The Indian Arts and Crafts Association (IACA) has existed for more than 35 years. During the 1970’s, a large number of imports were coming in that looked like Indian art, but were not. This impacted the market so badly that artist, wholesalers, galleries and gift shops got together to talk about what to do, and the result was IACA.
Gail Chehak, a Klamath Tribal Member and the Executive Director of IACA, spoke to ABI about their work on behalf of Indian artists.
ABI: What do you see today as the biggest challenge facing Native American artists and craftspeople?
GC: One of the biggest challenges is that people think of Indian art as a special kind or class of art. What we are trying to show is that this is the art made by American Indian people, so we are trying to promote the craft and the artists, and not just a “look.” What happens often is, when Native artists approach a gallery, they are told “We don’t show Indian art or Western art.” And that is a major barrier to cross over. So becoming a part of the mainstream craft movement, as well as the art world has been a big barrier to Indian artists.
Another problem is misrepresentation. Some companies buy millions of dollars’ worth of Indian art, and we have to question, “How much is actually real?” There are so many fakes out there, and so many people who skirt the law. You wonder how much is purchased that is not real, and when you look around, there are so many imports.
ABI: Do you think American Indian artists are hesitant to go out of their geographic location and expand elsewhere to sell in handcrafted marketplace?
GC: Quite frequently they don’t have access to outside markets, or know other artists who have crossed over and are making a name for themselves. Many of the reservations are remote, as are the artists who live and work on that land. Many are very culturally driven people. They are the ones at home performing the ceremonies, and taking care of the cultural preservation and protection of their resources, so they are not as likely to pack up and leave the area. Art sales are close to home or at pow wows and other cultural events where the prices are very low.
Another issue is knowing about resources that are available to artists. I was surprised at how few of our members even knew about the Buyers Market of American Craft and about the Arts Business Institute, and the resources they offer. Once they find out, they are very excited. On the other hand, we have a handful of artists who show not only here but all over the world. They are also the busiest people and don’t have time to share their experiences with others. A group like IACA helps share those resources and inroads to bring our artists out of our little corner of the world.
ABI: You are providing education before every show. What have you noticed your artists most want to know about?
GC: Everything from sales, to marketing and best business practices. We had a very good session this last market about trademarks, copyrights, and protecting your work. We’ve also had a number of workshops with The Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which oversees the enforcement of the American Indian arts and crafts laws that protect artists and consumers from fraud. So we help share information about the laws and better business practices.
We also have a real interest in materials. A number of our artists work with companies in other countries and we’ve found that especially in the fine arts market in Europe, our artists are not familiar with the assay restrictions. They end up not meeting the standards because they didn’t realize the materials they used were not what they were represented – for example, that the solder for a pair of earrings is real silver. Getting documentation from suppliers was something that artists didn’t think about. They went on trust, and learned that they need to be more careful about how they buy and from whom.
ABI: Are these small businesses family-centered and intergenerational?
GC: Yes, many of the artists have their whole family working on a piece, especially those who work with stones and shells. One of the members may cut and drill the pieces, and the younger people might string them. Others might work on sanding, buffing and polishing. These families have come up with something wonderful — when necklaces break, “Grandmother necklaces” are created from the bits and pieces of different work and they become a beautiful combination of everyone’s work. Or, if the family has several artists in one family, they might all contribute a piece for one necklace.
ABI: Websites are increasingly important for artists. Are your members behind the curve getting online or having access?
GC: Absolutely. On several reservations, this is a very big issue. Even in the Navajo Nation, I know one artist who said he has to go to McDonald’s to get wifi access. He is also attending college online and that makes it difficult.
ABI: What do you see for the future of American Indian art?
GC: American Indian art continues to have a strong, loyal collector base. Classic art forms flourish beside innovative contemporary works using new materials, tools and techniques while continuing to reflect the culture, heritage and traditions of a living People. We are very excited about our partnerships with American Made Alliance, and promoting more companies buy American and buy handcrafted. We look forward to working with the Buyers Market and moving more of our artists into the broader craft market.