Every culture has an aesthetic system, a way of looking at and representing the world that influences the way artists express themselves in relation to the surrounding world. Native Americans have rich and powerful aesthetic traditions. The National Museum of the American Indian is privileged to be able to explore them through the extraordinary collection of Charles and Valerie Diker.

The Dikers, lifelong New Yorkers, began collecting art in the late 1950s, focusing primarily on modern American and European painting and sculpture. They began collecting non-Western art with the same interest and eye for design, color and abstraction that initially guided their early collecting decisions. Rather than focus their Native American art collection on objects with historical significance or try to achieve ethnological representation, the Dikers continue to build a collection based on their love of beautiful objects.

In 2003, a group of Native and non-Native artists, art historians, critics, writers and anthropologists from NMAI and across North America gathered in the Dikers' home to develop a new paradigm to use in this exhibition. Surrounded by their remarkable mix of Western and non-Western art, the group engaged in a lively, convivial dialogue about understanding the aesthetics of Native American art. Through these conversations we distilled seven guiding principles for the understanding and appreciation of Native art: idea, integrity, emotion, intimacy, movement, composition and vocabulary. Rather than organizing this exhibition based on region or tribe, we use these principles to explore and appreciate this superb collection.

First American Art is the product of a collaboration among Native and non-Native curators, scholars, artists and the passion of the collectors, Charles and Valerie Diker. We all share a deep commitment to articulating and heightening an understanding of American Indian aesthetics and to fostering an awareness of the exceptional beauty of Native art.

Bruce Bernstein
Gerald McMaster