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March 02 2016

Fighting to Raise the Profile of Native American Art

The Art Newspaper, March 2016

Ahead of the Armory Show in New York (3-6 March 2016), Donald Ellis talked to the Art Newspaper about why Native American art deserves more attention. 

Donald Ellis started collecting pottery shards and arrowheads when he was only seven years old. ‘Initially, my interest was more in the culture of Native Americans and through that I became fascinated in the art,’ he explains. In his twenties he became aware that historic African art was accepted in the Western canon of art history, he decided to showcase the best historic Native American works to the larger art market: ‘I strongly believed that the very best Native American art could stand next to the best African art; to any art for that matter.’

Prices achieved at auction and in private sales in the African and Oceanic market still vastly outperform the Native American market. This is partially due to the fact that few people outside of academia are aware of the enormous influence of Native American art on 20th century modernist movements, especially on Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. ‘On the plus side, it costs me less to have a large inventory of important works,’ Ellis comments. ‘And for collectors, the field is much more affordable. You could build an extraordinary group of significant works of art in this field for the price of a single mid-level Impressionist painting.’

One of the greatest misconceptions is that the Native American market is all feather war bonnets and tomahawks, beadwork and Navajo jewellery, Ellis explains. ‘Unfortunately, there are not enough high end dealers to educate and expose the more important works of art to the public.’ Another challenge is the new religion of contemporary art. ‘It seems to suck the oxygen out of everything else, not just in my field. It often seems that the only conversation is the contemporary art conversation.’

Asked which works are among the most popular in the collector market, Ellis explains that while 19th century Navajo textiles and masks from the Northwest Coast and Alaska still command the biggest prices, he has never experienced such enormous interest and excitement than when he first exhibited Plains Ledger Drawings at Frieze Masters 2014. ‘They are an extraordinary record of time and place, and an incredibly important aspect of American art history, of which very few people are even aware.’

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Fighting to Raise the Profile of Native American Art