Native Arts and Cultures Foundation: A national leader supporting Indigenous artists and engaging Native communities

Posted by Mr. John W. Haworth, Jun 25, 2021 0 comments

My recent posts on ARTSblog have focused on public art created by Native American artists. Here, I turn my focus to the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF), a national arts service organization. Having served on NACF’s National Leadership Council, I have had the opportunity to participate in gatherings with Native artists, served on their grant review panels, and worked closely with their board and staff. I also have spoken about their work at national meetings for both Americans for the Arts and Association for Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums. For me, the highlight has been attending NACF public programs over the years to see the work of Native American artists. I have seen up close how deeply committed the foundation’s work is to both the artists and communities they serve. 

Founded in 2008, with start-up funding of $10 million from the Ford Foundation, NACF supports Indigenous artists, culture bearers, and Native-led arts organizations through fellowships and project funding. Betsy Theobald Richards (Cherokee), who served as Ford’s Program Officer in Media, Arts, and Culture from 2003 to 2010, provided key leadership in establishing NACF. Other Native leaders and artists were involved from the get-go: the civil rights lawyer Walter Echo-Hawk (Pawnee), poet and musician Joy Harjo (Muscokee-Creek), museum director and artist Elizabeth Woody (Yakama Nation Wasco descent and Citizen of Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs), and singer, artist, and educator Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree First Nation of Canada), among others. It’s powerful to have such dynamic and creative national and community-based leaders setting the stage for NACF’s work. 

“We’ve come to a point in the world of great challenge, but also great opportunity, in which to revise and revitalize our communities. How do we do that? It always comes back to the art, because arts revitalize, they tell us who we are, they tell us where we’re going and where we’ve been. Art makes connections on a deep soul level; it connects us in a way beyond words.” — Joy Harjo, NACF Board Chair and U.S. Poet Laureate

As NACF continues it work supporting Native artists and tribal communities throughout the country, the organization is currently in the early stages of developing a major cultural facility and new headquarters: the Center for Native Arts and Cultures in southeast Portland, Oregon. 

On February 26, 2021, NACF received the gift of the Yale Union Laundry Building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. NACF’s vision for the Center is to create a “vibrant gathering place” for Indigenous artists as a convening ground for cultural ceremonies and celebrations; as an incubator for Native artists to create; and as a venue for presenting contemporary exhibitions and performances, workshops, and seminars. For NACF, developing the Center will raise the organization’s national profile and help build an even stronger reputation. NACF is doing all the necessary organizational, fundraising, board development, and institutional advancement work to move this project forward. From Ford Foundation President Darren Walker’s perspective, “while this repatriation is only one building, it is also a building block in a larger movement for restorative justice. May it inspire countless others to envision equally powerful ways to empower Native American communities.” 

Photo of the Yale Union Laundry Building, a red brick building with pale concrete columns and decorative window arches that sits on a streetcorner.
Center for Native Arts and Cultures. Photo courtesy of Native Arts and Cultures Foundation.

The Yale Union, founded by artists in 2008 and operated as a contemporary art center for ten years, transferred the ownership of their historic building and land to NACF. From the perspective both of NACF and the Yale Union, the gift was viewed as a symbolic repatriation (July 16, 2020 Artnet article by Sarah Cascone) which recognized the historic tribal ownership of the land.[1] Yale Union had acknowledged that it occupied the traditional lands of the Multnomah, Chinook, Kathlamet, Clackamas, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla, and other Indigenous peoples.

The idea to transfer the building’s ownership to NACF came in 2018 from Yale Union’s then-executive director Yoko Ott, a beloved curator and champion for Northwest art and artists. Sadly, Ms. Ott died in late 2018. The NACF conducted an in-depth feasibility study with potential funders, including major foundations, Native leaders, and philanthropists; the NACF board gave its approval to the project in late 2019. Likewise, the Yale Union led by its board president Flint Jamison were enthusiastic about the decision. 

Photo of a sunny empty room with high ceilings, a wood floor, and dozens of windows.
Center for Native Arts and Cultures Main Gallery. Photo courtesy of Native Arts and Cultures Foundation.

Though arts programs at the facility were suspended during the pandemic, the Yale Union and NACF have collaborated to jointly present artistic programming to celebrate the transfer. The artist Marianne Nicolson from the Musgamakw Dzawada’enuxw First Nations, part of the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwak’wala speaking peoples) of the Pacific Northwest Coast, has created a new site-specific installation that transforms the gallery space (curated by Hope Svenson) into “A Feast of Light and Shadows.” This is the artist’s first solo exhibition in Portland; her installation is on view June 30-August 29, 2021.

Resilience, Reclamation, and Relevance

Cover of the NACF convening report which includes a brightly colored abstract painting of a face.
NACF convening report cover, art by Frank Big Bear (Ojibwe). “Autumn’s Wind” (detail), acrylic on canvas, 2010.

In early 2020, NACF co-hosted a first-of-its kind gathering in Washington, D.C., with the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Native Arts and Culture: Resilience, Reclamation, and Relevance convening brought together over 225 attendees representing more than 40 tribal nations, Native artists and students, and nonprofit professionals and funders for a national dialogue about Native arts. With panel discussions galore, the gathering provided Native artists, curators, and educators with opportunities to speak with representatives from federal agencies and cultural leaders. NACF produced an extensive report documenting the gathering along with significant recommendations to strengthen the Native arts, cultures, and humanities fields. 

With considerable spirit, grace, and strength, NACF President and CEO T. Lulani Arquette (Native Hawaiian) have been a champion for the cause, always seeking input from Native constituencies (and other cultural leaders and funders) through organizing gatherings with Native artists and cultural leaders. These gatherings are carefully documented and always move the work forward with purpose. Having participated in several of these convenings, I have experienced the high level of dialogue and field building that comes out of this work. Lulani and her staff have developed effective partnerships across sectors and helped advance the Native cultural sector. 

NACF and Animating Democracy

NACF has collaborated extensively—and quite effectively—with Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts focused on community, civic, and social change. With evaluators from the Native Nations Institute (University of Arizona), NACF used Animating Democracy’s Aesthetic Perspectives framework as part of the evaluation in assessing outcomes of Native artist-driven social justice projects supported by NACF’s Community Inspiration Program pilot. According to Pam Korza, co-director of Animating Democracy, the evaluation confirmed strength, excellence, and efficacy in their creative work. NACF distributed an extensive evaluation report about social impact work of Indigenous Arts Projects. And Native Nations Institute evaluator Miriam Jorgensen wrote about evaluating social impact on Americans for the Arts’ ARTSblog in 2017.

NACF’s track record demonstrates its deep commitment to advancing equity and cultural knowledge in a spirit of collaboration with American Indian, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native communities. The new facility in Portland will amplify and complement their ongoing work. Through everything the foundation does, advancing positive social change and strengthening Native communities informs and grounds its work. As the only American philanthropic organization focused exclusively on Native arts and cultures, its work is critically important to building the Native cultural field, especially at grassroots levels. 
NACF’s approach to community engagement work is especially strong. Its Community Inspiration projects are artist-driven and designed to connect Native and non-Native people in meaningful community conversations that address pressing social, environmental, and cultural concerns. Attention is paid on yielding tangible, relevant outcomes focused on meaningful and positive change within communities. There is considerable planning and preparation work that lays the groundwork in communities so that Native artists are positioned to incorporate arts-based experiences that drive important conversations within communities. NACF does a lot of advance work assisting artists with strategic planning for community-based work, including developing evaluation and documentation systems, and provides other assistance to assure that artist projects engage participants effectively. 

In the words of NACF Board Chair and U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, “We’ve come to a point in the world of great challenges, but also great opportunity, in which to invite and revitalize our communities. How do we do that? It always come back to the art, because arts revitalize, they tell us who we are, they tell us where we’re going and where we’ve been. Art makes connections on a deep soul level. It connects us in a way beyond words.” 

Hats off to the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation for all it does.

[1] Many professionals in our field use the Indigenous concept of “rematriation” (rather than “repatriation”) intentionally to avoid connections related to patriarchal acts throughout a troubled history. On its website, NACF uses “rematriation” to give greater focus to the “life giving force of the Feminine” and the return to Native origins.

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