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By Ray Stern
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Initially, he says, he was as surprised to find his work at the Heard as anyone.
For one thing, he hadn't really thought of the museum as a place for contemporary art: "I knew they dabbled a bit, but if you went to the Heard, you'd miss it unless you knew what you were looking for."
For another, he freely acknowledges that he's not Native American, not in the traditional sense. While his grandmother was, he says, a full-blown Kickapoo, she lived in Mexico.
Once the family moved north of the border, when Ruiz's father was a young man, the family wasn't considered Indian.
After all, in the United States, it doesn't matter if you are 50 percent Spanish and 50 percent Indian -- you come north from Mexico, you have dark hair and eyes, you're a Mexican.
Sullivan, the former museum director, says that, during his tenure at the Heard, some board members seemed to think that the museum's focus -- and its duty -- was solely to Native Americans north of the border.
Those board members, he's quick to add, were not Native Americans themselves, but Anglos with specific ideas about what an "Indian" was.
"I think they really struggled with the idea that, south of the border, people are still 'Indians,'" he says. "They thought, 'Mexicans are south of the border, they speak a different language, this is a different culture. What are they doing in this museum?'"
Baker didn't skirt that question. At his direction, the Ruiz show focused implicitly on border issues, immigration, and changing identity.
Indeed, the pieces Baker selected for "La Realidad" didn't ignore the potential for controversy so much as force a confrontation with it, something the curator is clearly proud of.
Somewhat boastfully, he credits the show with taking on immigration even before it was the talk of the town.
"Think about it," Baker says. "Hector's show opened last summer. And that whole discussion of 'border' and 'minority in America' realized itself a year later on the streets of Phoenix and in major metropolitan areas all over the U.S. That's really working!"
A youthful 60, with old-fashioned horn-rimmed glasses and a taste for stylish sneakers, Joe Baker is himself a Native American.
A member of the Delaware tribe, Baker was born in Dewey, Oklahoma, population 5,000. After earning both bachelor's and master's degrees in fine arts at the University of Tulsa, he moved to Phoenix 25 years ago, he says, "because of opportunities in the arts."
If that seems funny, considering the limited art scene here 25 years ago, Baker is ready to laugh at the joke: "Keep in mind, I was in Oklahoma before that."
Before Baker worked as a curator, he was a professor, and before that, he supported himself as a painter for 13 years. (He also does beadwork.)
Jennifer Complo McNutt is curator of contemporary art at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, which has shown several of Baker's pieces. She describes his style as "beautifully drawn, realistic, but not in the photorealistic sense, and very dramatic."
Baker took his first museum gig at the Heard in 1999, and spent three years managing its artist-in-residence program. After leaving to spend a year as dean at the Institute of Native American Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he returned to the Heard, this time as a curator.
"Holy Land" is his sixth show since returning. Other than Hector Ruiz, the others have all been displays of solo work by contemporary Native American artists.
Several of the exhibitions have been considered groundbreaking. The Ruiz show tackled immigration and introduced a virtually unknown artist. Local curators also praise Baker's exhibition of the work of Virgil Ortiz, a New Mexico artist who makes clay pottery, silver jewelry -- and leather clothes.
Baker's next solo show will feature RC Gorman, a recently deceased Indian artist who's been called "The Native American Picasso."
While Gorman is well-known to fans of Indian art, Baker plans to focus the show on something rarely discussed in those circles: Gorman's life as a "celebrity artist," part of Andy Warhol's Factory and Liz Taylor's social circle.
"He was very flamboyant, very successful, and just lived a big life," Baker says.
It's a typically quirky choice for a curator who's made a point of them.
Baker's friend Susan Krane, who is director at SMoCA, describes him as "a consensus builder." But in the same breath, she calls him "fearless" -- the perfect combination of traits, she says, for someone in his position.
"It's hard to have any conversation with Joe, as with any curator, without sensing his passion and excitement for what he does," Krane says. "Now, that doesn't mean we don't complain to each other about things that are hard, conditions we wish we could change.
"He assumes, over time, that things will work," she adds. "And he's strong enough, and a grounded enough professional, to sustain his efforts in the course of the flak that may come his way because he's trying to do something new. He's strong enough to weather that."
Indeed, after selecting Ruiz, Baker didn't flinch from recruiting an unknown commodity to work with him on "Holy Land."