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Nancy Blomberg, Champion of Native American Art, Dies at 72

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

Nancy Blomberg, who as a curator at the Denver Art Museum treated American Indian artworks as aesthetic creations, not artifacts, and championed the artists who made them, died on Sept. 2 at her home in Breckenridge, Colo. She was 72.

The cause was accidental asphyxiation, her husband, Art Blomberg, said.

Ms. Blomberg was chief curator at the museum and its Andrew W. Mellon curator of native arts, and during her 28 years at the museum she reimagined its extensive American Indian art collection. She emphasized that pieces often thought of as anthropological artifacts were in fact artworks; she also pushed to expand the collection with work by contemporary artists and set up residencies for them.

“Many places want to keep us in the past,” Melanie Yazzie, a Navajo printmaker, sculptor and painter, said by email. “Nancy made sure we had a place to help educate and share our point of view with the public.”

She also sought to change the way Native American art was presented. The practice at most art museums was to display such works as a museum of natural history or anthropology would, labeled by tribe and cited for their ethnographic rather than artistic significance. In 2011 the museum completed a seven-month overhaul of its Native American art floor, and among the changes was that when possible wall labels now carried the name of a person as well as a tribe.

“Instead of suggesting a culture was responsible for a basket, ceramic bowl or weaving, the new labels acknowledged that individual artists created these objects,” Annabeth Headrick, an associate professor at the University of Denver’s School of Art and Art History, said by email. “And through this simple act, Nancy reminded visitors of the humanity behind these belongings.”

As Ms. Blomberg herself put it in an interview with The New York Times, “I want to signal that there are artists on this floor.”

Nancy Jean Bastian was born on Aug. 25, 1946, in Aurora, Ill. Her father, Arthur, was a maintenance supervisor, and her mother, Helen (Unick) Bastian, was a homemaker.

Ms. Blomberg received a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at the University of Illinois in 1968 and a master’s in anthropology at California State University, Northridge, in 1974.

Before being hired by the Denver Art Museum in 1990 as associate curator of native arts, she held curatorial posts at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles. Her first museum job was at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art in Alaska. Mr. Blomberg, whom she had met in college and married in 1968, joined the Air Force upon graduating and was posted to Alaska. She accompanied him there, began volunteering at the museum and was eventually hired as curator.

Mr. Blomberg said her experience in Alaska was transformative.

“Nancy was fascinated with anthropology from an early age, as early as elementary school,” he said by email. “Her love of Native arts and people was born while living in Alaska and nurtured by a wonderful mentor and firsthand experience with Native artists and cultures. She found the artwork to have a special soul and energy that spoke to her.”

Ms. Blomberg knew that many people had a very limited view of what constituted American Indian art — “It’s not just beadwork from 1860 or 1880,” she once said — and she was eager to broaden it.

“Nancy helped to shape the field of American Indian art and expand its recognition in the broader art world,” John P. Lukavic, curator of native arts at the Denver museum and her colleague for seven years, said by email. Her exhibitions, such as “Red, White & Bold: Masterworks of Navajo Design, 1840-1870” and “Artist’s Eye, Artist’s Hand,” “sought to challenge stereotypes and introduce museum visitors to the rich, dynamic, and living traditions of indigenous artists,” Mr. Lukavic said.

Some in the art world occasionally complained that Ms. Blomberg was not of American Indian heritage herself.

“Ideally, museums that have Native American collections should have Native American curators,” Joe Horse Capture, a Gros Ventre Indian and veteran curator, told The Times in 2015. “It’s not easy, but it’s possible.”

Few, though, faulted her efforts to raise the profile of Native American artists and to freshen her museum’s collection and presentations.

One splashy acquisition was “Wheel,” an outdoor sculpture by the Cheyenne-Arapaho artist Edgar Heap of Birds. In 1996 Ms. Blomberg had sent requests for proposals to nine Native American artists for an outdoor piece, setting no conditions other than that the works had to be suitable for the museum site and able to withstand Denver weather.

“Every single one responded,” she told The Denver Post, “and I wish we could have acquired all of them.”

Ms. Blomberg also worked to establish dialogues with tribes over items in the museum collection, especially ones affected by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which required that institutions receiving federal money take steps to return to tribes human remains, funerary objects and artifacts deemed sacred.

She took that responsibility so seriously that in the mid-1990s, when the museum returned its first item under the act, the Elk Tongue Beaver Bundle, to the Blackfoot nation, she would not publicly describe what the bundle contained because that was supposed to be known only to those eligible to participate in the religious ceremony in which it was used.

“Even when we went through the deaccessioning process, we didn’t tell our trustees about it in detail,” she explained to The Denver Post. “This is the first repatriation we did; we’d like this to set the right tone.”

In addition to her husband, Ms. Blomberg is survived by a brother, Gerard Bastian.

Ms. Yazzie summed up what Ms. Blomberg meant to her and many other artists.

“She helped clear the path for our voices and our history to be seen as alive and current when most museums overlook current contemporary Native artists,” she said. “She knew that we need to be to present and we need to share our truth.”

Professor Headrick said Ms. Blomberg experimented with how to exhibit Native American art, such as placing works from the past alongside contemporary works to emphasize continuity and connections. And, she said, although American Indian art had its own floor at the museum, she did not confine it to that location.

“Contemporary Native art at the Denver Art Museum was integrated into exhibitions of contemporary art from throughout the world,” Professor Headrick said. “Such practices went a long way toward the goal of exhibiting Native artists as, simply, artists, without a qualifier.”

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