Art Guide Northwest

More Than "Cowboys and Indians:" Haub Family Collection Begins New Era at TAM

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The opening of the new Haub Family Galleries, a 16,000-square-foot addition to Tacoma Art Museum, is a huge watershed moment in the history of Pacific Northwest art museums. The enormous generosity of a Germany-based family of Tacoma residents (site of their summer home) has instantly put TAM on the national map of 10 art museums that specialize in western American art, what was once referred to as "cowboys and Indians" art. Building on the museum's already strong holdings in 19th- and 20th-century American and Pacific Northwest American art, the Haub Family Collection of Western American Art consists of 295 artworks dating from 1797 to the present (They will join 4,450 other artworks in the permanent collection).

Although only 130 examples are on view in the initial installation, they are seen to maximum effectiveness in the four galleries of the spacious new wing designed by Tom Kundig of the award-winning Seattle architecture firm Olson Kundig. Known for his sleek use of dark steel and glass, Kundig has ingeniously combined aspects of tribal longhouses and railway boxcars, fusing two chief components of westward territorial expansion that triggered much of the art on view.

The result of decades of collecting and European-style connoisseurship, the gift is a medley of little works by big names and big works by hitherto largely unknown artists. Visitors experience a steep learning curve that is pleasurable, exhilarating and, above all, thought-provoking. The view of western art reflected in the Haub Galleries is similar to that of other founding institutions which TAM now rivals: the Thomas Gilcrease Museum at the University of Tulsa; the Rockwell Museum in Corning, NY; Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, WY and the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. TAM tries to intersperse Native American art alongside western art and includes many examples by contemporary Native American artists such as Marie Watt and James Lavadour as well.

Bierstadt: Departure of an Indian War Party

Albert Bierstadt, Departure of an Indian War Party, 1865. Oil on board, 17.25 x 24.25 inches. Tacoma Art Museum, Haub Family Collection, Promised gift of Erivan and Helga Haub.

Clymer: Late Arrivals -- Green River Rendezvous

John Clymer, Late Arrivals—Green River Rendezvous, 1989. Oil on canvas, 24" x 48". Tacoma Art Museum, Haub Family Collection, Promised gift of Erivan and Helga Haub.

Stanley: Scene on the Columbia River

John Mix Stanley, Scene on the Columbia River, 1852, Oil on canvas, 17.125 x 21.125 inches. Tacoma Art Museum, Haub Family Collection, Promised gift of Erivan and Helga Haub.

Seen in early paintings by many of the Haub collection artists, Native Americans were at first revered and idolized as examples of what Romantic French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau called the "noble savage" but then gradually were documented and "captured" by painters and, especially, photographers, intent on forestalling "extinction" of a human species.

However, arriving in the 21st century, such art, as the essays in the beautiful exhibit catalogue point out, is now seen very differently. This academic trend seeks to address the reality of genocide occurring at the same time as extravagant and lucrative attempts to publicize what pioneer Seattle photographer Edward S. Curtis called "the vanishing race." Away from the nationalistic fervor of Manifest Destiny, the Haub collection, according to new curator Laura F. Fry, "avoids images of violence and battle scenes. The Haubs are the children of World War Two; this means they want to respect ethnic and ethnographic differences [of the Old West]."

"In many ways, yes," Frye continued, "it was a genocide and, at the hands of the US government, absolutely horrible things were perpetrated, but the artworks in the Haub collection can help us understand the plight of Native Americans and how, while they were being celebrated for certain things, they were also being destroyed."

For example, When the Plains Were His (1906) by Montana artist Charles M. Russell is a wonderful depiction of young braves on horseback—already set in the past tense by the artist's title. Wanata, Great Chief of the Sioux (1826) by Charles Bird King is an extremely rare early royal portrait. (Much of King's work was destroyed in a fire at the Smithsonian Institution in 1865). Other works by giants of the era, such as Albert Bierstadt's Departure of an Indian War Party (1865), point fingers of predatory danger at indigenous peoples soon to be flushed out and extinguished like quail exiting protective cover.

Besides Charlie Russell, Frederic Remington is probably the most popular of the late 19th-century western artists. His bronzes sell at auction for millions of dollars. TAM's new Remington painting, Conjuring Back the Buffalo (c. 1889), comments on another wildlife extinction wrought by Manifest Destiny, the slaughter of buffaloes. A young shirtless brave raises a buffalo skull in a baleful prayer. Again, works in the Haub collection reinforce the sad futility of such gestures.

Georgia O'Keeffe has also attracted huge public attention since the rise of the feminist movement in the 1970s. In fact, she is the subject of the new temporary exhibit at TAM, "Eloquent Objects: Georgia O'Keeffe and Still-Life Art in New Mexico" (March 15 - June 7). The Haub collection O'Keeffe, Piñons with Cedar (1956), is an exquisite example of her blend of nature and abstraction. It joins many other mid- and late-20th-century landscapes such as those of Maynard Dixon (Desert Valley, 1922); Curt Walters (Supreme Moment of Evening, 1993); and Bill Schenck (South of the San Juan River, 2002).

In turn, these pictures enter into a dialogue in the new galleries with perhaps the most important American landscape acquisition, Thomas Cole's Green River, Wyoming (1907), a late work with stunning geological scenery, its tribal hunting party shrunk to a minuscule scale, long overpowered by the placid river, the looming buttes and the inexorable invasion of settlers.

All this has been the accomplishment of the museum's director, Stephanie A. Stebich, and her spearheading of a $17 million Campaign for Tacoma Art Museum including contributions toward the new wing and the redesign of the entry plaza. Within the same fiscal pool, $2.5 million has been set aside for Northwest art acquisitions. Other monies came from the State of Washington, the City of Tacoma, and numerous corporate and other private donors besides the Haubs.

But is repackaging "cowboy and Indian" art into more politically correct clothing going to be enough? Curator Fry hopes so, but to be safe, TAM is also funding new research through the 2015 Haub fellows program and a national symposium on the collection this spring. Fry concluded, "We've learned more in the last ten or twenty years about this art than just its popular history." With the Haub collection newly installed, TAM and the region are now part of that cultural search and celebration.

MATTHEW KANGAS, Art Guide Northwest consulting editor, has written extensively about American art. He lives in Seattle and is a fourth-generation descendant of central Washington pioneer ranchers. Comprising a collective history of Northwest art, his essay and review anthologies are available from Midmarch Arts Press, New York.

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