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Steamboat Magazine

Divergent. Inspiring. Provocative.

03/31/2023 08:00AM ● By Deb Olsen
(Photo: “The New West” art exhibit at Steamboat Art Museum displays art by Indigenous and Western artists. Bronze sculpture, "Silence," by Sandy Graves. Photo courtesy Trey Mullen.)

From Steamboat Magazine Mountain Edition 2023.

Until 1962, the world had a preconceived notion of what Indigenous art should entail.  Scenes from everyday life – primarily buffalo and deer – were expected. Native American flatstyle painting, which emphasizes contour and shape without shadow and dimension, was de rigueur. 

That all changed with the birth of the Institute of American Indian Arts 61 years ago. Innovative administrators, acclaimed instructors and a handpicked group of talented students converged in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with a common vision: push the boundaries, create something new, and keep it real. The synergy created at IAIA amidst an era of social unrest, war and President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier resulted in the birth of an art form: contemporary Western art.

“The time was the 1960s, when social change was rocking the world. The place was IAIA in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where a few major talents upset the status quo, blew the doors off the curio shop, and buried the Noble Savage forever,” explains author Suzanne Deats in her definitive work, “ndn art: Contemporary Native American Art.” 

Work by these artists forms the core of SAM’s winter exhibit, “The New West: The Rise of Contemporary Indigenous and Western Art.” The exhibit traces this art form from its IAIA roots to the present, and is SAM’s most ambitious project to date. 

“I find this a very exciting and fascinating exhibit in the diversity of the artists, and the genre. These brilliant artists came together to create this work that really redefined contemporary Western art, and we’re able to tell the story,” says SAM Executive Director Betse Grassby. 

The story begins with internationally acclaimed artists  Fritz Scholder, Allan Houser and Charles and Otellie Loloma, who were faculty members at IAIA in its early years. Among the first students were such celebrated artists as T.C. Cannon, Earl Biss, Kevin Red Star, Linda Lomahaftewa and Doug Hyde. Together, these early IAIA students so profoundly changed the direction of Indigenous art that they have been dubbed “the miracle generation.” 

At some point, the students may have eclipsed, or at least influenced their teachers. Of the ‘60s IAIA artists, Cannon may be the most well-known. “Red Tipi Warrior” is the signature piece of the  SAM exhibit. Cannon, who enlisted in the military shortly after graduating from the IAIA, was a Vietnam War hero. During the Tet Offensive, he earned two Bronze Stars as a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division. Critics say his military service impacted his style, and he was prolific following his return to civilian life. He and Scholder presented a two-man show at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Collection of Fine Arts in 1972. Cannon’s career was cut short in 1978, when he was killed in a car accident. 

For decades, the work of Indigenous artists was largely under-appreciated, often exhibited in natural history museums alongside bone and pottery shards. That began to change in the late 20th century, when nationally renowned art museums created homes and built exhibits showcasing the work of Indigenous artists. 

Since its tumultuous beginnings, contemporary Western art has spread around the world. Artists like Logan Maxwell Hagege,  Kim Wiggins, Donna Howell-Sickles, Duke Beardsley, Nelson Boren, Maeve Eichelberger, Sandy Graves and Billy Schenck, whose 21st century work expands on contemporary foundations, are among those with work in the SAM exhibit. 

Not unlike the convergence of talent that led the IAIA  artists to international fame in the 1960s, the SAM exhibit would not have happened without a serendipitous confluence  
of integral parts. 

Guest curator Seth Hopkins, director of the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia – named by USA Today as the best art museum in America three years in a row – was crucial to “The New West.” Hopkins has been an adviser and collaborator with SAM for much of its 16-year existence. “This exhibit seeks to make visitors aware of the perceived boundaries of Western art, show how those boundaries are being redrawn, and attract new audiences to the museum,” Hopkins says. 

The determination and vision of SAM board member Jim Heckbert, who spearheaded the project, was a central force. Institute of American Indian Arts board member Barbara 
Ells, who has a residence in Steamboat and who is one of the sponsors of the exhibit, introduced SAM to the work of the IAIA and lent her knowledge and connections to “The New West.”

Another critical component was the Tia Collection in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which lent more than a dozen pieces to the exhibit – plus a wealth of knowledge. Private collectors from throughout the country also lent pieces to SAM.  

“It’s so exciting to be bringing in pieces of this size and scope from notable museums and collections throughout the country,” Grassby says. “They are pieces that Steamboat audiences might otherwise never get a chance to see.”

The exhibit takes SAM in a new direction, offering contemporary art that represents a facet of the West the museum has not previously explored. “Different is what you find herein,” Hopkins explains. “So browse not only with your eyes open, but your mind, heart and soul as well. Observe, explore and question your feelings. Be inspired or be turned off; either is fine.  Just have a reaction. You owe it to the artists and the art.” 

"The New West: The Rise of Contemporary Indigenous and Western Art" will be on display at Steamboat Art Museum until Saturday, April 15. 

Steamboat Art Museum, 801 Lincoln Ave., is open Tuesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m.- 6 p.m, and Saturdays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit