In an era when Indigenous voices are playing a greater role in museum exhibition planning, collecting practices, research, and programming, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art took on a new commitment in 2017 (after receiving a landmark gift of historical Native American art from the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection) to expand its patrimony of Native American art. In September, the Met hired Patricia Marroquin Norby as the institution’s first full-time Indigenous curator, and the first full-time curator of Native American art in the museum’s 150-year history.
Norby, 50, is of Purépecha descent. She comes to the institution with years of experience as a museum professional, having served previously as senior executive and assistant director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York, and as director of the D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies at The Newberry Library in Chicago.
As an Indigenous scholar with a tribal heritage in Mexico and the Southwest, she’s no stranger to the issues facing Indigenous artists and communities in the region. Her dissertation, Visual Violence in the Land of Enchantment (2013), covered the interconnections between fine art production, industrial agriculture, and nuclear power production in New Mexico and how they are visually represented in Native art. And her latest book, Water, Bones, and Bombs (forthcoming in 2022 from University of Nebraska Press, part of their Many Wests series), looks at the environmental conflicts among Native, Hispanic, and Anglo communities in the northern Río Grande Valley.
Norby is the keynote speaker for the 2021 Indian Arts Research Center’s four-part speaker series, Museums Pivot: Shifting Paradigms for Collaboration, which explores the expanding roles of Native artists and Native communities at America’s cultural institutions. Her online talk, “Affirming Indigenous Representation: The Future of Native Art and Collections at The Metropolitan Museum of Art,” takes place at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, March 31.
Norby spoke with Pasatiempo about the Met’s broadening vision for its Native art collections and its commitment to engaging Indigenous tribes in its decision-making.
Pasatiempo: Historically, we’ve seen a dearth of collaboration between prominent institutions like the Met and Indigenous communities. But the landscape is changing, is it not?
Patricia Marroquin Norby: I have been working in museums and archives for a long time. Along the way, at each institution, I have faced challenges and also learned something that I carry with me. Every museum has their own voice, culture, mission, and issues. No one museum gets it all “right” all the time. Currently, we are witnessing a lot of “soul searching” and introspection. Many museums and cultural institutions are engaging in very necessary self-reflective work. For instance, reconfiguring major art installations to highlight Native American and Indigenous artworks, updating outdated problematic exhibitions, and offering more diverse expressions of American identities through stronger representations of marginalized communities, artists, and voices. Many institutions are finally reckoning with their own problematic histories of exclusionary and racist practices.
Pasa: How has this reckoning affected policies at the Met?
PMN: We are strongly committed to meaningful collaborations with Indigenous communities and to presenting Native American art in a manner that is inclusive of Indigenous perspectives, involves guidance from source communities, and creates space for respectful listening and thoughtful dialogue. This work reaches beyond our exhibition spaces and acquisitions, often occurring behind the scenes. Currently, I am collaborating with individual Indigenous artists, scholars, and Native community members, following their lead on how to best foreground Indigenous voices and experiences. Also, with support from the Terra Foundation for American Art at the Met, we are working with Indigenous scholars and curators to host a curatorial convening, which provides a safe space to discuss complex issues specific to work with Indigenous collections. We have also hosted our first virtual source community visits to our collections in order to discuss issues of cultural sensitivity and NAGPRA-relevant [Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] topics.
Pasa: Are you familiar with the IARC guidelines for dealing with Native artists, collections, and communities?
PMN: I am familiar with the IARC guidelines. They are an invaluable resource and guide for developing and maintaining collaborative and respectful partnerships between source communities and museums, as well as other cultural institutions. The Met acquired these guidelines from [Acoma Pueblo Gov. and former IARC Director] Brian Vallo who served on the advisory committee for our Art of Native America exhibition in 2017. Although I did not contribute to the IARC guidelines, a number of my colleagues, for whom I have great respect, did. They include Cynthia Chavez Lamar, Brian Vallo, Jim Enote, Jason Garcia, and Bruce Bernstein, among many other highly regarded community members, museum practitioners, and scholars in the field.
Pasa: You’ve told me that the Met acquired its first contemporary Native work, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith’s In The Future (1995), in 2006. Did it continue to expand its contemporary collection afterward?
PMN: Since then, we have acquired works by Joyce Growing Thunder Fogarty, Kay Walkingstick, Edgar Heap of Birds, Kent Monkman, Jodi Archambault, and Marie Watt. At this time, I am working with additional contemporary Native American artists to highlight their work in several of our upcoming exhibitions.
Pasa: What exactly is your role at the institution?
PMN: My official title is associate curator of Native American art, which means I oversee the American Wing’s Native American art collection. My responsibilities include, but are not limited to, the public presentation, scholarship, cataloging, and conservation care of this art. I work with an amazing team of people at the Met: technicians, designers, collection managers, conservators, and administrators who have all dedicated their careers to this important work. This is a team effort. I feel very fortunate to be working with this team and to be doing what I love — engaging with, caring for, and writing about Native American art while working with Native American and Indigenous communities on a daily basis.
Pasa: What are some of the exhibitions and programs currently in development? And is your own Purépecha heritage a factor in your role at the museum?
PMN: Currently, I am working on the upcoming Art of Native America, 2021 installation rotation. In this rotation, there will be stronger representation of artists and artworks from the New York region, including three contemporary artists, Marie Watt (Seneca), Courtney Leonard (Shinnecock), and Joe Baker (Lenape-Delaware). I have enjoyed building connections with all three artists to learn about their communities, creative processes, and their priorities for exhibiting their work.
As a Purépecha Indian woman, with ancestral roots in Mexico and the Southwestern United States., I am a guest in the New York region. It’s very important to me to acknowledge my visitor status in this place. Respecting the original communities who are still very present and who call New York home is integral to who I am as an Indigenous woman and to my work as a scholar of Native art.
I am also the designated point person for NAGPRA related issues, which involves collaboration and building respectful partnerships with source communities. Collection evaluations and deaccessions are all integral to working with Native American collections. I take this part of my job very seriously. It’s thoughtful work that requires great sensitivity, patience, and respect. ◀