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Moccasins, Unrecorded Muscogee (Creek) Artist. Muscogee (Creek). ca. 1830. Photo: Dirk Bakker
Moccasins, Unrecorded Muscogee (Creek) Artist. Muscogee (Creek). ca. 1830. Photo: Dirk Bakker
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The Met Takes a Step Towards Redefining American Art

Picture of Rachel Gould
Art & Design Editor
Updated: 24 April 2017
From Frank Lloyd Wright’s model living room to a determined Washington Crossing the Delaware, the Met’s American Wing is world-renowned; yet so far it has omitted integral voices in the American narrative. In a recent announcement reporting 91 newly-obtained Native American artworks, the Met declared that they will display their promised acquisitions as American art in a delayed but necessary gesture.

On April 6, 2017, the Metropolitan Museum of Art publicized the upcoming addition of 91 Native American artworks to their collection, courtesy of Charles and Valerie Diker. A significant acquisition in itself, the Met made this accession particularly newsworthy with the meaningful decision to display these artworks—typically housed in the Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas galleries—in the American Wing.

Kiowa Vanquishing Navajo Artist A (Julian Scott Ledger) Ka’igwu (Kiowa), 1880. © Dirk Bakker
Kiowa Vanquishing Navajo, Artist A (Julian Scott Ledger), Ka’igwu (Kiowa), 1880. Photo: Dirk Bakker | © Dirk Bakker

Native American artworks have long been quarantined from the visual narrative of the American region. Until recently, the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum excluded work by Native American artists, with only a faint acknowledgement of indigenous presence as depicted by white and European-born Americans. As it stands, three Native American pieces previously gifted by the Dikers are now exhibited in the American Wing.

While the Met indeed houses an impressive collection of Native American art and artifacts, these works are somewhat misrepresented; isolated from the regions in which they were created, they’re curiously grouped in separate galleries with pieces from sub-Saharan Africa, the Pacific Islands, and Central and South America.

Dress and Belt with Awl Case Unrecorded Wasco Artist Wasco ca. 1870 Hide, glass, shell, bone, teeth, metal H. 52 × W. 43 1/2 in. (132.1 × 110.5 cm) Photo: Dirk Bakker
Dress and Belt with Awl Case, Unrecorded Wasco Artist. Wasco, ca. 1870. Photo: Dirk Bakker

But in the fall of 2018, Kiowa drawings and Muscogee moccasins will be exhibited alongside John Singer Sargent’s Madame X (1883-4) and glass works by Louis Comfort Tiffany in an overdue effort to “display art from the first Americans within its appropriate geographic context.”

The initiative will correct a cultural inaccuracy present in museums across the country, “marking a turning point in the narratives presented within the American Wing,” as Carrie Rebora Barratt, the Met’s Deputy Director for Collections and Administration, reflects. “With the addition of these works, The Met will be able to offer a much richer history of the art of North America, one that will include critical perspectives on our past and represent diverse and enduring native artistic traditions.”

Dance Mask Unrecorded Yup'ik Artist Yup'ik ca. 1916–18 Wood, pigment, vegetal fiber H. 20 1/2 × W. 14 × D. 8 in. (52.1 × 35.6 × 20.3 cm) Photo: Dirk Bakker
Dance Mask. Unrecorded Yup’ik Artist. Yup’ik, ca. 1916–18. Photo: Dirk Bakker

Donors Charles and Valerie Diker see the gift as a necessary step towards redefining “American” art.

“Valerie and I are honored to share the remarkable work of these Native American artists with the public, especially as an integral part of the broader story of American creativity,” Charles Diker said in the Met’s press release. “Over the past 45 years, our vision and advocacy has been to build appreciation of these great works of art from cultures across the United States.”

Man's Shirt Unrecorded Niimiipu (Nez Perce) Artist Niimiipu (Nez Perce) ca. 1850 Hide, quill, horsehair, sinew, wool, glass, pigment H. 32 11/16 × W. 60 11/16 in. (83 × 154.1 cm) Photo: Dirk Bakker
Man’s Shirt. Unrecorded Niimiipu (Nez Perce) Artist Niimiipu (Nez Perce). ca. 1850. Photo: Dirk Bakker

A telling photograph in the New York Times shows the Dikers in front of their astounding home art collection, which brilliantly juxtaposes artworks by Latvian-born, New York City-based painter Mark Rothko, Japanese-American sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi, and pioneering American sculptor Alexander Calder (amongst others) with a “rare water jar from the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico.”

“We always felt that what we were collecting was American art,” Charles Diker told the New York Times. “And we always felt very strongly that it should be shown in that context.”