Seeing the vision, experiencing the humanity

posted on June 4, 2012

“I feel that if there is an opportunity for people in the arts to be invited in to an indigenous setting, that’s a really important invitation.”

So says Roberta Uno, a senior program officer at the Ford Foundation ( who was instrumental in bringing board members and executives from the arts world to the Red Cloud campus for a seminar put on by the DeVos Institute of Arts Management, part of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC.

Uno, who joined the Ford Foundation in 2002, manages the arts and culture portfolio for the organization. Her office is currently partnered with Leveraging Investments and Creativity (LINC) in a ten-year initiative focused on fostering and expanding artistic spaces in underserved areas. She is also part of a four-person team administering a Ford Foundation initiative entitled, “Supporting Diverse Arts Spaces”.

One of Uno’s primary concerns that drives her work is assisting innovative artistic programs and projects in areas of the country where planning funds are hard to come by. To that end, she and her office have partnered with Artspace, an art-centered community-building program in Minneapolis, to find viable prospective projects in communities that are challenging and under-resourced, but at the same time culturally rich.

The Heritage Center at Red Cloud fits squarely into such a regional category, but as Uno explains, Indian reservations are often overlooked by institutions that fund the arts. Instead, most of the focus on artistic spaces tends to be aimed at renovating abandoned buildings and revitalizing blighted neighborhoods in urban areas.

Uno believes that this work is valuable, and much of it has been beneficial to such neighborhoods, but that there must be room for an expansion of scope. She says, “We [at Ford] were really pushing Artspace, because they have so successfully addressed [urban situations], to ask the question; ‘Well how do you work with communities that might not normally fit that formula, for example rural communities – what would artist space development look like in a rural community?’”

Uno is particularly interested in issues concerning indigenous people, as she sees American Indians as a demographic that is nearly invisible to the majority of Americans. She says that many times, at workshops, seminars, and planning meetings, she as looking at who is not in the room just as much as who is. Uno describes attending a conference presentation of changing demographics in the arts, where Native Americans were not mentioned once – “as if they don’t exist!

To Uno, this example illuminates an issue that is closely tied into notions of social justice for her. She explains, “Even in many seminars about diversity, there are no Native Americans in the room. So how do we begin to build that inclusive table? And then, how do we go a step further, and begin to talk about cultural, social, and racial equality? Then we can start to address some of those structures that have kept certain organizations at a low level of funding.

Ultimately, Uno believes that the solution to this issue will come not from a myopic focus on demographics or poverty, but from leadership within the communities themselves. Uno is an artist herself, whose primary work before going to the Ford Foundation was twenty-three years of running a theater, which she had founded herself. As an artist, she says, “I am about the experiment and innovation and rigor and aesthetics, and you will find all of that here on Pine Ridge.”

What is harder to find on the reservation, according to Uno, are many “people who are willing to step forward and categorize themselves as artists.” Instead, some of the most artistically talented local people may not realize how tremendously gifted they are. Furthermore, others who see their craft, be it quilting or drawing or beadwork, may not see the underlying talent and innovation, because they don’t have the artistic framework to know what they’re seeing.

These reasons are why Uno is such a strong supporter of the work that The Heritage Center does. The Center allows local artists to display and be recognized for their artwork, while helping to educate a broader audience on the significance and intricate craft of this work. This serves to empower the artist and allow him or her to grow artistically, while promoting a broader understanding of Indian art among the general public, and at the same time helping the local economy.

Uno’s hope for The Heritage Center is that that director Peter Strong and curator Mary Bordeaux will continue to develop and pursue their vision. She says, “To me one of the critical pieces is the leadership that they offering. When you see two people like [Strong and Bordeaux], who are bringing artistic and community vision into a project, I look to them, and hope they have the support to do what they envision with the larger community.”

In championing Red Cloud as a venue for arts board members and executives from around the country, Uno was hoping that they would see some of these specific attributes, as well as being exposed to a rural area that struggles to get enough funding for the arts. She says that some of the attendees may have never been to a reservation before.

Ultimately, to someone like Uno who is deeply concerned with social justice and broadening people’s understanding social issues, it was about showing people a firsthand view of an area that too often gets represented secondhand.

She says, “So much of what we get in the news [about the reservation] is so negative. And that’s not to say that the realities aren’t harsh here. But when you actually come and visit here, you see so much resilience, you see so much inspiration, you see so much quality – of life, of humanity, of family, of community – you see all of those things.”