The Shelburne Museum has announced a new curatorship in Native American art, funded by the well-known Henry Luce Foundation.
The museum appointed Victoria Sunnergren, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Delaware, to hold the position.
“I am delighted to join Shelburne as the first Associate Curator of Native American Art,” Sunnergren wrote in a press release. “I look forward to my role in bringing Indigenous art and material culture to Shelburne’s audiences and amplifying the Indigenous voices represented in the collection.”
According to Thomas Denenberg, director of the museum, the curatorship is an effort to add more cultural diversity and representation of Indigenous art in the museum’s collections.
Sunnergren’s first project — “Built From the Earth: Pueblo Pottery From the Anthony and Teressa Perry Collection” — will feature about 40 pieces of pottery from eight of the Pueblo communities in New Mexico. The pottery will come from the Acoma, Cochiti, Laguna, Santa Ana, Santo Domingo, San Ildefonso, Zia, and Zuni Pueblo communities.
Sunnergren is collaborating with a group of Indigenous scholars to interpret the pottery for the exhibit, which will be on display from June to October of this year, Denenberg said.
While Sunnergren will be the first curator at the Shelburne specifically focused on Native American art, the museum has been aiming to increase Indigenous representation in its exhibits for some time now, Denenberg said. The museum began four years ago with a Native American advisory committee, and then received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts to create a second cultural competency group.
The museum used to have a collection of baskets crafted by Alaskan Indigenous artists, which were acquired by the museum’s founder, Electra Havemeyer Webb, from well-known artist Louis Comfort Tiffany in the 1940s. Due to concerns that the items were not displayed in a culturally appropriate manner — the baskets from a number of different tribes were grouped as the same in an exhibit with various other cultures — they were taken down in the 1990s.
“It was just grouping them all together … saying every one of one group is all the same,” Denenberg said of the former exhibit.
Since then, museum curators have worked with Abenaki people on projects over the years, but have never had a formal Abenaki collection on display. Denenberg attributed that to the fact that the art and pottery of Woodlands tribes, such as the Abenaki, have not survived as well over time as that of Southwestern tribes, for climate reasons.
The museum does have a practice, however, of recognizing that it sits on unceded Abenaki land when new collections are installed.
“The Abenaki act as hosts, if you will, when the material from another tribe or another culture comes onto their land,” Denenberg said.
According to Don Stevens, chief of the Nulhegan band of the Coosuk-Abenaki Nation, the Shelburne’s new curatorship is an exciting way to combine Sunnergren’s knowledge of curation with the Indigenous items that are part of multiple tribes’ cultures.
“I think it’s very exciting to have a curator paying attention specifically to Indigenous art and their stewardship,” Stevens told VTDigger.
Stevens added that he does not believe it is an issue that Sunnergren herself is not of Native American descent. Rather, he said, it can be valuable to have a neutral person pulling together items from a number of tribes.
“It is never a bad thing to have curation as long as it is done in partnership with the communities they are stewarding the objects from,” Stevens added.
Sunnergren’s curatorship at the Shelburne Museum is one of a series of positions that the Henry Luce Foundation is sponsoring at museums across the country. “They are doing this with a number of museums to create a cohort, or generation, of Native American curators,” Denenberg said.
The foundation is funding the curatorship at the Shelburne Museum for three years. After that, the museum intends to endow the position, as it has done with specific curatorships in the past.
Sunnergren, a graduate of Florida State University and the University of Delaware with degrees in museum studies and art history, was selected from a national search that the museum conducted. She will join a staff of three other curators at the museum, who focus on design and decorative arts, painting and textiles, and contemporary projects, respectively.
The Shelburne Museum will reopen for the 2023 season in May, and the “Built from the Earth” exhibit will be on display beginning June 24.