Nelson-Atkins to shine in international spotlight for exhibition opening in Paris

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - An art exhibit opening in Paris next week has close ties to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky exhibition was put together by Gaylord Torrence, the Nelson-Atkin’s curator of American Indian Art. It is opening at the Musée du quai Branly April 7.

The president of Quai Branly visited the Nelson-Atkins in 2010, when the American Indian galleries had been open for one year. He was so impressed, he asked Torrence to organize a special exhibition featuring Plains Indians.

“It was a great honor to be invited to do this exhibition,” said Torrence.

Quai Branly is considered one of the world’s leading institutions on indigenous arts. In its collection are some pieces from Plains Indians that have not been seen in this country since European explorers were in the U.S. in the 18th Century.

“These are the oldest surviving objects in the world from this culture,” Torrence said. “We're bringing back around ten of them to North America through this exhibition. They haven't been here for 250 to 300 years.”

Plains Indians lived in the central part of North America, Torrence explained, from just west of the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, South Texas up to Alberta, Canada.

“This exhibition is intended, first and foremost, to honor Plains Indian peoples," Torrence said. “Their survival and the great accomplishment of the artists through time.”

Torrence collected about 140 works to be in this exhibition, giving visitors a sense of the Plains Indian culture over centuries.

“There is a great continuity,” said Julian Zugazagoitia, Nelson-Atkins director. “This exhibition will allow us to see works of art and pieces that were encountered early on, when the Westerners came to this region.”

Zugazagoitia said this exhibition is reminiscent of a similar exhibit the Nelson-Atkins developed in 1976 called Sacred Circles that opened in Great Britain and celebrated 2,000 years of American Indian art.

“From Sacred Circles to Plains Indians, the Nelson-Atkins has a tradition of showcasing the best of Native American Art and I think it just continues that tradition,” he said.

This exhibition will only make three stops in the world: Paris, Kansas City and New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“For it to go on to the Met, which is in generally is regarded as the greatest comprehensive museum in the world, is a huge recognition for the importance of American Indian Art in our culture,” Torrence said.

This exhibition also launches the Nelson-Atkins onto an international stage.

“I think it's going to be, for Kansas City, a great opportunity, both international exposure, regionally, locally,” Zugazagoitia said. “Then New York City remains one of the capitals of the arts of the world so it's yet another opportunity for extra exposure for our ideas about great art and a great curator, Gaylord Torrence.”

While Torrence organized the exhibition, Elisabeth Batchelor, Director of Conservation, and her team worked to get the Nelson-Atkins works of art ready for transportation, a process that can take up to a year.

“A lot of them are no longer made or cannot be replaced, which is why putting a value on it is somewhat of an abstract exercise,” said Batchelor. “If we get a lot of money for it, there isn't another one that we can get so we just have to preserve them for future generations.”

Batchelor said protecting works of art to the elements is their biggest challenge.

“Especially with American Indian material which is made of so many different materials,” she said. “There can be wood, leather, feather and they all react at different rates to temperature and humidity.”

The box that directly contains the art is custom-made every time. A garment is not folded, but rather laid flat, with the shape of the box specifically fitting that garment. Every piece is documented, conditions are recorded and kept on file. The Nelson-Atkins is one of few museums in the U.S. that uses iPad technology to keep a record of each work of art.

The interior boxes are then placed in a crate that is also specially made.

“The crate, the wooden boxes that we ship things in, if it's going to Europe, it has to be made in a certified shop, to make sure there are no bugs in it,” said Batchelor. “So there are only certain shops that can make.”

The trucks and ships that transport the crates are climate-controlled. The goal, Batchelor said, is to keep everything as stable as possible.

The Plains Indians will be at Musée du quai Branly from Apr. 7 to July 20, 2014. Then it comes to the Nelson-Atkins from Sept. 19 to Jan. 11, 2015. It closes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from March 2 to May 10, 2015.

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