Left: Erin Grant, new assistant curator of Native American art at PAM. Photo courtesy Portland Art Museum. Right: Artist Lillian Pitt, with “She Who Watches” mask. Photo: Dennis Maxwell.
The Portland Art Museum has hired Erin Grant as its new assistant curator of Native American art. And Lillian Pitt, one of the Pacific Northwest’s most revered contemporary Native artists, is getting ready for an evening of a little bit of talking, a little bit of showing, and a little bit of meeting and greeting at the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center in Vancouver, Wash.
Grant, a member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes with family at Hopi, the Gila River, and Phoenix, Arizona, has worked at the Portland museum since February 2022. Her assistant curator position is new to the museum, and will provide a boost to oversight of one of PAM’s most complex and important collections.
“This new position is a game-changer,” Kathleen Ash-Milby, curator of Native American art, said in a museum release. “We will now be able to focus on necessary work in our collections as well as exhibitions and more public-facing work. Both are needed as we continue to build our relationships with Native communities in the region and beyond.”
The new curatorship was made possible in part by a grant from the Leadership in Art Museums initiative, which is designed to help museums increase racial equity in leadership positions and is funded by the Alice L. Walton Foundation, Ford Foundation, Mellon Foundation, and Pilot House Philanthropy.
In her new role, Grant will focus initially on museum compliance with the National Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, an important role internationally in assessing museums’ holdings, how objects were come by, and whether other groups or individuals — often Indigenous — have a legitimate claim to ownership. In June 2022 PAM returned nine Tlingit objects to the Native community in Wrangell, Alaska, from which they’d been taken before the Portland museum acquired them as part of the 800-piece Axel Rasmussen collection in 1948.
Grant will also concentrate on planning for the museum’s current major redesign and eventual reinstallation of the Native American galleries.
Grant has a bachelor’s degree in history from Seattle University and is a 2019 graduate of the History of Design & Curatorial Studies master’s program through The New School and the Smithsonian Design Museum. She’s completed internships at the New York Historical Society, American Federation of Arts, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Indian Arts Research Center (School for Advanced Research). In her 17 months at PAM before joining the curatorial team she concentrated on programming and outreach to Native communities for the exhibitions “Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe” and “Jeffrey Gibson: They Come from Fire.”
The new position is particularly important considering curator Ash-Milby’s commitment to connecting the museum with contemporary tribal members and emphasizing that Indigenous art is both historical and contemporary: The work of many contemporary Native artists is in the museum’s Northwest galleries.
“As an Indigenous scholar and museum professional, I have always strived to be the bridge connecting institutions and their audiences to the worlds and cultures they reflect,” Grant said in the museum release. “I am guided by community collaboration and outreach methodologies. As I seek more growth opportunities, I am eager to continue my work in the prioritization of Native voices and to contribute my voice on a bigger scale at the Portland Art Museum.”
“An Artist’s Journey” with Lillian Pitt
Some of Lillian Pitt’s artwork that will be on view at the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center.
Meanwhile, the Friends of Fort Vancouver and the National Park Service are getting ready to host an evening with Lillian Pitt, the mutidisciplinary traditional and contemporary Columbia River artist who for decades has been a key part of the glue that holds Northwest Indigenous artists together and helps keep them in the public eye.
The evening, called “An Artists Journey,” will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, July 20, at the Fort Vancouver Visitor Center, 1501 East Evergreen Blvd. in Vancouver, and if you’d like to be there (it’s free) you can register here by scrolling down to “Events.”
Pitt, whose family roots are Wasco, Yakama, and Warm Springs, will talk about her artistic journey, her exploration of traditional art forms and the ways she’s learned to carry them into contemporary times, of artists she’s mentored and been mentored by, and of techniques she’s learned in forms as varied as glass, metal sculpture, mask-making, pottery, jewelry, and printmaking. A selection of her work will be on view, some of which will be for sale.
The Portland Art Museum has about a dozen works by Pitt in its permanent collections and has shown exhibitions of her work, but her influence ranges far beyond museum collections. Among other things, she’s been central to spreading the historical and cultural significance of Tsagaglalal, or She Who Watches, the ancient rock image that sits in Columbia Hills State Park on the Washington side of the Columbia River, on Washington Highway 14 between Lyle and Maryhill.
You can listen here to Lillian Pitt: 10,000 Years through Art, Dmae Lo Roberts’ Stage & Studio April 2021 podcast interview with Pitt on ArtsWatch, on the occasion of the artist’s solo exhibition Ancestors Known and Unknown at the Columbia Center for the Arts in Hood River.