L.A. Wins Bid for American Indian Art : Collection: The county’s Natural History Museum will receive 400 contemporary pieces as a gift. The artworks, assembled as a touring exhibit, were displayed there in 1988.


Christmas came early this year for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County with an announcement that it had received a gift of 400 contemporary artworks by American Indian artists. Recent examples of fine beadwork, woodwork, silver, basketry and weaving from 93 Indian tribes are included in the collection, which was assembled with funds from the American Can Co. Foundation under the auspices of the American Federation of Arts.

“We are extremely pleased. This will bring for the first time a comprehensive collection of contemporary Native American art to Los Angeles,” museum director Craig C. Black said. The encyclopedic collection covers a broad sweep of territory, from Alaska and the northwest coast of Canada to the southeastern United States, he noted.

The Natural History Museum in Exposition Park has collected American Indian art since its opening in 1913, but the gift gives “a big boost” to a plan to bring the collection up to date in a new exhibition space, Black said. “The contemporary work complements the older material in our collection and really adds a new dimension,” he said.

The announcement of the gift marks the climax of a long-term project undertaken to answer the question, “Does a traditional American Indian art exist today?” according to Serena Rattazzi, director of the American Federation of Arts. The New York-based federation decided to demonstrate that American Indian tribal cultures had not only survived but remained healthy by assembling and documenting a collection of works by living artists.


Under terms of a grant to the federation from the American Can Co. Foundation, Ralph T. Coe, a world authority on American Indian art, traveled extensively and purchased prime works from individual artists. He also curated an exhibition of the collection, “Lost and Found Traditions: Native American Art 1965-1985,” which traveled to nine museums. Opening in 1986 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and closing in 1989 at the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Ga., the show appeared at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County in 1988.

The ultimate goal of the project was to find a permanent home for the collection, Rattazzi said. Earlier this year the organization solicited applications from museums that had demonstrated an interest in collecting American Indian art. Forty-three institutions requested guidelines and 20 of them submitted applications, she said.

Declining to name applicants, Rattazzi said they included large museums with varied collections as well as smaller institutions that specialize in American Indian material. “We had applicants from art museums, natural history museums and science museums from all geographic areas,” she said.

The Southwest Museum, which is well known for its American Indian art collections, might have seemed a more logical recipient of the gift in Los Angeles, but the chronically underfunded private museum did not file an application for the collection.


A plan for the Natural History Museum to absorb Southwest Museum was abandoned in 1987 when it set off outraged protests by community groups led by City Councilman Richard Alatorre. The museum has subsequently struggled for its life in a Spanish-style building on Mt. Washington.

Citing the Southwest Museum’s ongoing difficulties with funding and facilities, chief curator Kathleen Whitaker said: “We have to look at how we can properly maintain and care for the collection we have before adding to it. We can accept gifts of a few pieces, but a collection of 400 objects is a big responsibility.” Whitaker applauded the project, however, and said the gift will be “a wonderful resource” for Los Angeles.

A panel composed of Coe; Gilbert Edelson, counsel to the American Federation of Arts; J. David Farmer, director of the federation’s fine-arts exhibition department; Allen Wardwell, an expert in American Indian art, and William Woodside, retired American Can Co. chairman, reviewed all 20 proposals and narrowed the field to three, Rattazzi said.

The Natural History Museum emerged as the unanimous choice in a Dec. 5 meeting. “It was a very difficult decision, but the Natural History Museum had everything going for it,” Rattazzi said.


“The museum’s application thoughtfully addressed all the points we had outlined in our call for proposals. The committee was pleased that the collection would go to a major urban museum in an inner-city area in Southern California, which has the largest concentration of American Indians of any urban center in the United States,” she said.

Another selling point was that “the gift would have a real impact on the museum’s collection and not just add to the wealth that was already there,” Rattazzi said.

Black said he was stunned when he received Rattazzi’s call, advising him of the gift. “I thought that there would be so much competition, our chances would be very slim,” he said.

The museum’s success is a tribute to curator Margaret Hardin, whose work on the proposal and whose professional standing helped to bring the “Lost and Found Traditions” collection to Los Angeles, Black said.


About half the collection is currently in storage and will be transferred to the museum after the first of the year. The other half, which is touring Europe in a scaled-down version of the exhibition that traveled throughout the United States, will arrive in Los Angeles somewhat later.

Selections from the collection will be on permanent view on a rotating basis in the museum’s new Times Mirror Hall of Native American Cultures, a 10,000-square-foot exhibition space that is being refurbished and is scheduled to open in late 1992. Funds from the museum’s Hearst Endowment will be used to acquire new pieces, ensuring a continually updated representation of contemporary Native American artistic traditions, Black said.