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Friday, June 8, 2007 - Page updated at 02:01 AM

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Visual Arts

What happened to Sacred Circle Gallery?

Seattle Times art critic

When Steve Charles left his job as director of Seattle's Sacred Circle Gallery in 2001, the gallery basically dropped off the radar screen. All the buzz Charles had worked so hard to create during the previous 16 years abruptly stopped. Since then, a gallery known as one of the nation's top venues for contemporary Native American art has quietly faded away.

"Just about every important Native artist I've heard of has shown there," said respected painter James Lavadour, who lives on the Umatilla reservation in Oregon, where he founded Crow's Shadow Institute of the Arts. Lavadour's emotional, landscape-based abstractions are showing this month at Grover/Thurston, but it was his first show at Sacred Circle in the early '80s that got him invited to exhibit in museums across the U.S. and in Europe — where Lavadour says there is much interest in contemporary Native American art. He's not the only one who owes his success to Sacred Circle.

Sacred Circle was founded in 1981 by renowned activist Bernie Whitebear and Jim Halliday under the umbrella of United Indians of All Tribes, which helps provide education, arts and social services. The gallery was first located in Belltown, then moved to Pioneer Square and eventually to its home at Daybreak Star Cultural Center at Discovery Park.

Over the years, the gallery hosted some exceptional shows and became a regular stop for the region's art-lovers, Native and non-Native alike. It was the place to see the latest work by many of the top names in contemporary Native American art: James Luna, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Edgar Heap of Birds. These artists and their colleagues explore new ways of expressing their often mixed cultural backgrounds, including installations, performance, conceptual art and new media. They've helped break stereotypes and bring Native artists into the mainstream of American art. The art at Sacred Circle was diverse, representing artists from many regions and tribal backgrounds. The more traditional styles and materials lived comfortably there with newer innovations.

Charles' assistant Merlee Markistum ran the gallery for a time after he left but was laid off in 2005. She said Whitebear remained the gallery's ally until his death in 2000: "He was supportive. He stood by everything Steve and I did." Charles (who now works at Native People for Cancer Control at the University of Washington) agrees that support for the gallery dropped off when a new group of leaders stepped in.

Now a lot has changed. Even the gallery's name.

United Indians CEO Phil Lane makes no bones about the fact that he is no fan of new trends in art.

Gallery update


Now showing: "Colors of the Indian Spirit," paintings by Sam English, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through July 31, Daybreak Star Indian Art Gallery, 3801 W. Government Way, Seattle (206-285-4425 or www.unitedindians.com/daybreak.html).

Where there used to be two rooms dedicated to art, only one remains. The paintings on view are by Sam English, an Albuquerque-based artist Lane admires, whose figurative paintings present Native life in a romanticized style that you can find on posters and in Southwest boutiques. A conference table and chairs were crowded into the middle of the gallery the day I visited. The other former gallery room is set up as a reception area and gift shop. There is no director for the gallery, and exhibitions are chosen by committee.

And what happened to the name? Noel Franklin, the new development officer for United Indians, explained some of the changes. She said the name Sacred Circle was quietly dropped in 2003. It's now called Daybreak Star Indian Art Gallery: "They were in the baby stages of a rebranding — an idea never fully followed through on."

Franklin, whose background is in arts and fundraising, says that recent years have been chaotic at the center, and there are financial problems to sort out. "It is changing; I will tell you how: They hired me. They've built capacity in their fundraising department," she said. "We are open. We welcome any and all community input. We want to be the resource we were meant to be." And Lane admits he may be prejudiced against new art forms, but he's willing to listen. He hopes members of the arts community will join in the discussion over the gallery's future.

Lavadour says an advisory meeting of gallery alumni would be a good start. It's an illustrious group that includes esteemed Northwest coast artist and UW professor Marvin Oliver; Ojibway artist Rebecca Belmore (who represented Canada in the 2005 Venice Biennale); artist and Evergreen College faculty member Gail Tremblay, of the Onondaga and Micmac nations; and Seattle artist and assistant professor at Fairhaven college John Feodorov, who was featured on the PBS series "Art:21," to name just a few.

"I love history," Lavadour said. "And Sacred Circle has played an important role in the history of Native art in the U.S. For that reason alone it deserves respect."

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

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