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Artistry and Excellence: A conversation with Betsy Theobald Richards about Native Art Now!

by Bryan Corbin, editor, Storyteller magazine | Oct 23, 2017

Betsy Theobald RichardsTo lead the dialogue at a convening of scholars and top contemporary Native artists, the Eiteljorg has selected a nationally known art and social justice expert: Betsy Theobald Richards (Cherokee Nation). With two decades of experience in philanthropy, arts education, advocacy and theater directing and producing, Richards served at the Pequot Museum and Ford Foundation and now is program director for The Opportunity Agenda. With a passion for Native art (her aunt is the renowned artist Kay WalkingStick), Richards designed the format of the facilitated conversations she will lead at Native Art Now! on Nov. 11-12 that will examine the future of contemporary Native art.

Storyteller magazine recently interviewed Richards about the program, and her comments are lightly edited for space:

On why she designed the format of the Native Art Now! gathering of artists and scholars to include facilitated roundtable discussions:
“I put the suggestion out there that (the Eiteljorg) might want to try something I had tried at one of my biggest convenings called ‘Creative Change’ . . . which was how to take a large group of incredibly talented, visionary folks, and have them have a dialogue. That isn’t what we normally have, which is panels where four people sit up on the dais and talk at people and take questions. I tried to help design a format that will allow people to have dialogue among themselves, to have thought leaders for folks that begin conversations; but that the conversation then becomes owned by the group.”

On what insights she expects participants will gain from the facilitated dialogue with artists:
“What I hope is to get everybody thinking to create a space where people can think as big as possible about the future. Not just, ‘Five years from now we should have this program or two more exhibitions in a year,’ not just the tactics or mechanical outcomes, but really have time for some dreaming. Dreaming is a very powerful thing.”

On the challenges that contemporary Native artists face today that will provide context for the discussions:
“Contemporary Native art is contemporary art . . . Often contemporary Native art is sidelined. Some people are interested in historical or ethnographic pieces; but our artists are living treasures. They deserve to make a living . . . We should all appreciate the artistry and the excellence of these contemporary artists.”

On the key points that should be conveyed to funders about the importance of supporting contemporary Native art:
“We forget as Americans that we are on Native land and that our Indigenous cultures are an asset, something very special to this country. I think that we need to start understanding — not just funders, but America in general — what an incredible asset of our heritage and our future that our Native cultures are. And one of the most visible and powerful ways to exhibit our living cultures is through our art . . . We are living cultures, and these artists are upholding our living cultures in magnificent ways just as our ancestors did . . . If funders and the general public want to support Native communities, one of the many ways is to support Native culture (through art). Also, Native art is cool. I think people need to buy some Native art.”

On her social justice work and how that relates to the convening of Fellowship artists:
“A lot of my work is around incorporating art, culture, pop culture and media into the work of social change. And I have continued in my work in Indian Country and am as dedicated as ever to Native American art and culture; and hopefully I’ll be bringing the skills that I’ve learned, both around facilitation and around how to advance a dialogue, to this convening.”

NATIVE ART NOW!
OPENING CELEBRATION AND CONVENING
SCHEDULE OF EVENTS:

SATURDAY, NOV 11
Artists and scholars will convene for a dialogue led by Betsy Theobald Richards about contemporary Native art. The morning and afternoon events and lunch together are $30 per person or $15 for students.
10 a.m. to noon: Facilitated discussion
Noon to 1 p.m.: Buffet lunch
1–3 p.m.: Preview of clips from the Native Art Now! documentary followed by roundtable discussions.
5–9 p.m.: Native Art Now! exhibit opening celebration. This evening event is $50 for members and $60 for nonmembers.

SUNDAY, NOV 12
10:30 a.m. to noon: Fellowship artists convening led by Betsy Theobald Richards. The Eiteljorg Fellows will deliberate on the Fellowship to help forge its future. This event is included with general admission and the public is invited to attend, but please register.

To register to attend any of the events, contact Mary Whistler at 317.275.1316 or mwhistler@eiteljorg.com by Nov. 3 or log onto www.eiteljorg.org/NativeArtNow.

Kay WalkingStick -- Wallawa Memory

Image caption:

Kay WalkingStick (Cherokee Nation)
Wallowa Memory, 2003
Lithograph
Gift: Courtesy of the artist

Photograph of Betsy Theobald Richards is courtesy of The Opportunity Agenda.

This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of Storyteller magazine.

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