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Three Museum Directors On The New Plains Indians Art Exhibit At The Nelson

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Beth Lipoff
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KCUR

The exhibition The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, now at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., marks an international collaboration, years in the making. Three museums on two different continents, featuring nearly 140 objects from North American and European collections. 

Julián Zugazagoitia, director and CEO of the Nelson-Atkins, says this builds on a museum tradition, started in the 1970s with Sacred Circles, of bringing Native American artwork to a larger audience.

The Plains Indians exhibition, curated by the Nelson's senior curator of American Indian Art Gaylord Torrence, includes works ranging from a 2,000-year-old stone pipe to beaded designer shoes from 2011. It premiered in April at musée du quai Branly in Paris. 

Museum president Stéphane Martin told Up to Date host Steve Kraske that for the French audience, it was "something very new." According to Martin, people "queued for hours" to see the show.

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Credit Buffalo Bill Center of the West / Adolf Spohr Collection, Gift of Larry Sheerin
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Adolf Spohr Collection, Gift of Larry Sheerin
Man’s Shirt, Oglala Lakota (Teton Sioux) artists, South Dakota, 1865. Native tanned leather, pigment, human hair, horsehair, glass beads, porcupine quills, 58 x 42 ½ inches.

"For historical reasons, the French and European audience have been exposed more to [American Indian] art from the Northwest coast," says Martin. "But the Plains artists's contemporary art was almost unknown before this exhibition in Europe.

"For me, personally, and for a lot of people who came to see this exhibition in Paris, it was extremely striking to see how this art is still alive and doing wonderful stuff." 

Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, is also a member of the Pawnee Nation. There are several works in the exhibition that, he says, "just blew me away." 

"One was a shirt that was worn by [Lakota chief] Red Cloud ... it's of extraordinary quality," says Gover. "It's one of those pieces where you look at [it] and wonder, 'What must he have been thinking when he got this, and when he put it on?'"

The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, runs through January 11 at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., then travels to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 

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Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.