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Installation views of the exhibition "Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists." Organized by Minneapolis Institute of Art. Presented by Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.

Southwest artist Juan Lucero joins Mia through Native American fellowship

Juan Lucero grew up in New Mexico, moving between Albuquerque and his Isleta Pueblo community, just south of town. As a teenager, he began working as a waiter in the restaurant of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, established in Albuquerque by all 19 Pueblos in the state to share their culture: dances, art, food, history. Eventually, he became an art buyer for the center’s high-end gallery, recruiting Native artists to sell their jewelry, pottery, and other fine art on consignment.

“It led me to want to make a career of it, and to get connected in the museum field,” says Lucero. He moved to Santa Fe and graduated in 2012 from the Institute of American Indian Arts, with a degree in museum studies.

Lucero is now the first full-time fellow of Native American art at Mia. Working with Jill Ahlberg Yohe, Mia’s associate curator of Native American art, he will do everything a curator does, from pulling together objects for exhibitions to community outreach to building relationships with artists. Ahlberg Yohe sees it as a kind of apprenticeship—a “deep, immersive experience,” she says—that could lead to a curatorial position in any museum.

The fellowship is sponsored by the Shakopee Mdewankanton Sioux Community (SMSC), based in Prior Lake. For years, the fellowship had been an as-needed position, for help with exhibitions. In 2020, they were able to expand it. “This is a transformational opportunity,” says Ahlberg Yohe, “with the goal of getting many Indigenous curators into these positions as possible.”

Jessamyn Kerchner of the SMSC says the fellowship is integral to the community’s goals, fulfilling “a lot of our Native values, from philanthropy to ensuring authentic cultural representation.” With fellows involved in every step of the curatorial process, she says, the program “gives Native people the opportunity to shape our stories. It’s important to have that authentic voice from the people whose experiences are being depicted.”

For Lucero, the position is a promising professional milestone—his predecessor in the role, Dakota Hoska, is now the assistant curator of Native arts at the Denver Art Museum. “In general, getting into a museum position is really hard,” Lucero says, “even more so for someone from the Indigenous community. The great thing about this fellowship is that younger generations will see another Native person working at a museum.”

But the work is also personal. Moving to Minnesota was something of a reality check for Lucero. “I grew up spoiled,” he says of Native culture in the Southwest. “The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center has always had a relationship with their community that’s really strong. It’s where just about every Pueblo youth would go to get a job after high school. Opportunities are there for Native people and in abundance. You go to a place like Minnesota and it’s a pretty big culture shock.”

Connecting the Collection to Communities

Lucero followed the artist Graci Horne to Minnesota, in 2013, after meeting in college in Santa Fe. They married two years later and began piecing a life together through art. Lucero has worked as a graffiti artist, in ceramics, as an art installer, and on Horne’s projects, including the massive May Day puppets she builds for In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre in Minneapolis.

“It’s a constant hustle, being an artist,” Lucero says. “But I’ve always done art. I need the creativity around me to function in my everyday life.”

Working at Mia had seemed a remote possibility until a few years ago, when a job opened up in art storage. “It was one of my small dreams come true,” Lucero says, “to be face to face with everything in the collection.”

That experience is now a significant asset, as Lucero brings a uniquely Indigenous lens to the art at Mia and the notion of collecting itself. “One of the really extraordinary things that he brings to this fellowship is a deep knowledge of our collection,” says Ahlberg Yohe, “and a different understanding of these belongings, based on a relationship with the object.”

Ahlberg Yohe recently spent several years organizing the 2019 exhibition “Hearts of Our People,” gathering the art of Native women in collaboration with Indigenous artists and scholars across the country. The experience helped transform Mia’s approach to collecting and displaying cultural material. Lucero now hopes to connect the collection to the Indigenous community itself.

“I don’t think museums seem very accessible to Native people in general,” Lucero says. “One of my goals is to foster more relationships and bring more people in.” But he may also find that people are coming to him, from all over the country. There are many museums, after all, looking to research the history of the Indigenous material in their collections and no one on staff to point them in the right direction.

“Sometimes institutions feel this research is too complex,” says Ahlberg Yohe. “They don’t know who to reach out to or how to get started.” Lucero’s connections to the Southwest, where much of the Indigenous material in museums has come from, could help connect the dots. His work may even serve as a model for going about it the right way, says Ahlberg Yohe, “a great opportunity for Mia to move these important conversations forward.”

Lead image: View of “Hearts of Our People” exhibition, organized by the Minneapolis Institute of Art.