Mellon Grant Revolutionizes Indigenous Studies at UVA
In 2016, UVA Art History Professor Francesca Fiorani, then also serving as Associate Dean for the Arts and Humanities, led an effort to revolutionize Indigenous studies at the University of Virginia, spearheading a successful grant proposal that would ultimately bring in $815,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
In addition, the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and the Provost's Office would jointly add $1,066,000 in support, bringing the total investment in the initiative to nearly $1.9 million.
Now, five years later, the results of that support have been nothing short of transformative for the University's artistic and academic landscapes, placing UVA among the leaders in a field that continues to dominate the international cultural scene – and setting the stage for an expansion of Indigenous studies offerings across the University.
"I think that when this grant was formulated," said Henry Skerritt, curator of the Indigenous Arts of Australia at Kluge-Ruhe, who came to the Kluge-Ruhe as part of the Mellon Foundation grant, "it was extraordinarily prescient in that it recognized that the world was changing and that Indigenous ways of knowing were not a fringe, or niche field of study, but an essential piece to understanding the nation and the world in which we live. The amazing thing about the grant is that it recognized a moment that was still coming. Now, after five years, here we are at the center of a shifting global conversation."
The University's world-renowned Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection has put the artistic side of this conversation at the forefront thanks to its remarkable assets of Indigenous Australian artworks and intellectual leadership. Largely recognized as the most important collection of its kind outside of Australia, Kluge-Ruhe owns a stellar reputation among artists and arts leaders in Australia and throughout the international art community. "What this grant and the tireless work that has helped implement it have done," Fiorani said, "is to shine a deserving spotlight on a very rare resource closer to home. This is right here in our own backyard, and it is easy to lose sight of that with everything else happening in our day-to-day work. But what happens in that physically small but intellectually innovative museum is exported to the best places and museums all over the world."
The grant has also had a transformative effect on the work of The Fralin Museum of Art, which used its funds to hire its first-ever curator of Indigenous Arts of the Americas, Adriana Greci Green. "The funding we have received through the Mellon Foundation grant has been a game-changer in so many ways," she said.
Greci Green has reached into her vast network of Native American and First Nations artists to bring them to UVA for residencies. The artists have shared their work, expertise, and experiences with UVA students, faculty, and staff in classes and spaces across Grounds and with the larger community. Applying her collaborative curatorial practice, Greci Green organized the exhibition Reflections: Native Art Across Generations for The Fralin, inviting four prominent Native artists to show their work and engage directly with pieces from the museum's permanent collection. "I have been involved in many national and international conversations, including through my participation in the groundbreaking touring exhibition Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, which originated at the Minneapolis Institute of Art," she said, "and, as Henry has mentioned, it all speaks to this moment we are in for Indigenous arts." The Mellon grant provided her with the opportunity to build these bridges to UVA. "I had the great luxury of bringing in these artists who are superstars and are now in the press all of the time, people like Kay WalkingStick, Wendy Red Star, Cara Romero, DY Begay. It has been wonderful to hear from our audiences," Green said, "as well as my colleagues at The Fralin about what a huge impact these artists have had, and how they have been able to meet artists they had never heard about and now see their names everywhere in the art world." Greci Green also invited Patricia Norby, the new curator of Native American art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, into her class and professor Beth Turner's class. "It's another example of us being in the moment we are in and being able to share with our students and visitors these important conversations that are happening right now."
One way the grant has done this over the past four years is to integrate not only the art but Indigenous history and culture into the academic and cultural life of the University. "This project," Fiorani said, "has worked on so many different levels. One of those is to support individual faculty members who were working on themes of indigeneity. Some of these faculty members were able to expand their own research, and others used the grant support to create new courses."
The grant has given faculty more freedom and allowed them to create meaningful conversations and remarkably unique, hands-on experiences with students. "We were able to facilitate a number of close intellectual and practical interactions between our students and faculty and these artists from the other side of the world," Fiorani said.
The wide swath of history and culture covered by Indigenous art and artists have also allowed the two museum curators to reach beyond the Department of Art, where they have been teaching courses, and beyond the arts in general. "I am interested in plugging Native art wherever it can fit in any class, not just in contemporary art classes," Greci Green said. So, for example, she brought filmmaker and visual artist Shelley Niro into Alan Taylor's history class. "Niro is a Mohawk artist from Canada whose rise in the art world has also been stratospheric, and she and the composer she works with came into his class to discuss Mohawk history."
The visiting artists have played an important role in breaking down barriers between cultures and traditions. "I always think of Joyce Naliyabu and Raymond Bulambula," says Skerritt. "Here are these two remarkable artists who had never left Australia and who spoke very limited English. I will never forget Joyce visiting a Women's Studies classroom, which was set up in a very traditional way. The first thing she did was get students to move all the desks away and sit in a circle where she taught them to twine pandanus fibers to form the beginning of a mat or basket. There was a young woman sitting next to Joyce who was really struggling with her pandanus, and Joyce reached out and held her hands while she wound it. Of course, you could ask, what is that student learning there? But to me, barriers were broken the moment those hands touched. This dissolution of preconceived notions of teaching and learning and how knowledge is shared and crossing that boundary is about the most mind-expanding thing we can offer students in a classroom setting. It was truly extraordinary to watch."
Catherine Walden, administrator of the Mellon Indigenous Arts Program, remembers dropping in on a 2019 summer session in which two artists from Gapuwiyak worked alongside students teaching them how to dye pandanus fibers using both natural roots and pigments extracted from manufactured materials such as crepe paper. "As they worked, the artists shared details about their lives, their families, their homes, their traditions, and I remember thinking how amazing it was for these students to be so close to these phenomenal Aboriginal Australian artists whose experiences were so different from their own. The grant provided an opportunity for connection that is very rare. I know the students cherished that."
Fiorani points out that the grant and the advances made could not have happened without the support provided by the Provost's Office and the Deans of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
The Mellon grant, said Walden, served as an essential catalyst to bring together faculty and the administration. "I think it encouraged faculty already working on individual projects related to Indigenous studies to come together, and it has inspired many to work toward an Indigenous studies academic program and ultimately, a center for Indigenous studies at UVA," Fiorani said. "When we started, we had a handful of people coming together, and after only a couple of years, there were 80-90 people in these rooms. That is the difference in creating a field of study at a university versus having one or two faculty members working on specific themes."
A third group benefitting from exposure to the Indigenous arts universe, Skerritt said, are those who are now able to view it as closer and more accessible than they had ever considered before. "We are all humans, tackling intellectual questions from different directions, and this allows us to say maybe there is a new kind of space to bring these questions together. This is about breaking down barriers to Indigenous studies, which is now an entrée into an integral part of the world. It is so important that every student at UVA is aware that they are on Monacan land and that there are Indigenous epistemologies that can inform their study and their ways of tackling the biggest intellectual questions of the time."
In addition to bridge-building between continents and cultures that span tens of thousands of miles, the program has helped to strengthen the relationship between two of our region's premier cultural institutions. Last year, The Fralin Museum of Art and Kluge-Ruhe partnered for the first time to show "The Inside World," a remarkable exhibition showcasing 112 memorial poles by 55 artists from Aboriginal communities in the tropical northern region of Australia known as Arnhem Land. "These two museums," Fiorani said, "despite being geographically distant, were able to cooperate so effectively on research and public programming, one can only imagine the benefits they will bring to the local and university communities and the commonwealth more broadly down the road; they could be united in a new complex."
The grant's impact has gone beyond the exhibition of art at The Fralin and the Kluge-Ruhe. Through an innovative paid internship program with the two UVA museums, it is laying the groundwork for change in how Indigenous art will be shared in museums around the world by supporting candidates from underrepresented groups in the curatorial world. The program extended beyond the UVA walls and welcomed students from around the country. The students were brought in and immediately treated like colleagues, Skerrit said. "I told them, 'You are not learning to be a curator. You are a curator. You are going to create an exhibition, and you are going to have the agency to guide what that is.'"
Some museums, he said, are not always quick to recognize how these diverse voices can open doors to the arts and create new audiences. "When we opened Songs of the Secret Country and With Her Hands, the two exhibitions curated by Mellon curatorial interns, they drew the most diverse audiences of any art event I had ever seen in Charlottesville. The interns were quick to realize that Indigenous art was a lot more than just pretty pictures. They were political as well, and they represented their lived experiences as members of underrepresented communities. So rather than saying we did a great job of bringing them in, I would say they did a great job of helping us broaden our message and open our doors to a broader audience, which is what we are striving to do every day. I'm really proud of what we as an institution were able to do by letting these talented young people guide our work."
Reverberations of this program are already being felt around the art world. The students keep in close contact with Skerritt and his Kluge-Ruhe colleagues and with Greci Green, and have gone on to graduate school at Columbia, Maryland, Colorado, and to intern at museums like the Whitney Museum of American Art. "It's an honor," Skerrit said, "to be a part of these young people's journey to success."
The story of the Mellon Foundation grant's impact will go beyond what happens at UVA. "I think this grant set the stage for introducing a new perspective and establishing a different way of doing things," Greci Green said. "I look back, and I think about the struggles we used to have to push forward this kind of work. Now I feel like the younger generation of curators has really embraced it and, in many ways, demand that we work this way. That is gratifying for all of us who have been toiling at this for a while, and I think the Mellon Foundation and this grant have a lot to do with that." She recently launched an online exhibition that was her final project under the grant's umbrella, an international collaboration that focuses on Indigenous artists of Brazil: The Indigenous Benches of Brazil.
The success of the grant and the art and the scholarship it inspired has many at UVA excited about the future of Indigenous studies on Grounds. The timing for such an initiative is fortuitous in several ways. "I think that with UVA moving toward being more inclusive," Walden said, "and more sensitive to its own difficult history, this grant has helped ensure that Indigenous experiences and expertise are recognized as a crucial part of the story.”
The hope among many is to expand not just Indigenous arts but to create a robust Indigenous academic studies program, and hopefully, a Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies at UVA in the near future. Skerritt says the question of whether a university has an Indigenous Studies department will become obsolete. "In the long run, it will be like asking if there should be a physics department or a philosophy department because it is that unique a field of study. It offers a totally unique way of seeing the world, but at the same time offers new perspectives."
"I think over the past five years, we have shown the profound effect that this field can have on students, faculty, and campus life," Skerrit said. "I would hope that we are now part of what UVA is, and now it is a part that needs a little bit of nurturing to grow into something really special and really unique." The effort, he says, will need continued relationship building, including further outreach to Virginia tribal leaders, but it also offers a remarkable chance for the Charlottesville and UVA communities. "Our history on this planet goes back 50 or 60,000 years," he said. "And now we have this opportunity to create this big broad way of understanding, and that gives us an opportunity to explore the whole of the world."
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