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Indian art in Denver ... the best work of 300 tribes.

The first museum to collect and display Native American works as art rather than anthropological artifacts, the Denver Art Museum has recently renovated its exhibit space. Now it's easier for visitors to see and understand this important Western collection. The reinstallation is the museum's biggest change in more than 15 years.

While the 2,500 items on display are just a fraction of the collection, each item represents the best of its type. The array includes ceramics, textiles, basketry, rugs, jewelry, and clothing.

Acoma to Tlingit: works from 300 tribes from coast to coast

Denver's newly redesigned gallery gives a perspective different ftom the West's three other most distinguished collections of Native American art: Phoenix's Heard Museum, Los Angeles' Southwest Museum, and Santa Fe's Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.

And while the Heard has more kachinas and the Southwest more pottery, the quality of the Denver's smaller selection stands up well. It was started at the turn of the century by Anne Evans (daughter of Colorado's second territorial governor); pieces were chosen with an eye to artistic merit-the best pot, the finest basket.

While the other three museums concentrate on the peoples of the Southwest, the Denver exhibit ranges over North America, covering 10 regions and 300 tribes.

How the redesigned gallery works

The new gallery space now has an open feel: windows have been unblocked to bring in natural light, and most items sit out instead of behind glass. Works are arranged geographically.

You'll first sce some early works from several regions, including prehistoric pottery from Southeastern tribes and a vicious-looking Iroquois war club from the mid-18th century. Next, you wind through the Northeast section with its forbidding 19th-century Seneca face masks and leather boxes. In the Great Plains area, an original 1884 Sioux tepee has hunting scenes painted on its canvas sides. In one corner, you can watch videotapes on such subjects as Navajo silver work, Hopi songs, and Plains Indians history In another, you sit quietly and listen to taped Indian chants and songs.

Moving on to the Southwest, you'll find some outstanding 19th- and 20th-century pottery, including a large black water jar by Maria Martinez and a cooky jar by Sadie Adams. Nearby, take time to examine the intricate Wiyot (northern California) basketry of Elizabeth Hickox, perhaps the most famous Native American basketmaker; note how she achieved the curving shapes by varying stitch size.

Soon you reach one of the gallery's most famous objects: an 1840s Tlingit cedar screen more than 15 feet high and painted with the image of a giant grizzly. The piece, from southeast Alaska, is the most dramatic part of the section devoted to the Northwest. Nearby stand two new 14foot-high house posts carved by a Nimkish Indian ftom Alert Bay, British Columbia. Commissioned for the gallery's reopening, the posts, along with two older ones already in place, complete a set.

To teach visitors more about the collection, docents guide free 90-minute tours offered at 11:30 and 1:30 (at 1:30 only on Sundays). The museum, at 100 W. 14th Avenue Parkway, is open 10 to 5 Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 5 Sundays; admission is $3, $1.50 seniors and ages 6 through 18. A cafe serves light meals and snacks; it's open 11 to 2 Tuesdays through Saturdays.

In Denver, places to shop for Native American art

If seeing the collection inspires you to see more Native American art, you might begin at the museum's store; it offers a range of books on the subject and sells some pottery and jewelry.

Denver Museum of Natural History, City Park. Its new, bigger gift shop offers contemporary jewelry, sand paintings, basketry, and more from all over the country, concentrating on Southwest and Northwest coast. Hours are 9 to 5 daily.

Mudhead Gallery, 555 17th Street. In the Hyatt Regency pavilion, this small but jammed shop has a wide range of contemporary pieces, from Hopi kachinas to Papago baskets, but they're proudest of their jewelry-Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni. It's open 9 to 6 daily, closed Sunday.

Museum of Western Art, 1727 Tremont Place. This museum also has a fine gift shop with a large selection of books, as well as textiles, jewelry, and pottery. Hours are 10 to 4:30 Tuesdays through Saturdays.

Native American Trading Company, 1301 Bannock Street. Across the street from the Denver Art Museum, this fine small gallery has a homey feeling, and for good reason: it used to be apartments. The store specializes in older material, including Navajo rugs and blankets, beadwork, pottery, and baskets. It's open 10 to 5 Mondays through Fridays, 11 to 4 Saturdays.

Squash Blossom, 1415 Larimer Street. Take your time looking through this small gallery in a stately brick building, part of Larimer Square. It's jammed with a variety of works, most of them contemporary a good selection of jewelry, some fine small pots, and a few interesting carvings. Hours are 10 to 9 daily except noon to 6
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Date:Feb 1, 1989
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