Art of the West: Have You Heard About the Heard

12/6/2007 • Westward Expansion, Wild West

The Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, has been attracting art lovers and others for more than 75 years with no signs of letting up. Throughout the year, the people come to see the exhibit galleries or shop in the bookstore, or maybe just to tour the musuem’s five courtyards. Or grab a bite to eat at Arcadia Farms at the Heard Café. Maybe they want to see the most recent addition—HOME: Native People in the Southwest— which opened in 2005. Or do research in the library and archives.

For two days in March, however, they come— in droves— for one reason: Indian art.

The Heard Museum’s Guild Indian Fair and Market turns 50 this year, and to celebrate the museum will bring in more than 670 of the top American Indian artists — painters and sculptors, jewelers and beaders, doll makers and weavers, basket makers and leatherworkers.

For those uncomfortable in art galleries, the Heard offers an alternative. “People will come to a show like this where they might not go to a gallery or an art opening,” says Kevin Red Star, a Crow painter from Red Lodge, Mont., who was the featured artist at last year’s Heard market. “It’s a chance to visit with the artists. They can go see a painter and a sculptor and a jeweler in the same place.“

Held on the museum’s Central Courtyard, the festivities also include Indian music and dances, artist demonstrations, and plenty of food. This year’s event is scheduled for 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. March 1-2. Admission includes the festival as well as all museum galleries. Not bad for a market that began as a little community fair run by volunteers.

Run today by the Heard Museum Guild (also volunteers), the Indian Fair & Market draws more than 18,000 visitors, making this the museum’s largest fund-raiser.

“It’s not just a Southwestern Indian art show,” Red Star says. “The Heard brings in artists from all over the country. You’ll got to a lot of shows, and they’re honoring and showing only the artists from that region. But the Heard, like the Santa Fe Indian Market, brings them in from all over.”

That’s true. The Heard brings in San Carlos Apache Miles Douglas, best known for his own line of skateboards, or Hyrum Joe, a Navajo-Ute painter from New Mexico. The Heard brings in Betty David, a Spokane Indian who designs handmade, hand-painted lamb-shearling coats and jackets, with a studio in Seattle and a showroom in New York City. The Heard brings in Shoshone-Yokut Black Eagle of Mountain Ranch, California, a self-taught artist who crafts war shirts, shields, lances, breastplates, knives, jewelry, cradle boards, woodworks and masks.

It’s not as hectic as the Santa Fe Indian Market, the world’s largest juried Indian art show (with more than 1,200 artists for its two-day show each August), says Cherokee artist America Meredith of San Francisco. “I think there’s a big difference between Santa Fe and Phoenix and what they want with art,” Meredith says. “The Heard’s really conscience about promoting more experimental work.” And Meredith is experimental, from fitting drawings on spoke cards for bicycle wheels to drawing moss that spells words in Cherokee.

Or Ben Harjo Jr., a Seminole-Shawnee from Oklahoma City who works in pen and ink, woodblock print and painting using acrylic or gouache. He won first place in drawing at last year’s Heard show. “I use a lot of geometric patterns in pen-and-ink as well as in my paintings,” he says. “Then I’ll come back in and use faces and hands.”

Of course, the Heard had fairly humble beginnings. The 130,000-square-foot museum began, much smaller, in 1929, housing the collections of Dwight and Maie Heard, who settled in Phoenix in 1895 after a doctor recommended the desert climate for Dwight’s “lung ailments.” Dwight helped run the Bartlett-Heard Land and Cattle Company, was president of the Arizona Cotton Growers’ Association, and invested in real estate, lending, and newspaper publishing. Maie was a leading supporter of civic causes, from Boy Scouts to the Woman’s Club of Phoenix. And they collected Indian artifacts and art.

The museum opened in 1929 after Dwight died of a heart attack. For more than 20 years, Maie served as museum director and curator—not to mention guide, lecturer, jack of all trades—before her death in 1951. Today the museum has been expanded several times—more than eight times the original size—with 10 galleries at the central Phoenix location, plus “community” locations in North Scottsdale (Heard Museum North) and Surprise (Heard Museum West).

Red Star has another reason for enjoying the Heard show. “It’s a lot warmer in Arizona in March than it is in Montana,” he says.

The Heard Museum is located at 2301 North Central Avenue in Phoenix. For information on the Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market, call (602) 252-8848, or log on to