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Innovative Women’s Museum Opens in Santa Fe

Native American women artists have a home of their own in New Mexico, thanks to the dedication of a third generation painter whose grandmother came from the Santa Clara pueblo.

After much planning, a museum uniquely devoted to Native American women artists held its opening reception September 20 in Santa Fe. The Pablita Velarde Museum of Native American Women in the Arts will showcase all forms of art and crafts, as well as the work of performing, film, and literary artists.

The project is the brainchild of Margarete Bagshaw, a modernist who represents the third generation of a family of pioneering women painters. The museum is named for her grandmother, who paved the way for Native women artists in New Mexico. Bagshaw's mother, Helen Hardin, is acknowledged as the first Native woman to move from traditional representational painting to abstract art. According to Bagshaw, her grandmother often said, I'll just do it my way. Hence the museum's acronym: PVMIWA or “PV my way.”   

Joining Bagshaw in her dream is Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, a painter who also curates exhibitions of other Native artists. Her abstract paintings and lithographs address environmental, human rights, and tribal issues with humor and pathos. Also on the list of founders is sculptor Roxanne Swentzell, whose work focuses on what she sees as a balance of power between women and men inherent in her culture. Swentzell comes from New Mexico's Santa Clara pueblo, as did Pablita Velarde. A charming and peaceful garden at the museum will provide the setting for sculpture exhibits. 

As plans for the museum became known, some observers prominent in the art community questioned the need for such a museum, but to native women artists, it’s about time. Bagshaw says that even though right now the leading lights in native art are female, women are still overlooked in exhibits and permanent collections. She is reminded of  stories about her grandmother, who was the only woman in the first art class at the Santa Fe Indian School. When male artists would tell her to go back into the kitchen because making art was man’s work, her teacher—Dorothy Dunn, who created the art studio within the school in 1932—encouraged her to develop her own style. Velarde became the first Native woman to paint full-time as a career. She published Old Father Storyteller in 1960, a book of illustrated stories, becoming the first pueblo woman with a book to her credit. Velarde’s daughter, Helen Hardin, was prominent among an innovative group of male artists of her day, using cubism to break the rules of what was thought of as Native art. 

Since the '70s at least, women have been noticing and then protesting the lack of women artists in major museum and gallery collections. One obvious next step was to find places to display and view women’s art. In 1981, the National Museum of Women in the Arts was incorporated, but not until 1987 did NMWA open its doors in Washington, D.C., with a permanent site where it could accomplish the important work of acquiring, preserving, exhibiting and researching women’s art. PVMIWA's Juane Quick-to See Smith has exhibited in the national museum's “Off the Beaten Path” series. Chicago is home to the Women Made Gallery, which exhibits art made by and about women, educates the public about the art and advocates for equal treatment of women’s accomplishments. Also in Chicago, the ARC Gallery and Educational Foundation was founded in 1973, where a collective of women artists offer professional and mentoring opportunities in the visual arts. 

In New York City, Ceres, a gallery, provides a community network for women artists and includes a range of disciplines such as music, poetry, and dance. A.I.R. (Artists in Residence) Gallery was founded in Brooklyn in 1972 as the first artist-run gallery for women in the United States. It works to sustain a political awareness and voice, and bring new understanding to attitudes about women in the arts. The Florida Museum for Women Artists, in Deland, Florida, is the only museum in the Southeast United States to provide art and other artistic disciplines exclusively by women artists. It was founded in 2009.  While the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art is only a section of a museum—the Brooklyn Museum—it was founded to exhibit and raise awareness of feminist art as “among the most ambitious, influential, and enduring artistic movements to emerge in the late twentieth century.” Part of the center’s mission is to present feminism in an “approachable and relevant way.” The center also gives permanent housing to Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party installation. 

In the process of building their collection, PVMIWA curators will choose from the work of North American women able to verify Native ancestry within three generations, whether or not they are registered with a tribe. To start out, the PVMIWA has moved into a 200-year-old adobe building near St. Francis Cathedral that had been owned by the Archdiocese. The outside walls needed a little washing to remove graffiti, but the inside is filled with light and rooms for exhibits, a store, meetings and informal conferences or study. Best of all, the back rooms open to gardens. In addition to exhibits, the project is planned as a setting for experimentation, research and learning. With encouragement and guidance by such Native museum-world figures as W. Rick West, founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, and Kevin Gover, its current director, the PVMIWA Board has embarked on ambitious fundraising plans. Even before fundraising began, news stories have brought in financial contributions and donations from private art collections.

PVMIA's opening exhibit, which will become part of the permanent collection, is "The Studio of Pablita Velarde," a replica of the painter's Albuquerque home workspace with her desk, some of her awards on the wall, and even the cigarette she was smoking the day that she died. As Bagshaw explained to Santa Fe art commentator Tom Maguire, "We're starting with a small and humble exhibit because that is the way Pablita Velarde started out."

She envisions in the future, however, a museum “on a grand scale. Not just a cute little Southwestern museum for Indian women.” After PVMIWA is fully launched, Margarete Bagshaw plans to step back and know that her mother’s and grandmother’s names are being put to use in the way they should be—to help open doors for other women artists.

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