Penobscot basketmaker Theresa Secord, of Farmington. Photo by Tailinh Agoyo

Wabanaki artists across Maine will open their homes and studios to the outside world, thanks to a digital initiative of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor.

Newly instated as executive director at the Abbe in late February, Chris Newell barely had time to learn people’s names before he had to face the coronavirus crisis and make the decision – difficult at the time, easy now in hindsight – to cancel the museum’s Indian Market. It’s the only big native art market on the East Coast and was scheduled for downtown Bar Harbor May 15-17. The Abbe has been building the market for two years, promoting it around the country and in Canada.

It’s becoming the museum’s signature event and could become a pillar of shoulder-season tourism Down East. This year, the Abbe had 65 artists lined up to come to Bar Harbor for the weekend, many of them Wabanaki, and were planning for 5,000 visitors for what would have been a critical third year in the market’s gradual growth.

In addition to being a museum administrator, Newell is also an accomplished powwow singer as a member of the Connecticut-based Mystic River Singers. As a performer, he understands what it’s like to lose income and opportunity related to traveling to powwows and other tribal gatherings. After witnessing a quick migration of powwows online, Newell led the Abbe’s effort to create the Digital Abbe Museum Indian Market, a six-hour, variety-show-style digital showcase of Wabanaki artistry and talent that will take place from 2 to 8 p.m. May 16.

The Abbe will host the event on Zoom and accommodate up to 1,000 people at a time. The digital market also will stream on Facebook Live, YouTube and the Abbe website, and tap into what Newell sees as a strong international desire for indigenous arts and culture.

“Indian people are social-media savvy,” he said. “All these powwows were canceled, but people still want to sing and dance and vendors still want to sell their things.”

Drummers, singers, dancers and others have taken to social-media platforms to keep the culture alive during the pandemic, Newell said. With the digital Indian market, the Abbe will do the same for Wabanaki basketmakers, painters, designers and others. The details are still being worked out, but the event will feature about two dozen Wabanaki artists, who will essentially host live studio visits and showcase whatever media they work in. There will be links to bios and a place where people can order online. Newell will c0-host the event, introducing each artist.

“We will broadcast from artist homes, and they will talk about whatever they like,” he said. “If family members are present, they can share time and have conversations between artists. It’s a really unique opportunity for the public to peek into the world of native artists, especially Wabanaki artists. In this format, they can reach an audience anywhere.”

In addition to profiling artists, the digital marketplace will include performances, most prerecorded, and educational programming. After the market closes, the Abbe will screen a film and host a panel discussion. To stay consistent with the original idea of an in-person show, the Abbe will award prizes to artists who win people’s choice and artist choice awards.

Among those participating is Theresa Secord of Farmington, a Penobscot basketmaker, founder of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance and a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow. She said yes to the digital market because she is trying to make up lost income from canceled shows, among other reasons.

Geo Neptune will showcase their own work and that of their students in the Abbe digital art market. Photo by Tailinh Agoyo

The Santa Fe Indian Market, which had been scheduled for August and was postponed to 2021, accounts for at least half of her art income each year, she said. The Heard Museum Guild Indian Fair & Market was held in March in Arizona, but attendance and sales were way down.

“The markets are critical in terms of networking and keeping me focused on weaving goals and maintaining longtime friendships with other weavers and artists,” she said. “This would have been my 15th year in the Santa Fe market. My basket income in the Indian markets makes up more than half to two-thirds of my annual income in any given year.”

The Abbe digital market gives her a chance to recover some of that. She has received small artist relief grants, and her consulting work continues. Other work she was doing for an exhibition of her baskets has been postponed. She sees the digital market as a chance to improve her online art presentations, as well as her work as a webinar presenter for First Peoples Fund, a nonprofit that supports indigenous artists. The Abbe digital market will also help her be a better mentor and coach and improve her own entrepreneurial skills, she said.

She will use the exposure to talk about her own baskets and her work as an elder. “My son, Caleb, age 28, is working with me again as my priorities have shifted slightly as a result of the pandemic,” Secord said. “I want to make sure he is proficient in the art form.”

Secord is using the gift of downtime to learn – because she has the time and because the times demand it. Just as her ancestors learned to market their wares to tourists a century ago, she is learning new ways to reach new audiences. “Our ancestors were expert marketers, and these times are a challenge for us to step up and put our best foot forward sharing this remarkable art form,” she said. “As native artists, we all need to be versatile in marketing online, and this is an untapped area of new collectors, who we need to cultivate.”

Geo Neptune, a Passamaquoddy from Indian Township who identifies as a male-female two-spirit, used to be known mostly for their basketmaking. But they have expanded their media to include modeling, drag and design. Neptune will use the Abbe spotlight to showcase their own baskets and jewelry, as well as the artistic work of their students. Neptune teaches art through Wabanaki Public Health.

Neptune will show what they call crowd favorites – smaller traditional baskets that have earned Neptune national recognition at Indian markets – as well as new wearable art that has resulted from Neptune’s transition from baskets to fashion and design. They also will likely show drag and fashion videos. “It’s a few minutes to showcase a lot of work, and I want to be sure to showcase student work as well,” Neptune said.

Neptune is less interested in using the time to make a statement, as much as ensuring the work speaks for itself. “As an indigenous person, our very existence in a lot of ways is an act of political resistance and an act of activism, by standing up and preserving our culture and believing in our language. For me, being an activist is part of being indigenous,” Neptune said.

Christopher Newell Courtesy of Abbe Museum

Newell got the idea for the digital market while watching the emergence of a new Facebook group called Social Distance Powwow dedicated to singing and dancing in Indian Country and established to keep people occupied during the pandemic. “They had 70,000 followers in two weeks, and from that, other movements evolved,” he said.

Fawn Wood, a singer from St. Paul, Alberta, began hosting nightly virtual round dances on Facebook, spotlighting others in the culture. Newell became transfixed. “If you are an ethnomusicologist and you are not watching the virtual round dance, you are missing out,” he said. “It’s amazing. It really is. I look forward to it every night. Coast to coast, it’s some of the best singers we have in Indian Country, every night.”

Out of California came Quarantine Dance Specials, which quickly attracted 56,000 members. Newell wanted a part of the action. “I was watching all of this and thinking, ‘Why can’t we do something of the same sort?’ Everybody is watching a screen right now. We’re all stuck indoors, for the most part. Let’s create an event that features Wabanaki artists that anybody anywhere can watch.”


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