Museum Shines a Light on New Native American Masterpiece

Fenimore Art Museum totemWhy place a totem pole from the Pacific Northwest at the entrance to a neo-Georgian building in Central New York?

The 30-foot contemporary Haida carving is the latest addition to the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art, an assemblage of nearly 850 works on display at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown. Since the museum erected the pole on its front lawn last May, the piece has offered a vivid reminder that one of the world's outstanding collections of Native American art stands just beyond the building's doors.

"It has made people really curious, as they realize that there's more to see inside," says Eva Fognell, Curator of the Thaw Collection.

Retired art dealer Eugene Thaw and his wife started purchasing Native American art when they moved from New York City to Santa Fe. By 1992 the collection had outgrown the Thaws' home, and they started making plans to donate it to a museum. Having once owned a summer home near Cherry Valley, the Thaws were familiar with the Fenimore Art Museum, which gladly accepted the collection. A new museum wing built to house the work opened in 1995. The Thaws have continued to purchase new art for the collection.

Mr. and Mrs. Thaw choose work by Native American artists with the same critical eye they bring to great pieces from Europe or Asia. That's part of what makes the Thaw Collection an important body of work and a treat for people who visit the museum. "It's a masterpiece collection," Fognell says.

The new totem pole is the collection's largest piece. The Thaws commissioned Haida artist Reg Davidson to create the four-foot wide cedar carving, which tells the story of how the Raven stole the Beaver's house, lake and fish trap and taught the Haida people how to catch fish.

Davidson traveled to Cooperstown from British Columbia to help dedicate the totem pole at the official unveiling on May 29. The ceremony also included a performance by his dance troupe, the Rainbow Creek Dancers.

As the cloth coverings fell away from the pole that afternoon, a collective gasp emerged from the 500 people assembled on the lawn. "It's a very impressive piece," Fognell says. "It's wonderful carving: it's expressive, it's powerful."

By giving the totem pole a prominent place in front of the building, museum officials knew they would bring greater visibility to the Thaw Collection as a whole. To complete the effect, though, they needed one more thing, a lighting system to make the totem pole itself more visible.

That's where the Community Foundation stepped in. We granted the Fenimore Art Museum $4,500 for an underground conduit and lighting fixture to illuminate the art work at night. The lights come on in the evening and continue to shine on the carving until midnight.

Thanks to the lights, the totem pole creates a stunning effect, Fognell says. "You wouldn't see it at night otherwise. With the dark museum in the background, it really stands out."

In the tradition of the Pacific Northwest, a totem pole would stand outside a home, welcoming visitors and maybe telling a story about the family, Fognell says. Now, a magnificent example of Pacific Northwest art greets visitors to the Fenimore Art Museum and gives them a taste of what they'll find within.

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