About Frederic Douglas

In 1925, the Denver Art Museum Board took a tentative step toward defining its collecting policy when, in what appears to be its first major expenditure for acquisitions, it agreed to buy a group of 46 Navajo textiles for $3,100. A definite course of action seemed to be set by the end of 1926, when trustee Anne Evans, daughter of the governor of Colorado during the time of the Sand Creek Massacre, formally requested to be appointed head of a standing committee to "build a fine Indian Art Collection."

In 1929, Frederic H. Douglas joined the Denver Art Museum as Curator of Indian Art, with the objective to define the manner in which American Indian objects were re-contextualized in a museum setting. Douglas was intimately involved in a myriad of organizations and activities throughout the United States, and was considered the contemporary expert in Indian Art and culture. He served as Curator until 1946, and also served as Director of the Museum from 1940 to 1942. He was also a Trustee of the Museum. In 1947, Douglas became Curator of the Department of Native Art, a position he held until his death in 1956.

Douglas acquired literally thousands of objects with his own funds during his tenure. Most were given outright to the museum, others placed on long-term loan with the intention they would eventually enter the museum collection. For Douglas, collecting was a hands-on, grassroots activity. One of his early catalogue cards notes that the piece was given to him by a Santa Clara potter for "providing assistance on the road."

Douglas went well beyond the norm in numerous contexts, and created a whole new and universal approach to the subject of art, Native American peoples, and the necessary contextual relationships between societies. Douglas focused on the aesthetic properties of the works rather than their significance as ethnographic or anthropological specimens. He single-handedly created a new benchmark for these subjects, which set the stage for much of what is happening in the ‘Tribal Arts' contemporary world.

He understood the damage that was inflicted on the Native peoples, and the prolonged impact. Not only did he assess the problems, he utilized the resources of his Native American relationships and the depth of the Denver Art Museum's collection to reintroduce historical skills and pride in the material culture.

Douglas was continually involved in Native Arts programs and solutions to problems in methods far from the usual. One example of many would be during the 1930s, when he realized the Northern Cheyenne had lost their rich tradition of beadwork due to a combination of geographic hardships imposed by the relocation methods of the Federal Government, and the subsequent loss of the members of the beadwork societies. In this instance, he personally drove to Oklahoma to the Southern Cheyenne Reservation, which had maintained the rich beadwork tradition, and picked up a Southern Cheyenne elder, Mary Inkanish. He drove her back to Denver and they filled a steamer trunk with historic Cheyenne beadwork from the Denver Art Museum collection. With the trunk and Mary, he then drove to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Lame Deer, Montana. They spent the next six months re-educating the women of the reservation on how to create traditional beadwork with the help of the authentic examples of beadwork provided by the art museum.

Douglas also established a tradition of "Indian Fashion Shows" in which pieces from the Denver Art Museum collection were modeled by both society ladies and Native Americans from the area, accompanied by Douglas' interpretive commentary. This served to enliven the material, and a contemporary event was begun.

In 1930, Douglas initiated the popular "Indian Leaflet" series, in which summary accounts of culture areas and specific tribes alternated with comparative discussions of artifact types.

Because of the position of the Denver Art Museum as a showcase for Native American Art, Douglas became involved with all the major exhibitions of American Indian Art, including the Exposition of Indian Tribal Arts (1939 World's Fair in San Francisco). Following the World's Fair, the Museum of Modern Art made arrangements for Douglas to design the "Indian Art of the United States" exhibit in 1941. These exhibits were considered a new, revolutionary approach, and eventually became the standard that survives to this date.

Douglas was posted to the New Hebrides and the Philippines during World War II, which extended his interests to other native arts. In 1946, after the war, he traveled in Europe and established contacts with museums there. For American Indian art materials which were considered surplus, he traded for African and Oceanic materials from the British Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford. He traded with other museums as well.

Following his death in 1956, he was then succeeded as curator of the department of native art by the very capable leadership of Royal Hassrick, Norman Feder, Dick Conn and, presently, Nancy Blomberg and associate curator John Lukavic. In 1974 the Douglas Society was founded to honor and ensure the continuance of the work of Frederic Douglas.