Cyrus Dallin’s “Appeal to the Great Spirit” has perched on the front lawn of the Museum of Fine Arts for more than a century. But in recent years, it’s become a durably static symbol lodged outside an institution determined to transform itself on the inside, making the disconnect between the museum’s interior and exterior selves all the more notable.
This month, outside will fall in stride with in when the museum installs “A Garden for Boston,” a pair of installations on the MFA’s expansive Huntington Avenue grounds. Two distinct projects were announced Tuesday that will take shape through the spring and summer: Ekua Holmes’s “Radiant Community,” an installation of 3,000 sunflowers that will grow from May to September on the museum’s east lawn; and “Raven Reshapes Boston: A Native Corn Garden at the MFA,” by Elizabeth James Perry.
“Radiant Community” is an extension of Holmes’s “Roxbury Sunflower Project,” an ongoing, multi-year effort through the historically Black neighborhood just south and east of the museum, where Holmes has long lived. “Raven Reshapes Boston,” meanwhile, addresses the often-fraught legacy of “Appeal to the Great Spirit” itself.
The Dallin sculpture, which towers above street level on a granite pedestal, was intended by Dallin as a sympathetic portrait of Native Americans forced from their lands and whose culture was threatened as US populations grew to encroach ever further on tribal territories. In recent years, however, the piece has come to be seen by many as a patronizing portrayal of surrender by a people for whom resilience is a hallmark of contemporary identity.
This month, mounds of earth will rise to meet the work’s nearly 8-foot pedestal, burying it entirely. In the soil, Perry, who is Wampanoag and a member of the Aquinnah tribe on Martha’s Vineyard, will plant stands of corn that will envelop the sculpture over the course of growing season.
Her work is the most public reflection of several years of soul searching, where the museum has grappled with how best to address its most identifiable and permanent artwork in a time of significant change around representation and race. (Since the sculpture’s arrival in 1912, it has never been moved.) The MFA has hosted several events prodding at the work’s stolid presence, including a March 2019 symposium meant to address the sculpture’s dissonant and unsettling role as the museum’s principal piece of public art. In October of that year, when the museum hosted its first Indigenous People’s Day, the lawn around the sculpture was dotted with signs bearing reactions solicited over many months from Indigenous people and other community members. Some decried what they saw as an obvious stereotype; others imagined it as an ennobling portrait of endurance.
Layla Bermeo, the museum’s associate curator of paintings in the Art of the Americas department, has been working with public responses to the sculpture for several years. In a short video made for Indigenous People’s Day in October 2020 — a virtual affair, given the pandemic — she explained how the figure in “Appeal to the Great Spirit,” with its mishmash of tribal garb spanning several Native American nations, is “a vision of Indigeneity for a white audience by a white artist.” For the first time, an interpretive label was installed in front of the piece late last year to help address, as Bermeo said, the museum’s “responsibility to confront stereotypes in art and acknowledge that creative images can have very real negative consequences.”
Pressure has grown over the past year as troubling monuments have been removed nationwide. The decision of New York’s Museum of Natural History to remove a long-standing statue from its front steps of Teddy Roosevelt on horseback flanked by Black and Indigenous men prompted some here to consider whether the time had finally come for “Appeal to the Great Spirit.” Matthew Teitelbaum, the museum’s director, believes there’s more to say with the work staying put.
“If you want to be an institution of invitation, welcome, engagement, that in the end creates for all of your visitors a sense of belonging, can this stand by itself? The answer is no,” he said in a recent interview at the museum. “Should it come down? Well, we’re not there. Dallin was a serious artist, with serious intent. There is aesthetic value in it. This isn’t an unlimited edition Confederate statue. It is a serious, considered articulation of a set of ideas. It’s romanticized to a degree that I, personally, think has to be questioned. And that’s what we’re doing: Questioning it.”