Ojibwe art collected by Ostroms on display now at Mathers Museum

Time spent in a recent curatorship class taught by Mathers Museum of World Cultures director Jason Jackson sparked a desire in three IU graduate students to continue their work with a collection of items donated to the university by the late Elinor and Vincent Ostrom.

The result? “Ojibwe Public Art, Ostrom Private Lives,” an exhibition on display at the museum now through June 22. It explores works by late 20th-century Ojibwe artists on Canada’s Manitoulin Island, where the Ostroms summered for more than 40 years in a rustic cabin they constructed back in the late 1960s.

"Raccoon," by Eleanor Kanasawe.

“Raccoon,” by Eleanor Kanasawe.

Third-year doctoral student Sara Clark, from the School of Education’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, said she fell in love with the Ostroms’ rich and varied art collection as well as the couple’s personal story.

“All of us wanted to continue working with the collection in a more meaningful way, and following through with an exhibition seemed like a natural step,” Clark said. “Plus, I’m a historian by training, so I was really interested in the chance to tell this intimate history about this couple who saw a way to support artists in a place they called home during the summer. The challenge for us, then, was to weave together the stories of the artists, the art and the collectors in the best way we could.”

Her favorites among the couple’s collection? The vibrant animal images created by artist Eleanor Kanasawe, including a porcupine, raccoon, squirrel and other creatures.

Graduate student Brian Forist, from the School of Public Health’s Department of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Studies, said he was also drawn to the couple.

“One of the things that I spent a lot of time with was this travelogue, a little notebook they kept in their series of cars over the years,” he said. “It would include details like, ‘Left home at 9 a.m. on Monday, went to the workshop, then headed north.’ It included how much they paid for gas, where they stopped at a little fruit market, where they stayed on the way up to Canada.”

With the help of staffers at the Lilly Library, he was also able to view a series of folders labeled “Manitoulin,” where the couple maintained a similar log-style diary of their activities while staying at their cabin.

Nearly every summer from 1967 to 2008, the late Elinor and Vincent Ostrom drove to Manitoulin Island,  Canada, to write and build their collection of Ojibwe art.

Nearly every summer from 1967 to 2008, the late Elinor and Vincent Ostrom drove to Manitoulin Island, Canada, to write and build their collection of Ojibwe art.

“It would say something like, ‘Got up at 4:30 this morning and had a good two hours of writing for presentation at Beijing,” but interspersed would be these personal notes,” Forist said. “For example, I’m reading about Elinor preparing to accept the Linnaeus Medal from Sweden’s Uppsala University, and in amongst that is a one-page note that says the Goulters — their friends and the caretakers of their cabin — came by for dinner, and she didn’t have any dessert so she baked a cake based on what she had on hand, and included the recipe for this date crumb cake. We actually had the folks over at Sugar & Spice make it for our opening exhibit, and it was delicious.”

The third graduate student who worked on the project is Dorothy Berry, a dual master’s student in ethnomusicology and library science. Up next, Clark, Forist and Matt Strandmark, a dual master’s student in history and in information and library science, have begun building a digital site for the Ostrom exhibition as well as other Mathers exhibitions.

Known to many simply as “Lin,” Elinor Ostrom was Distinguished Professor and the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Political Science at IU and the only woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences. Both she and her husband, Vincent, the Arthur F. Bentley Professor Emeritus of Political Science, died in June 2012.

Following their deaths, university officials learned the couple had donated their entire household to the university. The items were split between the Mathers Museum, the IU Art Museum and the university’s campus-wide collection.

The exhibition is partially supported by the IU College of Arts and Sciences’ Ostrom Grants Program, which has also provided funding for related programming.

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