The opening of a new art gallery in Chicago is not a particularly big deal. Galleries have been coming and going there for over a century.
The opening of the Center for Native Futures’ gallery, however, is a big deal. Historic. This will be Chicago’s first and only all-Native arts gallery, operated by the city’s only all-Native fine arts organization.
“Now we have a place to actually show our art, when we want to, and support other artists and show their work and have people see what we’ve been exposed to for our lives as artists,” Chicagoan, artist, and Center for Native Futures co-founder Debra Yepa-Pappan (Jemez Pueblo) told Forbes.com.
Yepa-Pappan and her husband, fellow artist, and fellow Center for Native Futures co-founder Chris Pappan (Kanza/Osage/Lakota), have been carrying the banner for Native art in Chicago for years. For most of that time, she felt they were doing so alone. Within the last decade, however, more prominent Native artists began trickling to and rising up from Chicago.
A small community developed with a collective aspiration.
“We realized that we all had the same vision of wanting our own space as Native artists, to have a space that we can also bring in other Native artists,” Yepa-Pappan said. “We knew there’s this need in the community and I just said, ‘What’s stopping us? Why can’t we do this?’”
That proclamation was made on one of the regular Zoom meetings the group held as a means of support and connection during the pandemic. As fate would have it, another participant on the call had experience launching nonprofit organizations. By the end of 2020, the Center for Native Futures was a real thing, a Native artist run non-profit supporting Native art based in Chicago.
Getting off the ground
Yepa-Pappan has a simple answer for why the Center for Native Futures co-founders chose to pursue the non-profit route when forming the organization and setting up the gallery.
“As artists and just as people trying to make a living here in Chicago, we don’t have the money to start a for profit business, we’re barely making it to pay our own rent for where we’re living,” she said.
Understandably, none of them wanted to go broke or into debt pursuing this dream. Fate, fortunately, intervened.
The Terra Foundation for American Art has been one of the leading foundations supporting art of the United States since its founding in 1978. Its headquarters happen to be based in Chicago. In 2020, the Foundation began reimagining its mission to “focus on projects… aimed at questioning and broadening definitions of American art and transforming how stories of American art are told.”
Projects exactly like the Center for Native Futures.
Terra Foundation President & CEO Sharon Corwin was new to the position in 2020. Getting a lay of the land, she reached out to Chicago artist Andrea Carlson (Ojibwe). Carlson just so happened to be another co-founder of the Center for Native Futures.
“We had an initial conversation with the Terra Foundation and shared what our plans were, what our dreams are, and they just jumped to support us,” Yepa-Pappan remembers. “They gave us our seed funding, which was incredible, and they continue to support us today.”
That seed funding amounted to $150,000. Not only could Center for Native Futures launch and operate with that money, it was enough to open a brick and mortar retail space.
Right place, right time.
“These foundations, I think they’re in that moment now where they realize how they haven’t supported Native art and they’re all here now willing to support us because of what we’re doing,” Yepa-Pappan said.
That includes the MacArthur Foundation, also headquartered in Chicago. The MacArthur Foundation is best known for its “Genius Grants,” but has supported a vast array of creative and dynamic thinkers, including, but not exclusively, artists, in the U.S. and around the world to the tune of nearly $7 billion since 1978.
The Marquette Building
The Center for Native Futures gallery will occupy a 3,600-square-foot storefront in the Marquette Building which, not coincidentally, the MacArthur Foundation owns and calls home.
The stately Marquette Building opened as high-end office space in 1895 during a period of explosive growth for Chicago following its hosting of the 1893 World’s Fair. It’s named in honor of Jacques Marquette, a French Jesuit priest who was one of the first Europeans to explore the upper Midwest of what would become the United States during the 1660s and 70s. That included what is now Chicago, and he and two companions became the first Europeans to live in the future city, ancestral homelands to the Council of the Three Fires–Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Nations–as well as the Miami, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac, Fox, Kickapoo, and Illinois Nations.
The lobby of this architectural gem features a striking mosaic mural created by Louis Comfort Tiffany depicting Marquette’s initial encounters with the area’s Indigenous people.
“The narrative is very problematic,” Yepa-Pappan said. “It’s Marquette and these Jesuit priests meeting with the Indians–the savage Indians–and the Indians are dressed as Plains Indians, not even representative of the people that were here that he would have originally met.”
The building and mural have historic landmark designation, so it can’t be removed, but it’s hardly the statement an organization striving to be enlightened and inclusive like the MacArthur Foundation wants to make.
“The MacArthur Foundation wanted to counter that narrative and they have this small exhibition space beyond the lobby (where) they wanted to have this kind of intervention exhibition,” Yepa-Pappan said. “When I heard they were working on this project, I said, ‘I would love to be involved in some way.’”
And so she did.
In another bit of good timing, during those conversations, the Center for Native Futures launched. The pandemic was at its peak. The Marquette Building suddenly had prime storefronts empty in Chicago’s urban core.
What about using some of that space for a pop-up exhibition of Native Art visible from the street?
“That turned into, well, let’s turn this into a partnership and why don’t we let you have one of these spaces to house Center for Native Futures,” Yepa-Pappan said.
So it is.
The gallery will pay a modest rent for a premium location, but Yepa-Pappan reminds, “our presence there is also helping to counter the narrative in there too.”
So it is.
The Marquette Building is located three blocks down East Adams Street from another Chicago icon whose history intersects with the Center for Native Futures.
If you can’t join ‘em, leave ‘em
The Art Institute of Chicago is one of the finest art museums in the world housing masterpieces including Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Vincent Van Gogh’s The Bedroom and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Its paucity of Native American art, however, is disgraceful.
“We’re just down the street from the Art Institute of Chicago, we can step foot in there as spectators, but we’ve never had our art on their walls and we never get invited to do anything there,” Yepa-Pappan said. “Whenever the Art Institute–if they do bring in a Native artist–they’re artists that don’t have a connection to Chicago. They have this community of Native artists that are just as well known, living right in their front yard, and yet we never get invited. So, here we are now, physically, practically in their front yard, and we’re going to control this, we’re going to have this space where we can show our art and the art of other Native people that we admire.”
One of those Native people will be Kelly Church (Ottawa/Pottawatomi). She prominently does have a work on view at the Art Institute of Chicago, a black ash basket in the shape of an egg displayed not far from Nighthawks. Church will be featured along with more than a dozen other artists during the Center for Native Future’s gallery initial exhibition “Native Futures.”
“We are really about trying to push Native artists as fine artists,” Yepa-Pappan said. “We want people to recognize our art as fine art.”
She also hopes the gallery’s presence opens they city’s and the nation’s eyes to the presence of Native people there.
You are on Native land
“it’s so surprising to me because sometimes even Native people from out of town who come here just don’t realize we have such a large (Native) community,” Yepa-Pappan said. “Chicago was one of those relocation cities during the government‘s relocation program so that’s how a lot of these different families ended up in Chicago and stayed here for opportunities that a big urban city has to offer.”
A 2018 study found Chicago to have the third largest urban Native American population in the country. Illinois, however, is one of only 14 U.S. states without a single federally recognized tribe calling it home. The legacy of forced removal by the federal government of tribes from this area where they once thrived in great numbers.
“The city itself has done so much to erase Native people and there are so many stereotypical images around the city, these romanticized images of Native peoples,” Yepa-Pappan said. Look no further than the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks logo. “When people see those, that’s what they’re expecting to see when they’re thinking about Native people. They’re thinking that we should all reflect those stereotypes. Tribal members still live here, but they don’t look like those romanticized Indians, people don’t know what to look for when they’re looking for Native people (in Chicago), but we’re here.”
Now with an art gallery to call their own.
The Center for Native Futures will host its grand opening celebration and exhibition on Saturday, September 16, from 4:00 to 7:00 PM and Sunday, September 17, from noon to 4:00 PM. All are welcome.
The art gallery will then open to the public Wednesday through Friday from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM and Saturday from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM.
Also highlighting the Native American community in Chicago, and beyond, is an exhibition of Rosalie Favell’s (Métis) Indigenous portraits at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University on view September 20 through December 3, 2023.
In 2018, Favell launched her “Facing the Camera” series which has grown to include more than 500 portraits of Indigenous artists and arts professionals taken across Canada, the United States and Australia. “Rosalie Favell: Indigenous Artists Facing the Camera” will include more than 115 photos from the series, as well as a suite of new portraits of Chicago-area artists and arts professionals taken during Favell’s Block Museum residency during the spring of 2023. Included are pictures of Debra Yepa-Pappan and Chris Pappan.