resource.

Assessment: Our original expectations for the project were realistic, with the notable exception of the time frame. We were dealing with a population of more than 1,000 artists, only a small fraction of whom frequently come to the Portal. Therefore, there is no guarantee that the person one sees on a Monday will be there the following Monday or even the next day. Feast days and other culturally important events often sidetrack expectations that we non-Indian people may have. Again, the amount of time (huge) we have put into this project far exceeds the funding we received from the Fund for Folk Culture and the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation.

Looking Ahead:

I am concerned about sustaining the program beyond the funding we have received. It is my opinion that the artists themselves, at least at this point, cannot sustain the project without expert help. And Deborah Davis, while a critically important partner, does not have the time or the technical expertise to do all that needs to be done to ensure the continuance of the Web site and classes. CultureNet is willing to remain involved, but only if we receive fair compensation to do so. Having said this, here is what we hope to accomplish in the next few months:

  • Late February, 02 - Web site launched and publicized
  • March, 02 -  Site introduced to the artists in the Native American Vendors Program in special ceremonies
  • April, 02 – December: As the site is publicized, we hope that sales of works will occur regularly and will be an effective stimulant for involvement by heretofore reticent artists.
  • May, 02 – December: We will approach the New Mexico pueblos that have casinos and solicit sustaining contributions for this project from them. Their contributions will help defray the costs of Web site maintenance and ongoing computer instruction.
  • 2003 - With continued support, we will be able to create regional programs throughout New Mexico. We want to do more profiles on Indian artists and include portraits, photographs of them working and oral histories.

Conclusion

In early February of this year, the founder of the Institute of American Indian Arts, Lloyd Kiva New, died at the age of 85. Those who eulogized him mentioned that he championed contemporary arts that expressed Indian identity, but which employed any style of art. New broke with the notion of encouraging art to be made “the way our grandfathers did it.” This project does precisely that: celebrates and perpetuates traditional crafts and art the way it has been made for generations.

So, it seems to me that there is room for both contemporary art created from a broad intellectual fine arts tradition, liberated from the constraints of repetition and predictability, and traditional art, which honors one’s heritage, freed of much of the expectations and pressures that come with working as a contemporary artist in a high pressure and ever commercialized art world.

The Indian artists at the ‘porch,’ as it is called, are not addicted to the new, novel and ephemeral. They exist in another space and time. Perhaps it is more than ironic—in its own way it is radical - that these deeply conservative people are doing this project with us, knowing that doing so will change the culture of their program and, very likely, their personal lifestyles.