Off the Reservation

If you think the Heard Museum is all about dusty old pots and Indian blankets, you haven't been there lately

But the crowd that actually shows up on April 7 is older, and smaller, than might be expected. It's an odd mix of the Heard's core crowd of older patrons, mixed with a sprinkling of downtown types.

Later, Heard marketing manager Nicole Haas will estimate the crowd at almost 200 over the course of the two-hour opening, but for most of the night, fewer than a dozen people are in the gallery. The conversation never even hits a buzz; the patrons' observations remain a polite, but somewhat uncomfortable, murmur.

Ruiz says he delights in the museum's traditional audience being suddenly confronted with modern art: "You go to SMoCA, and you're already looking for it. That's not true at the Heard. It's a surprise art show, in a sense."

Treehouse Kit, Guy Ben Nur, 2005
courtesy of the Heard Museum
Treehouse Kit, Guy Ben Nur, 2005
The Heard's Crossroads Gallery has location on its side.
Martha Strachan
The Heard's Crossroads Gallery has location on its side.

But on this night, at least, the museumgoers know what they're getting into. They're here specifically for the opening; they're ready for something challenging.

So they check out the stack of Coleman coolers. They linger in front of the de la Torre brothers' trailer.

A pair of older women survey the mattress that's been put next to Guy Ben-Ner's tree house. Next to the structure is the video that the docent found confusing. It shows Ben-Ner in a fake beard and swim trunks as he assembles his creation; the mattress is there for viewers to sit comfortably as they watch.

No one sits down on it.

"I could do yoga on that," one woman says softly.

"Really?" says the other. "I have a mattress just like it."

A group of four 40-somethings comes in and looks around. Within a minute or two, they confer. One of them heads down the hallway.

She returns a few seconds later.

"There ain't nothing down there," she explains, breathless. "There's a bathroom, and a water fountain. This is it." The foursome heads out.

A little before 9 p.m., the crowd has reached its zenith, but the people are not lingering in the gallery; at five minutes 'til the hour, they begin to head out to the courtyard, where the Colores Actors-Writers Workshop is set to première a play called Ghost Dance Messiah.

Originally, the play was to be set in the gallery, but the art took too much space. So they decided to do it outside -- a smart move as far as the theatrics go, but not exactly conducive to building a critical mass in the gallery.

The play, written by ASU instructor James E. Garcia, is a black comedy about a young Indian woman looking to lead a revolt against the government -- attempting, perhaps, a diaspora reversal.

Grant Almquist, who chairs the Monte Vista Club, a group of young professionals affiliated with the Heard, offers an introduction.

Almquist's remarks, more than anything on the night of the opening, reveal the tension implicit in the Heard's grab for a younger audience -- and the core audience that cherishes its regular exhibits.

"We want to get this age group involved in the Heard," Almquist tells the crowd. "To let them know about shows like 'Diaspora and the Desert.' A lot of people think of the Heard as old dusty pots and katsina dolls, but it's a lot more than that."

When he says "dusty pots," an older Native American woman in the crowd snorts. She scowls, unnoticed, for the rest of his remarks.

The play itself gets a warm reception and earns its share of laughter. No one flinches at one character's liberal use of the word "fucking"; instead, the audience seems happy to laugh and happy to show they get it.

After the show, however, most of them don't stay to linger over "Holy Land." Instead, they file out, quietly.

Still, Joe Baker is happy.

He's not focused on the tension between old and new. He's just thrilled to see people looking at the art, even if they're not actually discussing it.

For him, that's a matter of time.

"I don't think it's a show you can understand easily in one pass," he says, three days after the opening. "You have to think about it."


Before heading to the airport, on the Saturday after opening night, Einar and Jamex de la Torre return to the Crossroads Gallery. Einar is filming their trailers with a video camera, creating a tape of their installation; Jamex admits that they're also interested in checking out the crowd response.

He wants to know what people really think of the work -- real museumgoers, not the people there last night.

"It's hard to tell at an opening," he says.

On this Saturday morning, the parking lots at the Heard are packed. The same lots that were largely empty for the opening are now clogged with cars, buses, even an RV or two.

They are not here, though, for "Holy Land." This is the Heard's annual katsina doll marketplace, and the museum's auditorium is packed tightly with tables of Native artists exhibiting their wares -- and snowbirds eager to purchase them. The Steele Auditorium bursts with energy.

It's much quieter at the Crossroads Gallery, and the brothers go unnoticed as couples silently make their way past the trailer, barely pausing before heading into the more traditional collections.

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