“Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky” is a culminating moment in the distinguished career of Gaylord Torrence, senior curator of American Indian art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and a nationally recognized authority in the field.
Torrence joined the Nelson in 2002 as founding curator of the Department of American Indian Art, following a long tenure at Drake University in Iowa, where he created one of the nation’s first programs in North American Indian art history.
Before joining the Nelson, Torrence published the landmark study, “American Indian Parfleche: A Tradition of Abstract Painting,” and was curator and co-author of “Art of the Red Earth People: The Mesquakie of Iowa.”
Torrence also worked with Harvard University’s Peabody Museum as the principal objects consultant and contributing author for an exhibit and publication of the museum’s Lewis and Clark Indian Collection.
During his first seven years at the Nelson, Torrence expanded and refined the museum’s American Indian art collection, acquiring key works, such as the circa 1850 Arikara shield with the image of a buffalo spirit helper featured in the Plains exhibit.
That piece and other new acquisitions, including major gifts from Morton and Estelle Sosland, were unveiled when the museum opened its new American Indian galleries in 2009. The installation was curated and conceived by Torrence. .
Torrence had barely caught his breath from that big effort when musee du quai Branly president Stephane Martin invited him to curate an exhibition of American Indian Art. The opportunity to organize a 21st-century successor to Ted Coe’s landmark “Sacred Circles” exhibit of 1977 proved irresistible.
The exhibit, which became the “Plains Indians” show, has entailed working with 58 public and private lenders in North America and Europe. It is accompanied by a 300-plus page illustrated catalog, produced by Torrence, with contributions from 30 scholars. Torrence had nonstop help from Marjorie Alexander, senior curatorial associate in American Indian art. “She was enormously important in every aspect,” he said.
The launch of the show has also been a whirlwind. In June, Torrence attended the exhibit’s opening at the musee du quai Branly in Paris; this weekend, he will preside over a succession of opening events at the Nelson. Next year, he will follow the show to New York, where it will open at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in March.