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South Dakota Art Museum to host "Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe"

Oscar Howe, Dakota Medicine Man
Oscar Howe, "Dakota Medicine Man," Casein on paper, 1968.
South Dakota Art Museum Collection, 1970.06.
Gift of the Artist. © Oscar Howe Family

The acclaimed exhibition Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe  culminates its national tour in Oscar Howe’s home state of South Dakota. Dakota Modern will be on view June 10, 2023–Sept.17, 2023 at the South Dakota Art Museum at South Dakota State University in Brookings.

The museum invites the public to a free opening day celebration on June 10 as well as Oscar Howe-related educational events and programming throughout the summer and beyond. Details will be announced as the exhibition draws closer. Admission to Dakota Modern at the South Dakota Art Museum will be free and all are welcome.

This retrospective exhibition celebrating the art of Yanktonai Dakota artist Oscar Howe was curated by Kathleen Ash-Milby and organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Portland Art Museum. It opened at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in March 2022 in New York City and is currently on view through May 14 at the Portland Art Museum. The South Dakota Art Museum is the final stop for Dakota Modern.

The exhibition at the South Dakota Art Museum features more than 60 works by Howe, including early works created in New Mexico and Oklahoma and a large selection of mature works painted by Howe during his many years living in South Dakota and teaching at the University of South Dakota. Howe’s public works, such as the Corn Palace murals, are also touched upon in the exhibit.

Dakota Modern draws upon collections from across the country, including many South Dakota collections. A large body of work from the Oscar Howe Collections at USD, and selections from the collections of the South Dakota Art Museum, the South Dakota State Historical Society, as well as private collectors from the state and beyond make up the exhibit.

“This exhibition is a celebration of Howe’s contributions to South Dakota and his definitive impact on the history of art,” said Donna Merkt, director of the South Dakota Art Museum. “Many people in South Dakota have contributed to the existence of this exhibit and we look forward to celebrating Howe’s legacy with the entire state.

“The South Dakota Art Museum and South Dakota State University are honored to host the culmination of this extraordinary exhibition and to share in preserving the legacy of South Dakota’s first artist laureate,” Merkt added.

Howe’s daughter, Inge Dawn Howe Maresh, praised the exhibit coming to the state.

"I am glad that this wonderful exhibit of my father's groundbreaking art is able to travel to South Dakota, a place where he was born, where he learned firsthand about his Dakota Sioux culture, and where he chose to return to mentor, nurture and inspire budding young artists, both native and non-native with his wisdom and talent," Howe Maresh said. "He had many wonderful friends here in South Dakota in Vermillion, Mitchell, Brookings and throughout the state who learned much about the beauty of Sioux culture through his amazing artwork. Therefore, it is only fitting that the exhibit should come here for its encore presentation.  I sincerely hope his art will continue to inspire people of all ages and races, especially young indigenous peoples, to reach beyond their expectations!”

In addition to being a dynamic visual artist, Howe is credited with challenging stereotypes related to Native American art. In 1958, after his painting "Umini Wacipi" was disqualified from the Philbrook Art Center’s annual Contemporary American Indian Painting competition, Howe wrote to the curator. He shared, "There is much more to Indian Art than pretty, stylized pictures. There was also power and strength and individualism (emotional and intellectual insight) in the old Indian paintings ... Indian Art can compete with any Art in this world, but not as a suppressed Art ... I only hope the Art World will not be one more contributor to holding us in chains."

Describing the exhibit, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian states:  

"Dakota Modern traces the artistic development of painter Oscar Howe (1915–1983). The arc of his career began with early conventional work created while he was in high school in the 1930s and continued through the emergence of his own innovative and abstract approach to painting in the 1950s and 1960s.

"One of the 20th century’s most innovative Native American painters, Howe committed his artistic career to the preservation, relevance and ongoing expression of his Yanktonai Dakota culture. He proved that art could be simultaneously modern and embedded in customary Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (Sioux) culture and aesthetics—to him there was no contradiction. Howe challenged the art establishment’s preconceptions and definitions of Native American painting. In doing so, he catalyzed a movement among Native artists to express their individuality rather than conforming to an established style that limits artistic expression. His legacy of innovation and advocacy continues to inspire generations of Native artists to take pride in their heritage and resist stereotypes."

“We are finally at a point in the 21st century where we can recognize the impact and complexity of Oscar Howe’s incredible work as both Native American and modern American art,” Ash-Milby said. “This project is a long overdue recognition of his contribution to the field that we hope will establish Howe’s place as a 20th-century modernist.”

For more information about Dakota Modern at the South Dakota Art Museum and the Museum’s Oscar Howe Collection visit Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe, email the museum or call 605-688-5423.

Exhibition Credits

Organized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Portland Art Museum. Curated by Kathleen Ash-Milby. Major support provided by The Henry Luce Foundation. Generous support provided by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Additional support provided by the Wyeth Foundation for American Art.

The exhibition of Dakota Modern at the South Dakota Art Museum is supported by many generous donors, including First Bank and Trust, an anonymous benefactor, Venance and Deborah Lengkeek and Meyer Orthodontics.

Operational support for the South Dakota Art Museum is provided by South Dakota State University and the South Dakota Arts Council. Support for the Museum’s exhibitions and educational programming comes from generous donors and Museum members.

Exhibition Catalog

An accompanying exhibition catalog, Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe, published by the National Museum of the American Indian, is available from the South Dakota Art Museum Store, online and in Brookings, and through major book sellers. The book features the most extensive representation of Howe’s artworks to date and examines his life as artist and educator. As the first multi-authored publication to present the full scope of his career, Dakota Modern secures Howe’s legacy as a contemporary Native artist and positions his work within an expanded global history of modernism. Co-edited by Kathleen Ash-Milby and Bill Anthes, the catalog also includes contributions from Janet Catherine Berlo, Christina Burke, Philip J. Deloria, Erika Doss, Emil Her Many Horses, John Lukavic, Inge Dawn Howe Maresh, Anya Montiel, Denise Neil and Joyce Szabo.

About the South Dakota Art Museum

Since 1970, the South Dakota Art Museum at South Dakota State University in Brookings has been a destination for people from around the world to enjoy the artistic legacy of South Dakota in all its diversity. With a vision to serve the diverse peoples and communities of the state and its visitors as South Dakota's premier visual arts resource, its mission is to inspire creativity, connection people and enrich lives through art.

The South Dakota Art Museum is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). The Museum is located at 1036 Medary Ave. in Brookings and is open daily, except on state holidays and Sundays in January – March. Admission to the museum is free. Parking is also free in the museum’s reserved lot just west of the museum on Harvey Dunn Street. For more information, call 605-688-5423 or email the museum.