(Witness by Marie Watt)
Ideas about the American West, both in popular culture and in commonly accepted historical narratives, are often based on an idealized past that never was, and fail to take into account important events that actually occurred. The award-winning exhibition Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea, examines the perspectives of 48 modern and contemporary artists who offer a broader and more inclusive view of this region. The show will be on view at the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (JSMA) from September 28 to December 18, 2022.
This exhibition presents an opportunity to examine previous misconceptions, question racist clichés and highlight the multiple communities and histories that continue to form this iconic region of the United States. Working in various media, from painting and sculpture to photography and mixed media, the artists featured in the exhibition bring a nuanced and multifaceted history into view. Among the many voices and communities highlighted in this exhibition, Many Wests showcases artworks by artists who are Black, white, women, men, LGBTQ+, Native American, Asian American and Latinx. Participating artists V. Maldonado, Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, and Marie Watt will give public artists’ talks on campus while the exhibition is on view.
“The development of Many Wests reflects the partnering museums’ conversations about collecting institutions’ responsibilities to the artists, communities, and cultures that they serve, and the role of the visual arts in shaping public perception,” says Danielle Knapp, JSMA McCosh curator. “The exhibition contends that art of the American West is not confined to specific imagery or stories.”
The exhibition is organized jointly by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and four nationally accredited art museums located in some of the fastest growing cities and states in the western region of the United States. It is the culmination of a five-year exhibition partnership made possible by the Art Bridges Foundation. The partner museums are the Boise Art Museum in Idaho; the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, Oregon; the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City; and the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington. E. Carmen Ramos, former acting chief curator and curator of Latinx art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (now chief curatorial and conservation officer at The National Gallery of Art) led the collaborative curatorial effort. Many Wests has been selected for the Western Museums Association’s The Charles Redd Center for Western Studies Award for Exhibition Excellence.
“This nationally touring exhibition, organized through a deeply collaborative process with our colleagues, presents the opportunity to see the West anew through the eyes of diverse modern and contemporary artists,” said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Thanks to the generous support and encouragement from Art Bridges to think differently about how art is seen in communities across the United States, we see this as a model for both collection sharing and better understanding the rich and varied, and sometimes contradictory, stories of the American people and their histories.”
The team that organized the exhibition includes Knapp; Amy Chaloupka, curator of art at the Whatcom Museum; Melanie Fales, executive director/CEO of the Boise Art Museum, Whitney Tassie, former senior curator and curator of modern and contemporary art at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts; and Ramos, with Anne Hyland, the Art Bridges Initiative curatorial coordinator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Many Wests features artwork drawn from the permanent collections of all five collaborating museums and the exhibition will be presented at all five venues.
“Through strategies grounded in documentation, historical inquiry, cultural tradition and aesthetic and material experimentation, the artists featured in this exhibition catalyze new understandings of a region and history that is so often submerged in stereotype and distortion,” Ramos said. “Their works address the past and present, revealing that ‘the West’ has always been a place of multiple stories, experiences and cultures. Organizing this exhibition with museum partners who are based in the American West itself allows us to feature many artists with deep ties to this region. This fact makes this exhibition especially meaningful.”
The exhibition is bilingual with English and Spanish labels, and organized into three sections: Caretakers, Memory Makers and Boundary Breakers. These overarching themes illuminate the different ways artists create countervailing views of life in and the history of the American West.
Caretakers examines how artists can redefine what it means to take care of themselves, their communities and their futures. Featured artists include Ka’ila Farrell-Smith (Klamath Modoc), Awa Tsireh/Alfonso Roybal (San Ildefonso Pueblo), Patrick Nagatani and Marie Watt (Seneca). Through their work, these artists demonstrate a commitment to the stewardship of land, history, language and culture. They draw upon personal narratives, communal ties and collective experience in the American West to honor the past and shape legacies for generations to come.
Memory Makers explores how artists act as transmitters of cultural memory as they bring forth neglected histories of the West through their work. Featured artists include Jacob Lawrence, Roger Shimomura, Christina Fernandez and others who go beyond the familiar accounts of European settlers and bring to light lived histories and identities that are essential to a truthful history.
Boundary Breakers highlights artists that unsettle common beliefs that inform the popular understanding of the American West. Their representations break away from myths and assert their continued presence despite centuries of omission and erasure by mainstream culture. They question simplified notions of identity, affirm their lived experiences and refute romanticized imagery. Featured artists include Angela Ellsworth, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke/Crow), and Angel Rodríguez-Díaz.
This is one in a series of American art exhibitions created through a multi-year, multi-institutional partnership formed by the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of the Art Bridges Initiative. The multi-city national tour began at the Boise Art Museum recently closed at the Whatcom Museum. Following its time at the JSMA, Many Wests will travel to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (February 4, 2023, to June 11, 2023) and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. (July 28, 2023, to January 14, 2024).
The subject of this exhibition makes the JSMA especially cognizant of the Indigenous people who are the original stewards and protectors of this continent. The University of Oregon is located on Kalapuya Ilihi, the traditional indigenous homeland of the Kalapuya people. Following treaties between 1851 and 1855, Kalapuya people were dispossessed of their indigenous homeland by the United States government and forcibly removed to the Coast Reservation in Western Oregon. Today, descendants are citizens of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon, and continue to make important contributions in their communities, at UO, and across the land we now refer to as Oregon.
About the Smithsonian American Art Museum:
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the home to one of the most significant and inclusive collections of American art in the world. Its artworks reveal America’s rich artistic and cultural history from the colonial period to today. The museum’s main building is located at Eighth and G streets N.W., above the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metrorail station, and is open 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Its Renwick Gallery, a branch museum dedicated to contemporary craft and decorative arts, is located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW and is open 10am to 5:30pm Wednesday through Sunday Admission is free. Timed-entry passes are required to visit both locations.
About the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art:
The University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art is a premier Pacific Northwest museum for exhibitions and collections of historic and contemporary art. The mission of the museum is to enhance the University of Oregon’s academic mission and to further the appreciation and enjoyment of the visual arts for the general public. The JSMA features significant collections galleries devoted to art from China, Japan, Korea, Europe, and the Americas as well as changing special exhibition galleries. The JSMA is one of seven museums—and the only academic art museum– in Oregon accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.
The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art is located on the University of Oregon campus at 1430 Johnson Lane. Museum hours are 11am to 8pm Wednesdays, and 11am to 5pm Thursdays through Sundays. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for senior citizens. Free admission is given to ages 18 and under, college students with ID, University of Oregon faculty, staff and students and JSMA members. For information, contact the JSMA, 541-346-3027.