The same level of attention one might pay toward a rare piece of Redlands Art Pottery or that lovely sculpture by Alberto Giacometti you just picked up at auction can easily be paid toward an historic Two Grey Hills saddle blanket or a John Suazo Pueblo Indian family in Colorado pink alabaster. It’s all about care and attention to detail.

That’s the bottom line a panel of experts will express during a virtual discussion titled “Handle With Care: Stewardship of Indigenous Art in Your Home.” The event is today (Jan. 6), 6-7 p.m. via Zoom, and is part of the “Millicent Unplugged: Virtual Panel Discussion Series” produced by the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos.

One of the moderators for the event will be MRM’s Director of Education Karen Chertok, who along with Denver-based museum volunteer Sara Frances, will be speaking with guest panelists Dr. Julie Pearson-Little Thunder, author of “A Life Made with Artists: Doris Littrell and the Oklahoma Native Art Movement;” Gene Billie, a well known Diné jeweler and silversmith; and Dr. Michelle Lanteri, who is the curator of collections and exhibitions at MRM. 

The series began in April 2020. “We wanted to do something for Earth Day,” Chertok said. The COVID-19 pandemic had forced the museum, as it did with many cultural institutions at the time, to open only a few days a week. “We had learned a lot about virtual platforms while we were closed and decided ‘Let’s just do this.’ So, we had a virtual event called ‘Women of Wisdom’ for Earth Day and that was really successful and it was a lot of fun.”

The idea of having live online discussions with local artists seemed to fit with what the museum needed to do while everything was shut down, namely, to re-engage with their audience. After talking it over, Chertok said the idea of calling the series “Millicent Unplugged” felt right, so by October the staff put together the first event under that name and each is now offered via Zoom on the first Thursday of each month.

Among the tips the experts plan to pass along during today’s event will likely have to do with display, handling, lighting, and even the quality of the air circulating around the works. 

Lanteri, as the MRM curator, knows what should be done and what should be avoided when caring for these artworks. For one, clean hands are vital to keeping from passing on damaging skin oils. One can use cloth or nitrile cloves, but they lack the tactile sense you may need to feel the condition of a piece, especially historic pottery. Direct sunlight should always be avoided, especially here in the Southwest, because it can fade colors and damage fibers. But, in display, ultraviolet lighting or glass (available in many framing shops) works well in most cases. Very expensive works should also live in an environmentally controlled environment to avoid dust and other damaging gases and particles. 

“Always seek acid-free materials for mounting, framing, and storing artworks. If a material must be in contact with the artwork, you always want it to be acid-free,” Lanteri said. “As long as the artwork does not have sensitive areas or loose pigments/threads, artist paintbrushes can be used for dusting. You can aim the brush/dust into a gauze-covered vacuum nozzle.”

For plastics, she said, “Look for polyethylene and mylar for clear sheeting, and polyethylene comes as a foam wrap and as blocks that can be used for padding. You can cover any padding with unbleached muslin that’s been washed once in a machine. If your artworks are textiles, never machine-wash them and do not take them to the dry-cleaners. You can use a brush-to- gauze-covered vacuum nozzle technique, usually for a spot treatment. I’d recommend sending textiles for professional cleaning to Textival — textival.com."

While bubble wrap is widely used for packing and shipping, Lanteri recommends that it be used only as a second layer over a polyethylene plastic. “You also want the bubble side to be facing outwards. Polystyrene and acrylic plastic bins can also be used for storage.”

Some excellent resources for collections care can be found online at:

• Canadian Conservation Institute

• National Park Service

“The discussion will center upon the most important aspect of giving, receiving, and collecting Native American artworks: how to care for newly- or soon-to-be-acquired Native American art. How do you safely store, clean, display, wear, or ship Native artworks? Good stewardship of artworks so lovingly purchased, whether for your own collection or to give as a gift, enhances and preserves the value while honoring the human spirit in which it was created,” a museum announcement reads.

That last statement is one of the aspects one might not discover in any presentation about caring for historic or valuable works of art, which generally are objectively approached as secular objects no matter their origin. Within the category of Native art, however, any object that has questionable provenance (record of ownership) is something to stay away from — especially if the seller is a third party — not only because some are protected by law but also because the maker and its cultural context deserve a measure of respect. 

“Those are a living being,” Lanteri said. “So, they need to breathe and be displayed in a way so they aren’t suffocated … I think a big part of that is asking questions of the artist, when you’re buying the artwork, especially if you’re buying it directly from them.” Most of the time, she said, the artist is more than willing to talk about the piece, what it means, why it can be sold? Those are important answers to find out.

On the panel are experts who can answer these and many other important questions about how best to take care of Indigenous artworks.

Dr. Julie Pearson-Little Thunder, for instance, is a visiting assistant professor with the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program at Oklahoma State University. 

She was the project lead for the Oklahoma Native Artist series, featuring interviews with Native artists, gallery owners and collectors, a museum bio states. Little Thunder has published more than a dozen articles on Native artists for Southwest Art and Oklahoma Today as well as scholarly articles on Native theater for theater journals and anthologies. 

In addition to her book, “A Life Made with Artists: Doris Littrell and the Oklahoma Native Art Movement,” she has written several plays, a documentary on Chilocco Indian Agricultural School, and a screenplay based on her husband’s first years selling art on the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma at the height of the Oklahoma Native American art craze.

Another expert on the panel is self-taught Diné silversmith Gene Billie. He is a member of the Native Jewelers Society and a tireless advocate of Native arts and artists through the Council for Indigenous Arts and Culture, his museum bio states. He works with traditional stone and metalsmithing tools and his work reflects the spontaneity and simplicity of the flow of creation.  Billie grew up in the Navajo Nation and now makes his home in Albuquerque.

Then, of course, there is Lanteri, who has spent a great deal of time developing an intimate knowledge of the wide variety of works in the Millicent Rogers Museum collection. 

She earned her doctorate in Native American art history at the University of Oklahoma and master’s degree in art history and museum studies at New Mexico State University. Lanteri has served in curatorial roles at the Couse-Sharp Historic Site, Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, the Institute of American Indian Arts, University Museum and University Art Gallery at New Mexico State University, and GreenHill Center for North Carolina Art. She is also a contributor to First American Art Magazine. 

Participation in the webinar is free. Register online at https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_fs0BTCihTzGf2RvGpBIAqw.

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