Hide dress with colored designs in glass beads decorating the top half.
Unidentified Northern Cheyenne maker, Child’s hide dress, late 19th–early 20th century, Hide and glass beads, Gilcrease Museum, 84.1793

Past Forward: Native American Art from Gilcrease Museum illuminates the extensive collection built by Native philanthropist and arts patron Thomas Gilcrease (Muscogee Nation; 1890–1962). Surveying more than 3,000 years of Native American art, it reveals his unprecedented devotion to Indigenous traditions that is carried on by Gilcrease Museum today. Through portraiture, abstraction, sculpture, and archaeological works, viewers will explore visual motifs and systems of knowledge that connect different ancestries, time, and space. This enriching exhibition affirms these works as vital to American art history.

American oilman Thomas Gilcrease, the founder of Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma, was of Muscogee (Creek) ancestry and sought to tell the story of the United States through art that emphasized Native cultures and the history of the American West. As scholars and curators increasingly embrace the imperative to foreground Native perspectives, Gilcrease Museum is distinct for having been shaped by the connoisseurship of an Indigenous collector who maintained personal relationships with a number of the Native artists whose works he acquired. 

Past Forward was initiated by Indigenous scholar Chelsea M. Herr (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma), Jack and Maxine Zarrow Curator for Indigenous Art and Culture at Gilcrease Museum. She and Janet Catherine Berlo, Professor of Art History (Emerita) at the University of Rochester, co-curated the exhibition, which takes a thematic approach to Native American art history, considering ways in which Indigenous artists across time have conceptualized and represented similar subjects. The exhibition is structured around transhistorical themes, each featuring two- and three-dimensional Indigenous objects ranging from ancient to contemporary. As a comparative context, a small selection of works by Euro-American artists such as Charles Russell and George Catlin depicting Native American peoples and landscapes are included. In addition to offering an overview of Indigenous visual culture through highlights from Gilcrease Museum, Past Forward also amplifies the perspectives of Native community members, scholars, and artists through the exhibition’s multi-vocal interpretive program and catalog entries that feature varied Indigenous perspectives.

About the Curators

Chelsea M. Herr (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma) earned a PhD from the University of Oklahoma, writing a dissertation on Indigenous Futurisms in the work of Native North American artists. She recently guest curated Stitched in Sovereignty: Contemporary Beadwork from Indigenous North America at the Couse-Sharp Historic Site in Taos, New Mexico, and guest co-curated Indigenous Futurisms: Transcending Past/Present/Future at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe.

Janet Catherine Berlo, holds a PhD in History of Art from Yale. She is the author of Native North American Art (with Ruth Phillips, second edition 2015), Plains Indian Drawings 1865–1935 (the catalogue for an AFA traveling exhibition, 1998), Spirit Beings and Sun Dancers: Black Hawk’s Vision of a Lakota World (2000), Arthur Amiotte: Collages 1988–2006 (2006), José Bedia: Transcultural Pilgrim (with Judith Bettelheim, 2011), and many other publications on the arts of the Americas.

Co-organized by the American Federation of Arts and Gilcrease Museum.

In Rochester, the exhibition is sponsored by the following generous donors:

Associate Sponsors
Caitlin and Benn Kireker
Marion Swett Robinson

Contributing Sponsors
Richard A. Bloom, MD
The Claymore (Cle’ment) and Good Voice Elk Families
Dr. Michael J. Feinstein
Charlotte and Raul Herrera
Tom and Ebets Judson

Friend Sponsor
Ronald C. Lovell

Memorial Art Gallery Endowed Fund Support
Joan Feinbloom Grand Gallery Endowed Fund
Robert L. and Mary L. Sproull Fund
Nancy R. Turner Fund for Temporary Exhibitions