The Dirt

The Dirt

New Gorman Museum Opens

Four Times the Space for Contemporary Native American Art.

By: Hanna Nakano

Doors are open at the brand new Gorman Museum of Native American Art at UC Davis, a space that is much larger and much more easily accessible.

Perfect timing, as the Gorman Museum, unique in focusing on, exhibiting and collecting Native American art, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year—and as more people are becoming aware of the land they’re on. 

“Land acknowledgement statements are being used more widely,” Veronica Passalacqua, Gorman Curator and Executive Director, told The Dirt. “Even though we’ve been around for 50 years, it’s really right now that we have a coalescence of acknowledging land and communities, and less represented artists.”

The new museum design features 4,000 square feet of gallery space, nearly four times more than its former home in Hart Hall. The museum itself is a work of art, with a giant circular public sculpture at the entrance and an intentionally designed gift shop.

The entrance sculpture is a mesmerizingly intricate piece, based on Native American basketry designs and was created by Museum Director and professor in the Department of Native American Studies, Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie. 

Outside, the single-story museum is painted with bands of green representing tule grass, a once-common plant in California used by Native American people to make baskets, clothing, tents, houses, and boats.

The new space has three galleries: one for temporary exhibits, one for displaying works from the Gorman’s collection on a rotational basis, and a third that offers visible storage, allowing guests access to stored collections. The Gorman is home to a collection of 2,250 artworks, most created since 1960, including paintings, ceramics, textiles and original prints.

The gift shop is a bit of a gallery in itself. Each artist with items on the shelves is part of a tribal nation of California. 

“For people who haven’t been here before, we kind of want to surprise them,” Passalacqua said. “Our mission has always been about showing works that enact and promote visual sovereignty. 

In the art world, solo exhibitions are how artists make a name for themselves. Since its founding in 1973, the Gorman Museum has shown work by a wide range of established and emerging artists, with 225 group and 88 solo exhibitions.

“Native artists, like all artists, need solo shows to advance their careers,” Passalacqua said. 

Professor Tsinhnahjinnie spoke at the media preview of the new museum, sharing her own thoughts and feelings behind many of the artworks on display.

One, Continuum Basket by Gerald Clarke, Jr. was particularly poignant. The large-scale sculpture is made of a Cahuilla basket tray and individually crushed beer and soft drink cans.

“I love the cans, the basket, because it also addresses diabetes,” Tsinhnahjinnie explained, “And what those cans have done to our people.”

The new museum space is located in the UC Davis Gateway along Old Davis Road. It’s steps away from the arboretum walking trail and has a large lot for parking. 

The UC Davis Department of Native American Studies was founded in 1961, and is one of the oldest Native American studies programs. UC Davis is one of just three universities offering a doctorate in Native American studies. The museum is named in honor of the late artist Carl Nelson Gorman, a founding faculty member.

The Gorman Museum’s opening exhibition “Contemporary California Native Art” will include about 40 works by 20 artists, all members of California tribes.

UC Davis is located on land that has for thousands of years been home to the Pawtin people.

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