Nancy Blomberg, longtime chief curator and Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Native Arts at the Denver Art Museum, died earlier this week at the age of 72, according to the DAM.
Blomberg came to the DAM in 1990 and quickly became a national pioneer among museum professionals in recasting tribal art. Though the DAM had a long tradition of considering the pottery, metalwork and weavings of the American Indians as objects of beauty, Blomberg pushed the idea further. While the museum had regarded these objects as anthropological artifacts, she maintained that they were the products of technically accomplished and aesthetically gifted artists, and thus full-fledged works of art. In doing so, she added a focus on the individual artist to the traditional tribal focus — considering the work the same way non-Native art is regarded.
“People go to the Modern and Contemporary art floors or the European art floors and expect to see artists,” explained Blomberg in a 2011 interview. “However, when they come to the American Indian art galleries, they don’t. I want to challenge that. I want visitors to look at a group of, for example, Navajo weavings and see the distinct style and hand of the artist involved. I want people to see 2,000 years of continuous artistic creation.”
Not only did she consider the historic material to be artwork, but she also promoted the idea that contemporary art by Native Americans, even work done outside of tribal traditions, was also part of the story — and this was an even more radical move. An example of this is “Wheel,” the Edgar Heap-of-Birds sculptural group installed in 2005 near the tubular entry to the museum; it's been moved while the Ponti building is being rehabbed.
Blomberg was an acknowledged expert on Navajo weaving and widely published. Arguably her most important exhibit was Red, White and Bold: Masterworks of Navajo Design, 1840-1870, for which she won the AAMC Award of Excellence for best art exhibition.
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At the DAM, Blomberg also oversaw the Oceanic and African collections; she was host curator for the El Anatsui solo showcasing this well-known African master of contemporary art. The last show she curated was We Dance: American Indian Art in Motion in 2016.
“Nancy was a beloved colleague, a pillar of strength for the museum and a great and most loyal friend," the DAM said in announcing her passing. "We miss her terribly, her sharp mind and her generosity, her professional work ethic, her dry sense of humor and her kindness.”
That's a sentiment I can vouch for — especially the humor and kindness parts.
In her honor, the museum is creating the Nancy Blomberg Acquisitions Fund for Native American Art. On Saturday, September 8, Blomberg will be remembered at the 2018 Denver Art Museum Friendship Powwow and American Indian Cultural Celebration, which she made a mainstay on the DAM calendar. It runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the museum.