SAM Shop and Segregated Books

SAM Native Art Books

Last week (or was it two weeks ago?) when I had stopped by SAM shop at Seattle Art Museum I figured I would see if they had any books on Native art that I may have missed recently. I wandered through the many bookshelves looking for the Native art section. No luck. Thinking that I had missed it, I retraced my steps and checked again more carefully. Then again. I knew that there had been such a section on previous visits, but that could have been a year or two when I last was specifically looking. Where did they go?

Then I thought to look over by the case of Native art. Aha! Tucked in a spot behind the stairwell down from the main galleries is a glass case that displays Native art (mostly traditional Salish art, of course) and there against the wall was a small bookshelf containing the available Native art books. I didn’t think to take a photo at the time, but found the image above on SAM Shops Facebook page.

This segregation of the Native books from the rest of the available books for purchase has stuck with me. Is it a big deal in the grand scheme of things? No. But does it say something about how Native art and cultures are viewed by the most prominent art institution in Seattle? Yes. These were the only books pulled out specifically from a rather large shelved area that is clearly where you would be looking for books. I can’t help but question why it is okay to separate the Native books from the rest and place them by the Native art, when one doesn’t find the Asian art books near any Asian art items, or African art books near African art items.

It speaks, to me, of how American culture generally knows little about the indigenous cultures that were here before colonization. It says that the mainstream art world in the Pacific Northwest has little interest in Native art and cultures except as curios, and that any Native art had better reflect what the public is expecting to see (formline design, totem poles, basketry). I appreciate that SAM’s collection of Native objects is likely heavy on traditional Coast Salish artifacts, but I really wish they would push the envelope a little bit and not play it so safe in both the Native galleries and in their store. It would be nice to see not only more contemporary Native art/artists represented, but also more Native art/artists from other regions of the country.

If SAM is at or near the top of the Seattle art world food chain, they have an opportunity create a menu that can help influence the public taste. I only wish they would!


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