With a New Model, Forge Project Is Putting Indigenous Art at the Forefront

The cultural organization is evolving to expand its Indigenous-led governance model.

Woman looks at artwork displayed on white wall
Forge Project’s collection contains work by contemporary Indigenous artists. Thatcher Keats/Courtesy Forge Project

For the past three years, New York’s Forge Project has focused on advancing and supporting Indigenous culture while overseeing one of the first lending collections of contemporary Native art. Now, the organization is taking steps to further its sustainability and impact by transitioning into a non-profit model.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="noreferrer" href="http://observermedia.com/terms">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

In addition to opening the doors for new funding, this evolution will prioritize models of Indigenous self-determination and collaboration with other Native leaders and organizations. The reshaping will also include bringing on prominent Indigenous artists like Jeffrey Gibson to help set high-level priorities for Forge.

SEE ALSO: Gianluca Costantini Is Using Art to Change the World

“Since Forge was founded in April of 2021, we knew that we were filling a distinct need—there are very few Indigenous-led organizations centered on art and culture in the United States,” Candice Hopkins (Carcross/Tagish First Nation), the organization’s executive director and chief curator, told Observer. “That said, the organization was also founded with an openness to the model it should take and how it should evolve in a responsive way to the needs of cultural workers and artists.

Forge was co-founded by Becky Gochman, a philanthropist and arts patron who also oversees the Gochman Family Collection, and art dealer Zach Feuer. The duo decided to pursue the project after finding limited philanthropic support for Indigenous artists and opened Forge on a 60-acre campus located on the unceded homelands of the Moh-He-Con-Nuck, now known as the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, in the Hudson River Valley. It operates in two Ai Weiwei-designed buildings that are the only residential structures designed by the artist in the U.S.

Two photographs side by side of women sitting at desks
Candice Hopkins (left) and Sarah Biscarra Dilley (right). Thatcher Keats/Courtesy Forge Project

Led by Hopkins and Sarah Biscarra Dilley (yaktitʸutitʸu yaktiłhini [Northern Chumash]), an artist and educator who acts as Forge’s director of Indigenous programs and relationality, the initiative oversees a fellowship, digital-first journal and 175-piece collection of contemporary Indigenous artwork while supporting some 300 artists and offering intra-community programs like shared meals, retreats and convenings.

Forge’s art holdings, which include pieces by artists like Dana Claxton, Demian DinéYazhi’, Nicholas Galanin, Faye HeavyShield and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, have previously been lent to the Venice Biennale and Tucson Museum of Art. The organization has also collaborated with institutions like Bard College, presenting the Hopkins-curated exhibition “Indian Theater: Native Performance, Art, and Self-Determination since 1969” at the university’s Hessel Museum of Art last year.

Forming an Indigenous Steering Council

As part of its transition, Forge has formed a seven-person Indigenous Steering Council that will guide the organization with Indigenous governance at its core. It is currently led by chair and board liaison Kerry Swanson (Michipicoten First Nation) and vice-chair and board liaison Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians), with members including Monique Tyndall (Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans), G. Peter Jemison (Seneca Nation, Heron Clan), Jasmine Neosh (Menominee), Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora Nation, Turtle Clan) and Gibson (Choctaw and Cherokee)—the latter of whom is representing the U.S. at this year’s Venice Biennale.

“Importantly, they also sit above the board, ensuring that no matter the makeup of this group, that we will always have Indigenous leadership at the top,” said Hopkins, adding that the decision to form the Indigenous Steering Council came about after Forge researched models of tribal governance, customary Indigenous leadership models and non-profit board and leadership models. With guidance from the council, Forge over the next three years will emphasize land, language and sovereignty as key areas for research, community outreach and art programming.

People walk through grassy field with building in the distance
Visitors at Forge Project. Alekz Pacheco/Courtesy Forge Project

While Forge began as an LLC to get off the ground quickly, leaders hope the transition into non-profit status will help address a lack of funding for Native organizations and allow more community members to become involved with the initiative. “We believe that Forge is one avenue to enable the redistribution of wealth and through this a means to target inequity by directly investing in Native cultural leaders,” said Hopkins.

A significant priority for the organization is further communication and partnership with other networks of Indigenous leaders. In that vein, Forge has developed a multi-year memorandum of understanding with the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans centered upon responding to community needs and maintaining an ongoing discourse of collaboration.

Although the visibility of Indigenous artwork in the mainstream art world has accelerated in recent years, progress is still needed, according to Hopkins. “Change has certainly been happening at museums through the efforts of allied curators and educators and this is following the larger profile of Indigenous artists at documenta 14, the last few Sydney Biennales, the Toronto Biennial of Art, and now Venice,” she said. “That said, I am still waiting for the moment when a Native artist is represented by a blue-chip gallery in the United States. I hope this wait will be over soon.”

With a New Model, Forge Project Is Putting Indigenous Art at the Forefront