This Donor Didn't Trust the Met. So What Did He Do With His Invaluable Collection?

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, our archeologist-hero confronts a mercenary in possession of a valuable artifact and admonishes him by saying, "That belongs in a museum."

But what if the artifact ends up in a storage closet in a museum?

That's an increasingly common fear running through the minds of some art donors nowadays. As such, it's one of the reasons why many are bypassing museums entirely and instead giving their works to, say, hospitals, schools, or even office lobbies. Donors want to make sure their work is viewed by the most people possible.

There is, of course, another alternative to consider. Simply start your own museum (and foundation, for that matter.) Which is exactly what Ralph T. Coe did, the man who single-handedly catalyzed Americans' interest in Native American art in the 20th century.

Coe's fascination with Native American art began in 1955. Through his career, which including serving as director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City until 1982 before settling in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he collected more than 2,200 Native American objects, some of which dated back to prehistoric times. His landmark exhibition, "Lost and Found Traditions: Native American Art, 1965-1985," was the first major dedicated to the work of contemporary Native American artists. It was shown at the American Museum of Natural History and nine other museums beginning in 1986. 

But Coe was faced with a dilemma. Where, exactly, should these objects permanently reside? According to this thorough piece in the Santa Fe New Mexican, he initially considered donating the material to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (aka The Met) and his non-Native material to the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, his undergraduate alma mater. "Then," said Rachel Wixom, Coe's nice and the president and CEO of the Ralph T. Coe Foundation: 

He had a change of heart when he started to realize that museums were struggling and a lot of the works were going into their storage areas and not seeing the light of day. It would be difficult for the layperson to get in and experience them. So he started thinking about an alternative way of having his collection be activated, and he wanted people of all ages to come in and touch it and work with it. He was extremely inclusive. 

Established in 2007, the Ralph T. Coe Foundation for the Arts is dedicated to increasing public awareness, education, and appreciation of indigenous art and culture worldwide, with a concentration in native peoples of North America. Programs include artist workshops and discussion panels, including Curatorial Conversations, which gathers leading scholars committed to expanding and challenging the accepted museum practices of collecting and displaying indigenous arts. 

Perhaps most importantly, given Coe's concerns around maximizing audience engagement, the foundation opens its doors to the general public, whereby it can access Coe's extensive collection of indigenous art. 

"There is an idea of the dying American Indian, and we keep counting them out," Mr. Coe said before his passing in 2010. "But I keep wondering, if we have counted them out, why is all of this here?"