The CN Gorman Museum of Native American Art will have a new, much larger home on the UC Davis campus sometime next year to coincide with the museum’s 50th anniversary.
The new museum, converted from the old UC Davis Faculty Club, will be able to house 2,500 contemporary artworks by Native American and Indigenous artists, administrative spaces for staff and student workers, state-of-the-art lighting for the art collection, a small gift shop, a conference room, the will serve as a library for special collections, public viewing of the work of the collection’s custodians, and outdoor event spaces that will wrap around the building and descend into the arboretum.
“It’s necessary and it’s relevant and it’s vital because we’ve had these really great collections and we want to make them accessible to our visitors,” said Veronica Passalacqua, the museum’s curator.
The building is operated to higher museum standards in terms of humidity and temperature control, security and LED lighting. “So we’re just meeting a better standard of exhibit quality that, frankly, Native American work deserves,” Passalacqua said.
The CN Gorman Museum was officially established in 1973 and named in honor of Navajo artist Carl Nelson Gorman (1907-1998), who taught art history and art studio as one of the founders of the UC Davis Native American Studies Department from 1969.
According to Jack Forbes, the acclaimed author, activist, and professor emeritus of Native American Studies, the museum’s beginnings began in the Tecumseh Center, a small house in downtown Davis. Shortly thereafter, the burgeoning collections, art studio and museum were housed in the temporary buildings adjacent to Walker Hall. In 1992 the museum moved to its current location in Hart Hall for nearly 30 years.
“I’m honored that he’s getting a bigger room,” Zonnie Gorman, CN Gorman’s daughter, said in a phone conversation with this publication about memories of her father.
Zonnie Gorman, who lives in New Mexico, said her father takes pride in his students’ work. “And you know, that’s how this museum started. It gave them places to display things and eventually became a museum. So I’m really pleased that you know they’re getting a bigger space to highlight more Indigenous art,” said Zonnie Gorman.
Primary Gallery One, the tentative name of the museum’s main space, will host rotating exhibitions of contemporary indigenous art, as it has done throughout its 50-year history. For Native American art, Passalacqua said that from the museum’s perspective, anything after the 1970s is considered contemporary. “For us, it’s really just a distinction between the more historical works and the more recent works, because you can imagine people making assumptions right away. When I say something like 20 years old, I would say it’s contemporary,” Passalacqua said.
Around the corner will be the second gallery, where a second exhibition may highlight newly acquired works. Passalacqua said the room, which can be darkened, can also be useful for video projections. Those who remember the old faculty club may remember the large two-sided fireplace. It has since been removed during the renovation.
Three (10ft long, 7ft high and 3ft deep) custom glass cases will arrive from Canada on Tuesday. “Just top notch,” Passalacqua said, adding that they all have bells and whistles. Being airtight, dustproof, low in iron, glass contains smaller three-dimensional works including pottery, basketry, and small sculptures.
As you walk past the showcases and through the glass walls, you can watch the museum staff at work. “Vacuuming fabrics,” said Passalacqua, “is a classic that never ends. We might clean a piece, it takes several weeks, but we’re doing something,” Passalacqua said.
The museum will also include a gift shop with resale items Passalacqua encounters while working with artists, and a reading room with out-of-print native art books, catalogues, biographies and portfolios that will be accessible.
Passalacqua looked through the trees at the arboretum from the museum’s entrance and said that if they clear the bushes below, the museum will be linked to this special section, which features native plants from California. “It’s a perfect match. We’re working with the Arboretum to bring this palette of plants here,” said Passalacqua. “They do a lot of their touring and stuff from here, so we’re kind of going to be a part of all of that because we have a very compatible audience.”
Near King Hall, the UC Davis Contemplative Garden was created after Patwin’s remains were found during the construction of the Mondavi Center. Passalacqua hopes the museum can coordinate with some signposts between “here and there” because it’s not far. It’s right over there, the next little bridge, so we hope we can find a way with the Arboretum that connects us to the Contemplative Garden.”
The last time Zonnie Gorman visited the museum was when the Graduate Program in Native American Studies was approved in 1998. in Native American Studies. Zonnie and her father have lectured together on Navajo Code Talkers of World War II, which he was one of the original 29.
In a promotional video for the History Channel, Zonnie Gorman explains that the Navajo Code Talkers of World War II were a group of men recruited to create and use a code in their Navajo language. They were used in every major battle of the Pacific Theater at the Battle of Iwo Jima. You have sent and received more than 800 messages.
According to Major Howard Connor, Zonnie Gorman explained, had it not been for the Navajo Code Talkers, Iwo Jima would never have been taken. “It’s an important story because it provides a place where we can celebrate what we have in common, but also our differences and one of those differences that saved this country,” she said.
Zonnie Gorman recently donated her father’s collection of 52 boxes of ephemera to the University of New Mexico’s Center for Southwest Research through its eponymous museum, which she pointed out is focused on art. “(The ephemera is) still an unprocessed collection. So I don’t even know if I could get my hands on it if I went there,” Zonnie recalled, recalling the last time she had read old letters when her father was first asked to attend the to teach at UC Davis. Some of the collections relate to articles and slides published during his time at UC Davis.
Zonnie Gorman lectured about the code talkers across the country and said most people didn’t connect with their father. “You know him either as an artist or as a code talker. They didn’t put them together, which I find quite interesting.”
When CN Gorman came to UC Davis he experimented with a lot of California Native American art, fascinated by h Chumash Art Rock Art, which he painted. He continued to pursue his art when he left Davis, but as he began receiving publicity for the decassification of the Navajo Code, his focus shifted. “It sort of took over my father’s life. My father was very charismatic. He was that kind of person who, when you walked into a room, just gravitated towards the podium,” said Zonnie Gorman.
She looks forward to the museum opening whenever it does, and hopes that doesn’t happen when she graduates with a Ph.D. in history next year focused on the Code Talkers from the University of New Mexico.
— Contact Monica Stark at firstname.lastname@example.org.