Century 21 World's Fair: Northwest Coast Indian Art Exhibit

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 12/26/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9238
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The Fine Arts Pavilion on the grounds of Century 21, the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, was the site of a half-dozen distinct art exhibits during the fair's six-month run between April 21 and October 21. Those exhibits were Masterpieces of Art; The Paintings of Mark Tobey; Art Since 1950: American; Art Since 1950: International; Art of the Ancient East; and Northwest Coast Indian Art. The latter exhibit -- curated by University of Washington anthropologist (and director of the Washington State Museum) Dr. Erna Gunther (1896-1982) -- offered attendees unprecedented exposure to the wondrous beauty of various Northwest Coast native people's unique artwork. Its very inclusion, and its adjacency to the other exhibits, was quite purposeful: A guidebook produced to accompany the exhibit explained that "The artwork of the Indians of the Northwest Coast is presented here with examples of the great arts of the world, both historic and contemporary" -- a remarkable premise insisting that this provincial art was worth knowing about and that it had artistic merit and cultural value akin to far-better-known pieces produced in other places and times (Gunther, exhibit guide).

The Exhibit Space

Designed by esteemed Seattle architect Paul Hayden Kirk (1914-1995) of Kirk, Wallace, McKinley & Associates, the Fine Arts Pavilion (later called the Seattle Center's Exhibition Hall) was the original building that houses the (later remodeled) Pacific Northwest Ballet today (301 Mercer Street). In describing the specific space dedicated to the North Coast exhibit, the fair's official guide book stated that "Around the walls of the gallery, large panel paintings by Bill Holm [b. 1925] introduce the Northwest Indian motif and serve as backgrounds for displays." Holm -- the longtime University of Washington instructor on Northwest Coast tribal art -- also designed the exhibit guidebook's cover art, which featured slightly modernized native-design motifs.

The exhibit's introductory section -- "The Anatomy of the Art" -- was a display that laid the groundwork for visitors to better understand all that followed. That display not only introduced the basic materials commonly used by native artists -- wood, seashells, stone, leather, and animal bones -- it also provided examples of the primary design motifs employed by the artists in creating their works.

As the official guide book described:

"The center of the gallery is occupied by a large island of Indian carvings, which establishes the theme of the show ... . To the left of the entry are exhibits of carved implements. Next are life-size figures of a shaman in mask and costume and of a tribal chief and his wife in ceremonial regalia. Along the east wall are carved posts and beams from cedar long houses used by the Kwakuitl tribe. Other carvings include totem poles and masks which show the variety and drama of Indian art. And there is a display of figures doing the wolf ritual dance" (Gunther, exhibit guide).

The Curatorial Challenge

With an ambitious goal of representing the design traditions of several key tribal groups from the Northwest Coastal areas -- the Tlinget, Haida, Tsimshian, Bella Coola, Kwakiutl, Nootka, Coast Salish, and Chinook peoples -- Gunther curated a show that featured 330 artifacts. Interestingly, the exhibit guidebook made an important and poignant point -- the majority of the selected Northwest artifacts necessarily were borrowed from outside the Northwest. And that is because the inherent dampness of the coastal environment, coupled with the organic nature of the materials, has left few artifacts to be discovered through typical archeological practices.

The guide book explained:

"materials are frequently not durable enough to be found archeologically ... . Many of the articles were made of [substances] which in a humid climate can be regarded as ephemeral and therefore cannot be found often by archeologists. Consequently, the history of the art can best be traced through objects which were collected by the earliest explorers in the region and preserved in museums” (Gunther, exhibit guide).

And although the curator noted that "It is unfortunate that this period of the art and culture of the Northwest Coast is represented only in the collections farthest away from their place of origin," she also noted that it was fortunate that those distant institutions were quite willing to loan their rarities for inclusion in the display (Gunther p. 45), adding:

"The richness of Northwest Coast Indian culture can not only be measured by the quality of its workmanship, but also by the quantity to be found in the museums of America and Europe. The latter have the older material with few exceptions, for their collections date from the earliest exploration expeditions, while the American material generally belongs to the last two decades of the 19th century and since then. If the American maritime fur traders brought anything back [to where their expeditions originated from], it has been lost in the attics of New England, except for the occasional piece that has drifted into one of the many museums of the region" (Gunther, exhibit guide).

And thus, one particular display -- "Historical Perspective" -- presented some of the oldest surviving North Coast artifacts. They were among those items collected in the late eighteenth century by members of expeditions led by such explorers as Captain James Cook (in 1778) and George Vancouver (in 1792), and which found their way into the permanent collections of European museums and into some of the early museums founded in various seaport towns in New England. Among the 15  institutions who generously loaned their precious items were: the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (Exeter, London); Museum Für Volkerkunde (Basel, Switzerland); Museum Für Volkerkunde (Berlin-Dahlem, West Germany); Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto, Canada); Peabody Museum (Salem, Massachusetts); Marine Historical Association (Mystic, Connecticut); and the Museum of the American Indian (New York City).

The Exhibit

Two weeks after the fair's grand opening, The Seattle Times weighed in with a mixed review. After acknowledging Gunther's expertise and heroic efforts to assemble the far-flung artifacts, art critic Anne G. Todd made known her qualms. In essence, she felt that the objects were "too rare and splendid" for the substandard placement they were allotted. "The large, airy space devoted to the exhibition is separated from the beckoning dramatics" of the adjacent Art Since 1950: American exhibit with "an open arch, and the Indian show lends itself to be hurried through as if it were a lobby decorated in a Northwest theme. A Pity!" Beyond a concern that the native art exhibit was being overshadowed by the national modern art exhibit, Todd also objected to the lack of a free exhibit guidebook, and her perception that Gunther's exhibit guide (which probably cost a dollar or two) failed to make clear basic information about each artifact, including the original collector's name, the object's date of origin, tribal affiliation, and the institution it was sourced from. Her last three criticisms were justified.

Todd continued: "The objects are independently impressive as works of art, but withholding the data connected with them sacrifices fascinating layers of significance." Agreed. But her quibble that certain artifacts were displayed in gallery corners that didn't do them full justice is one that every museum curator has had to face when mounting a show. Even Gunther herself felt it worthwhile to mention in the exhibit guide that the physical setting for the selected artifacts was a necessary compromise -- one necessitated by the requirement of taking indigenous-though-exotic artifacts and, hopefully, displaying them in a meaningful way at an expo thoroughly steeped in futuristic trappings: "Many pieces, large and small, are displayed as sculpture and thus are removed from their original cultural purpose, but perhaps are adjusted better to our esthetic enjoyment."

Most certainly, the North Coast exhibit proved to be quite enjoyable and a strong draw for the fair's attendees. It included a wide range of artifacts, including stone, wood, and whalebone-based masks; halibut-fishing hooks, clubs, knives, and a bird-shaped wooden rattle; a wolf-motif ceremonial hat and a frog-motif wooden warrior helmet; a bowl made from mountain sheep horn, a raven-shaped wooden dish, and a beaver-motif stone mortar bowl; bracelets, a bear-motif hair comb and a bird-motif smoking pipe; a grizzly-bear-motif shirt, a wolf-motif caribou-hide robe, a raven-motif shaman's cape -- and much more. Perhaps most intriguing of all, though, was the stone carving of a bewhiskered early nineteenth-century Boston sea captain -- a rare item that offered a rare clue as to what those newcomers looked like to the indiginous people of the Northwest -- as rendered through their traditional design vocabulary.

The Exhibit's Legacy

So visually striking were the items included in the Northwest Coast displays -- not to mention the fine exhibitry skills applied by Allen C. Wilcox and other display designers -- that Norman Davis (director, Fine Arts Exhibits) flatly stated in the guidebook's introductory essay that the exhibit "has aroused the greatest interest among our people of the Northwest and the art world generally." Indeed, The Seattle Times reported that nearly 125,000 people visited the Fine Arts Pavilion in its first month of operation.

Erna Gunther's central role in assembling the exhibit's components did not pass unnoticed: "In preparation she visited museums and art collections throughout the world, cajoling curators into lending some of their finest pieces to produce an exhibit of exceptional items never before seen" (Garfield and Amoss). Beyond those accomplishments, her visionary curatorial stance can reasonably be credited with creating a vastly greater awareness about the unique beauty of these regionally distinct forms of artistic expression. The website of the University of Washington -- where Gunther led the Anthropology Department for a quarter century -- gives credit where it is due: "She is perhaps most widely known for mounting exhibits of Northwest Coast arts and cultivating public appreciation for the aesthetics of these cultures."

Looking back today, it is a challenge to imagine earlier times when relatively few people would have been able to identify the highly stylized, intricate, and exacting features of Northwest Coastal art as such. But in great measure due to Gunther's efforts, many more of us can appreciate the form -- and recognize it instantly from among the world's many cultures and art traditions. Years after the fact, Bill Holm -- who also deserves plenty of credit for creating a wider awareness of this art -- reflected back on Gunther and the great impact she had: "This exhibition was one of many which she planned and prepared, and which are now recognized as a primary factor in the worldwide recognition of Northwest Coast Indian Art."

Following in the wake of Dr. Gunther's successful exhibits, numerous museums mounted major thematically related exhibits, including the Atkins Museum of Fine Arts in Kansas City, with their Sacred Circles: 2,000 Years of North American Indian Art (1977); the Seattle Art Museum's Native Art of the Northwest Coast (2003-2005) show; and in New York, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian's Listening to Our Ancestors: The Art of Native Life Along the North Pacific Coast (2007-2008). 

Sources: Erna Gunther, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Exhibit at the Seattle World's Fair Fine Arts Pavilion (Seattle: Century 21 Exposition, Inc., 1962), 7, 45-46, 101; Erna Gunther, "A Great Art Comes Home," Puget Soundings, April 1962, pp. 16-18; Official Guide Book: Seattle World's Fair 1962 (Seattle: Acme Publications, 1962), 96; Anne G. Todd, "Splendid Indian-Art Show Presented Poorly," The Seattle Times, May 6, 1962, p. 36; "Fine Arts Pavilion visited by 124,646," Ibid., May 23, 1962, p. A; "Fine Arts exhibit sets mark," Ibid., August 29, 1962, p. A; Bill Holm, Northwest Coast Indian Art: An Analysis of Form Fifth Edition (Seattle: University of Washington Press, [1965], 1974); Viola E. Garfield and Pamela T. Amoss, "Erna Gunther (1896-1982)," American Anthropologist, 1984 essay, University of Washington website accessed on December 2, 2009 (http://www.washington.edu/research/showcase/1921a.html); Bill Holm, "Erna Gunther: A Personal Memory," University of Washington website accessed on December 9, 2009 (http://www.washington.edu/research/showcase/1921a.html). See also Steven C. Brown, “Sun Dogs & Eagle Down: The Indian Paintings of Bill Holm, " Columbia: The Magazine of Northwest History, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Winter 2006-07), 24-31.

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