The Brinton Museum sits on the historic Circle A Ranch at the base of the Bighorn Mountains. Named after the ranch owner, Bradford Brinton, the museum prides itself on an extensive collection of Western and American Indian art. Recently, the magazine True West announced it as the top western art museum of 2020. Ken Schuster, the Brinton's director and chief curator, spoke with Catherine Wheeler about what the honor means for the museum.
Ken Schuster: True West is, you know, a very popular pulp magazine. And it's a great honor to win, you know, the, theoretically, best Western art museum in the country. I mean, I don't know how you really pick that. And, you know, I'm certain that, of course, we believe we deserve it. And one of the things that that award does is they have a very active readership and that readership goes to museums. So, it's really an important honor and a great distinction. And it's a feather in our cap that we'll wear proudly even though I sort of feel like Marlon Brando... I cannot accept this, because I think they're 25 other institutions that are just as good.
Catherine Wheeler: What do you think, really contributed to such a distinction from all of the art museums that could possibly be selected?
KS: The distinction, in my point of view, is what I always feel has set the Brinton apart for the 30 years that I've been director here. And that's it's this marvelous institution located on a beautiful piece of property in, really, God's country. I mean, it's a gorgeous place when you come to the museum, you can't help but be inspired by the views. We have a great collection of traditional American art, Russel, Remington, all of those characters. We have a very, very wonderful collection of American Indian art. We have 628 acres which most other museums don't have, we put a hiking trail out there. And we've kept those trails very undeveloped because we don't want to really disturb the property. Because, you know, as we all know, this was American Indian land, and it's sacred to them. And that's part of the, the real thing that I think distinguishes us from many institutions is we pride ourselves in a great relationship with the Lakota and the Northern Cheyenne and the Crow or Apsaalooke people because they're the folks whose artwork comprises most of our indigenous population. And we hope to build better relations and even stronger relations with the Shoshone and the Arapaho and the Blackfeet and really all native people. And we're open to building a more contemporary vision of the West and collecting more contemporary Western art.
CW: When you hear the classification, like Western art museum, or western art, what does that encapsulate? What is Western art?
KS: To me, Western art isn't the pejorative term that it's gotten to be in academia. To me, Western art is any depiction of the American West, west of the Mississippi, done by Indigenous people, or the colonialists, you know, Americans, French, Spaniards, any of that. I think that's all relevant Western art. And I don't make the distinction that has to have a cowboy in it. I think that's where you start, you know, separating out people and saying, well, you know, you can't have this, you can't have that. You know, Western art is a genre that's open to all people and all things.
CW: Do you think that the idea of Western art is maybe encapsulating certain ideas or qualities that this place in the world has and that it's different from others?
KS: Oh, I think the thing that everybody would agree upon, and you know, whether you're very, very traditional with your interpretation of Western art, or you're an academic, is that the West, it's the landscape, it's the land that is really causing that relationship and promoting those depictions. And that's true, whether you're an Indigenous person or whether you've just, you know, stepped off a plane from Cairo. You can't help but be inspired and overcome or maybe even put off by that open space or this sense of emptiness.
CW: This acknowledgment is done annually. I was wondering if there's anything in the past year that you have been really proud of like a special exhibition that has come or something you've put together anything like that?
KS: Well, we're always proud of what we do here at the Brinton. But one of the things that we worked on, and this isn't the first time we've done it, but we partner with the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies or CAIRNS. And that Takuwe exhibit in the other room, I'm very proud of that, even though people walk in and are put off by the whole idea of the Wounded Knee Massacre. It's not about the massacre. Yes, the massacre occurred, and it's about how the people, you know, how they deal with that. And I think the message that CAIRNS is trying to get across is there [are] many ways to deal with that Wounded Knee Massacre, as there are Lakotas or people that even go to the site and see it. And I don't think that you can go into that exhibit and come away unmoved.
CW: And is there anything specific you're looking forward to in the year ahead?
KS: Well, we're excited about a lot of things that are coming down the road. One of the things we're going to be having our American Indian Advisory Council at the end of this week and one of the things that we're looking for help with is we have this great idea of collecting stories from the different tribes represented in our council. And we'd like to gather those stories, and then have our American Indian Advisory Council, give us names of, you know, Indigenous artists, from their tribes that could illustrate them. And I think that exhibit will be here in 2022. That'll be our, basically, our Illustrators Show. And we're really excited about that. We think that'll be a great opportunity for children. It'd be a great opportunity for the people that participate. And I think it'll build a stronger relationship between the Indigenous community and this museum, which I think is really, really important.
Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Catherine Wheeler, at firstname.lastname@example.org.