The Native American Art Boom

Article excerpt



Two years ago at Sotheby's, a sale that received little attention in the general press sent a shock wave through the world of Native American art. A pot by Maria Martinez, the legendary matriarch of Pueblo pottery who died in 1980, unexpectedly sold for the record sum of almost a quarter of a million dollars. "It was a watershed not only for her work but for Indian pottery as a whole," says J. Mark Sublette, president and CEO of Medicine Man Gallery in Tucson and Santa Fe, which specializes in Martinez pottery. But Sublette, among other experts, was hardly surprised. "We have seen her work go up in value at a rate of 10 to 15 percent a year for the last seven years," he says. "Not even the recent economy has slowed that rise." He attributes the growth to ever-more-widespread aesthetic appreciation for traditional Native American art among collectors not just stateside but abroad in Europe and Japan, pushing prices up for a finite pool of historic pieces.

As another example, Sublette cites the auction this past May of a Third-Phase Navajo chiefs blanket, expected to sell for a maximum of $80,000. The blanket ultimately went for five times that amount.

Times are indeed good for Native American art-and not just because of the dollars commanded by historic pieces. Tribal members and non-Natives alike are rediscovering the aesthetic appeal of objects created in the old ways. "I am seeing an amazing renaissance of traditional arts, particularly weavings," says Bill Mercer, curator of Native American art at the Portland Art Museum. He points for example to Chilkat blankets and Ravenstail weavings, both traditional textiles of Northwest Coast tribes. "Until recently," Mercer says, "only a handful of women were doing these weavings. Now there has been almost an explosion that has grown to several dozen weavers."

Parallel to this revival of old ways, Mercer sees a corresponding rise in the production of contemporary fine art by Native Americans. Indeed, he purposely displays new works alongside traditional pieces "to show museum visitors the continuity." He points to such contemporary Native artists as James Lavadour and Bob Hazous, "who go beyond stereotypical imagery and work within the larger context of contemporary art movements around the world."

"I think the artists who are getting the best reviews are those who expand upon tradition with contemporary themes or twists," says Leroy Garcia, owner of Blue Rain Gallery in Taos. …