Sunday, September 26, 2010

Native American Art Advocate Ralph T. Coe Dies

Ralph T. Coe, 1929-2010
Photo: NY Times

Ralph T. Coe, a former art museum director and a private collector who played a central role in the revival of interest in Native American art, died September 14th at his home in Sante Fe, New Mexico. He was 81. 

Ted Coe, as he was known, was director of the The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, from 1977 until 1982. But as an art student in 1955 he was transfixed by a small Northwest coast totem pole that he spotted in a shop on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. It was the start of a 55-year fascination that Mr. Coe would share through major exhibitions he curated, his writings and eventually his donations.

“He was kind of the beginning player, enormously significant in the growth of appreciation of Native American art in the 20th century,” Julie Jones, the curator in charge of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art, said on Thursday.

After seeing that totem pole, Mr. Coe began collecting and studying Native American art, ultimately assembling a collection of more than 1,100 objects, some of which dated from prehistoric times. It included ceremonial and utilitarian pieces, among them kachina dolls, decorated blankets, war bonnets, baskets, masks, pipes, ceramic jars, weapons and lavishly beaded garments.

To gather the objects, Mr. Coe roamed from reservation to reservation in the United States and Canada, learning about their symbolism and the techniques of their artisans. He lived with the Passamaquoddy of Maine, the Winnebago of Wisconsin, the Osage of Oklahoma, the Shoshone of Wyoming and other tribes.

Mr. Coe’s research culminated in two landmark exhibitions. The first, “Sacred Circles: 2,000 Years of North American Indian Art,” opened at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1976 and traveled to the Nelson-Atkins a year later. The second, “Lost and Found Traditions: Native American Art, 1965-1985,” was the first major exhibition dedicated to the work of contemporary Native American artists. It was shown at the American Museum of Natural History and nine other museums beginning in 1986.

By then, Mr. Coe had resigned as director of the Nelson-Atkins to immerse himself in collecting and spending time on reservations.

“It was a beguiling world of color and visual excitement, of pungent and humorous people,” he said in 1986. “To me, the Indian world became the real world. I changed a pinstripe suit for a pair of jeans. I said, ‘I’m just not good anymore at 12 cocktail parties in 14 days. I want to take off.’ ”

Ralph Tracy Coe was born in Cleveland on Aug. 27, 1929, one of three children of Ralph and Dorothy Coe. His father, who owned an iron factory, was a collector of Impressionist paintings and a trustee of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Mr. Coe, who is survived by a sister, received his bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College in 1953 and his master’s from Yale in 1958, both in art history. A year later he was working at what was then called the Nelson Gallery of Art.

In 2003 the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted an exhibition, "The Responsive Eye: Ralph T. Coe and the Collecting of American Indian Art,"which placed on view a promised gift of nearly 200 works from Mr. Coe’s collection. They included works by 20th-century artists, an indication of his determination to show that Indian art is a living tradition.

“There is an idea of the dying American Indian, and we keep counting them out,” Mr. Coe said of the modern works. “But I keep wondering, if we have counted them out, why is all of this here?”

Source: NY Times

 The Responsive Eye: Ralph T. Coe and the Collecting of American Indian Art
Photo: Amazon

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