In July, a painting by the 80-year-old Native American artist Jaune Quick-to-See Smith was bestowed with a distinction both welcome yet also dismaying. I See Red: Target, 1992, became the first painting by a Native American artist to be added to the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., indicating just how far the country still has to go in order to properly include Native American creatives in its officially sanctioned artistic traditions. Now, in a new interview with the Guardian, Smith herself has commented on these disparities. “I have mixed emotions; I wonder how is it that I am the first Native American artist whose painting is collected by the National Gallery?” she said. The National Gallery holds some drawings by Native American artists, though they are not frequently on permanent display.
When asked why it took such an appallingly long time for a nationally prominent American museum to acquire substantial work by Native American artist, Smith had a definitive answer. “Because of popular myth-making, Native Americans are seen as vanished,” Smith told the Guardian. “It helps assuage the government’s guilt about an undocumented genocide, as well as stealing the whole country.” She noted that while art institutions regularly show tribal objects, it’s the artists working today who are left out. “Many of our museums are filled with antiquities, but no contemporary art made by living Indians.”
Smith also pointed to the overlapping American crises that potentially contributed to her work being recognized by the National Gallery: COVID-19, the Standing Rock Sioux momentarily winning a stay on the Dakota Access pipeline, the killing of George Floyd and the Supreme Court’s recognition of Creek Indians. All of these events, Smith posits, might have lead to a state of enhanced awareness wherein the National Gallery took notice of her. “It’s like we don’t exist, except in the movies or as mascots for sports teams, like the Washington Redskins or the Cleveland Indians,” Smith continued. “I hope this means they will make a concerted effort now to form a collection of Native American art.”
It’s not just the National Gallery that needs to deeply reconsider its institutional mechanisms; prominent museums all across the country are having to reckon with just how many marginalized cultures and peoples they’ve previously excluded. This may be a good step, but it’s just the first on a long journey we should have started many years before.