Art of the Americas

Art and Ethnography

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Art and Ethnography is the final exhibition in the critically acclaimed four-part Art of the Americas series, which has attempted to respond to questions about the museum’s role in today’s multicultural society. Organized by Timothy Anglin Burgard, The Ednah Root Curator of American Art at the Fine Arts Museums, each of the four thematic exhibitions juxtaposes artworks rarely shown in the same galleries, drawn from a cross-section of the museums’ Euro-American, Native American, Pre-Hispanic, Spanish Colonial, textile and graphic arts collections, and is accompanied by brief analytical texts. The series examines the central role of objects and museums in both recording and shaping perceptions of American identities. Art and Ethnography explores the origins of these terms and concepts and whether they are consistently and usefully applied to objects within a museum context.

Keith Morrison, who is Dean of the College of Creative Arts at San Francisco State University, is the guest curator for Art and Ethnography. Morrison’s artworks, which exemplify cultural plurality, fuse his Jamaican heritage with European and American art traditions, as well as Haitian, Cuban, and African cultures often regarded as ethnographic by Euro-Americans.

According to Morrison, the phrase “art and ethnography” suggests that there is a dichotomy between art objects that are viewed as “pure” art and objects that, while related to art, are seen as more ethnic emblems of other cultures. Within this categorization, art remains pure, expressing universal values; while ethnography documents the mores, practices, and furnishings of other cultures not yet fully understood. Museums typically display objects according to this categorization: art, its values common to the typical museum visitor, is displayed with no more than title and artist; ethnographic objects, as seen in the galleries of African, Oceanic, and Native American arts, ostensibly serve to elucidate the meaning of those cultures. In Art and Ethnography, Morrison attempts to shift the bases for interpretation of ethnographic art by juxtaposing ethnic art objects against traditional Western art. In doing so, Art and Ethnography attempts to dispel the age-old prejudice that ethnic objects, while exotic, beautiful, and ingenious, are not quite art.

The Art of the Americas series offers an innovative use of the collection and fresh interpretations of the works on view. More importantly, it raises issues that will be of primary significance for a new de Young for the 21st century. How can the new museum best serve its public? What kind of building should it have and how should it be used? What kind of objects should it show and how should they be shown? How can the art of the past engage today’s audiences? These are just a few of the questions that the Art of the Americas series can begin to explore-long before ground is broken for a new de Young.

The Art of the Americas series was made possible by a generous grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal agency, and the LEF Foundation.


This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Currently on view