Alan Michelson’s Public Art: History and Place Matter a Lot

Alan Michelson’s Public Art: History and Place Matter a Lot

According to the artist Alan Michelson—a Mohawk member of the Six Nations of the Grand River who is currently based in New York—history is unfinished business demanding our attention. He believes that American history needs to address some hard truths if we are ever to progress beyond this tragic juncture. Alan also believes that the arts generally, and public art in particular, play significant roles both in addressing complex issues and making important social change. From his Indigenous world view, the violent and fraudulent dispossession of Native people is a significant issue that must be front and center in the national discourse. He has contributed considerably to this discourse, especially in the last couple of years. The Whitney Museum presented his solo exhibition Wolf Nation (Oct. 25, 2019 through Jan. 12, 2020) and College Art Association named him one of their two Distinguished Artists for their 2021 conference. He has made substantive contributions to the national cultural conversation for years. As Alan conveys, “My work is very much grounded in the local, in place, and place can be fraught when you’re Indigenous.” At Americans for the Arts’ Annual Convention in 2008, Alan and I presented a panel to encourage public art managers to commission Native artists for public art projects. From Alan’s perspective, understanding the historical and cultural dynamics of place is at the heart of his work.

For the 2010 Public Art Network Year in Review, Alan was recognized for his monumental work Third Bank of the River, which is located on the U.S. Port of Entry in Massena, New York with panoramic views of the St. Lawrence River shorelines intersecting the international borders of Canada, Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, and the United States. This extraordinary glass work is nearly six feet tall and more than 40 feet long (let that sink in!). Alan took hundreds of photos from a boat that captured the geography and culture of an area that holds deep personal and cultural meaning for him, home to his ancestors and relatives. This jumbo-size work was fabricated by Franz Mayer of Munich by imprinting the glass with captured images which were sandblasted through a dot-matrix screen.

“Third Bank of the River” by Alan Michelson. Description: A large purple and white artwork depicting riverbanks and bridges hangs on a wall above a room of cubicle desks.

As a cultural and visual source, the woven beaded belts of the Two Row Wampum represent the deeper meanings of treaties and agreements. With horizontal royal purple and luminous white rows, the work is a powerful and significant symbol of diplomacy and international cooperation. Public art frequently challenges us to take a closer look at the history of a place, and this work gives us a richer and fuller understanding of political, geographic, and cultural boundaries. Commissioned by the Art and Architecture program of the U.S. General Services Administration, this distinguished work was honored with the Design Excellence Award presented by the GSA.

A detail of “Third Bank of the River” by Alan Michelson focused on an upside down bridge tower and showing the dot-matrix pattern of the artwork.

The back story about the commissioning of this public work is remarkable. In 2006, the National Museum of the American Indian in New York presented the exhibition New Tribe:New York curated by Gerald McMaster (a Plains Cree member of the Siksika Nation). Given the significance of the horrors of 9/11 (the NMAI is located five blocks from Ground Zero), we felt it was especially appropriate to develop an exhibition featuring the work of New York-based Native artists who “embraced contemporary artistic forms, media, and theoretical ideas, and show how—in the midst of the increasing internationalization of Native and contemporary art—these individuals have managed to maintain a sense of tribal or cultural identify while drawing inspiration from the phenomena and energies of contemporary urban culture.” Alan was one the featured artists in this remarkable exhibition. At the time of the exhibition, Charlotte Cohen (who currently directs the Brooklyn Arts Council and is highly regarded in the public art field) served as the fine arts officer with the GSA, which also happened to be my museum’s landlord. While the exhibit was on view, Charlotte brought a group of her GSA colleagues to see Alan’s work. One thing led to another, and Alan was selected to create a work for the border crossing.

The cover of Aperture magazine issue no. 240 with the title Native America and a photo of a person wearing Indigenous clothing.One of the best arts publications is the quarterly Aperture:The Magazine of Photography and Ideas. The magazine lives up to its promise connecting “the photo community and its audiences with the most inspiring work, the sharpest ideas, and with each other.” Tis true. “Native America” is the focus of their Fall 2020 issue. One of the highlights (and frankly, great pleasures) of my career directing the NMAI in New York was working with contemporary Native artists. What a treat to read about so many accomplished Indigenous artists in Aperture, but particularly special to read the article “Alan Michelson: History Is Present,” a conversation with Whitney Museum Curator Chrissie Iles. Reading this article reminded me of this significance of Alan’s contributions to the current national discourse and how important his art is in facilitating a deeper and clearer perspective on the key issues of this complex era—from border walls and immigration issues to how diplomacy and trade matters will be negotiated in the aftermath of the pandemic. Alan’s work is deeply moving on an aesthetic level, as well as giving us a wider view of place and why understanding place is so critically important for all of us. For contemporary public artists, examining the history and geography of a place is at the heart of creating significant, successful work.

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