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The New Indian Market

Rethinking the business behind Native American art

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Shawn Olson-Crawford says earning a master’s degree in business administration helped her learn about complex organizations, but that didn’t fully prepare her for keeping an Indian arts outlet up and running.

“Personally, it’s been a real good lesson in patience,” she says. “In a way, we’re learning tolerance for each other, too.”

If Olson-Crawford and other Counting Coup Indian Arts Cooperative organizers have their way, Indian artists from around the region will see their profile raised in coming years.

For too long, Olson-Crawford says, Native artisans from the nation’s northern tier have largely been ignored, primarily because their work hasn’t been marketed aggressively. Getting a bigger piece of the $3 billion Indian art market is now a top goal of the newly revamped cooperative, which is headquartered downtown and run by American Indian students from the University of Montana. “Any more, when you think of Indian art, you think of the pueblos and sunset colors and kachinas and turquoise jewelry,” she says. “But there’s much more to it than that.”

Olson-Crawford, an Assiniboine Indian who lived on Montana’s Fort Peck Reservation as a child, says the group plans to be more than just a clearinghouse for selling Native wares. A main goal will be to connect fledgling Indian artists with professionals in the field who can act as mentors and provide links to potential buyers. The cooperative also plans to sponsor classes on Native American arts and crafts.

Along with preserving tribal culture, Olson-Crawford says the educational offerings will help promote a better understanding of Native peoples and the value of their work. Increased familiarity, she believes, will breed financial success.

“We’re not in the business to make money,” she says of the nonprofit group, which only charges a 25 percent commission to sell pieces. “We want to help Indian artists make money.”

The cooperative’s gallery, which features a variety of work from around the area, occupies prime rental property at 135 E. Main. Storage area in the back of the storefront is being converted to classroom space, and a full-sized basement may be remodeled so the operation can be expanded. A small library of Native American literature is being assembled for public use, as well as a computer that will be loaded with art-based software. A photo darkroom is in the works, and a gift shop carries a variety of small Indian-made items that sell for under $50.

“We’re building up the gift store component,” she says. “That’s where a lot of the locals will make their money off of.”

The group was founded under another name a few years ago, but funding became scarce and enthusiasm wore down over time, she says. Instead of letting the concept die, a new board of directors was formed, and Olson-Crawford and three other students volunteered to staff the facility nearly full time. Past debt has nearly been retired, she says, and cooperative leaders eventually hope to buy their own building.

The new gallery has quickly become a popular addition to Missoula’s substantial art scene, but funding shortfalls are forcing the cooperative to manage the operation on a month-by-month basis for now, Olson-Crawford says. The group hopes to fire up a website to help spread the word about the project, and $15 memberships are being solicited, as well as larger donations. Coop organizers are looking for a grant writer, as well as others who will help keep their dream afloat.

“The biggest need is money,” she says. “We’d love to have a major benefactor, or two or three.”

Olson-Crawford says various Missoula businesses have donated supplies, fixtures and other items for the gallery, which formally opened in July. Board members and others have loaned the cooperative money to pay off old bills and keep the doors open.

“The community has actually been pretty helpful,” she observes. “There’s been a good public response.”

One challenge, Olson-Crawford says, is that many Indian people are not comfortable navigating in the non-Native world of commerce. “Being Native Americans, we have a whole other perspective,” she explains. “We’re trying to blend those values and perspectives. We’re trying to make [the operation] more professional and competitive in the business world. We’re finding our way as we go.”

Olson-Crawford says about a dozen Indian artists are already working with the cooperative, and a dozen more are “in the process of putting things together and bringing them in.” All styles and genres of art are welcome, she says, as long as they originate from the Northern Plains and southern Alberta and reflect the indigenous cultures of the region.

“We’re slowly making the contacts,” she adds. “What we’re looking for is authentic, Native American-made art.”

In time, cooperative leaders hope to establish a reserve fund large enough to buy work outright. They’d also like to organize buying trips to reservations across the region. In time, they hope to have enough money to provide loans to artists who don’t have enough funding to complete their projects.

“In a way, we’re an economic development project, because we provide Native American artists the means to be successful in the business world,” Olson-Crawford says. “We’re empowering people.”

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