Wendy Nālani E. Ikemoto has been named vice president and chief curator of the New-York Historical Society (NYHS), marking the first time a Native person has served on the leadership team of the 200-year-old Manhattan institution. Ikemoto, who is Native Hawaiian, was formerly the senior curator of American Art and joined the NYHS in 2018 as an associate curator.
Facing Central Park on the Upper West Side, the New-York Historical Society was founded in 1804 by 11 men with names such as “Bleecker” and “Stuyvesant” — the kind that are still spelled out on NYC road signs to this day. The group wanted to preserve the history of the settlement they helped shape. Over two centuries later, the NYHS houses an astounding 14 million objects, a research library, a children’s museum, a women’s history center, extensive educational and public programming, and permanent and rotating exhibitions. In recent years, the institution’s shows have increasingly explored histories that dissent from the tales printed in textbooks.
Ikemoto has spearheaded many of these exhibitions. In 2022 she curated Monuments: Commemoration and Controversy, a deep-dive into the foundations of America’s everpresent dialogue around statues, and The Collection: New Conversations, a permanent display opened last year that features seemingly disparate collection objects side by side, illuminating the hypocrisy and selective exclusion that often permeate historical narratives. Ikemoto’s most recent exhibition Kay WalkingStick / Hudson River School, on display through April 14, presents the contemporary Cherokee artist’s work next to famed landscape paintings from the NYHS’s holdings.
“When you say American art, I think a lot of people think about the history of art produced by settlers in North America — I wanted to complicate that dialogue,” Ikemoto told Hyperallergic of the Kay WalkingStick show. “How can contemporary Native art become a framework by which we reevaluate the histories that we typically tell about American art and American history?”
Ikemoto “never planned to be a curator.” She studied to become an academic art historian, holding postdoctoral teaching roles at Harvard University, the Courtauld Institute in the UK, and Vassar College in Upstate New York.
“I had a lot of conversations with my peers about our chosen field and the elitism that we felt was attached to the study of art history,” said Ikemoto. In 2014, she moved back to her home state of Hawaiʻi and began teaching at a Native school she and her family had attended years earlier. She found that the role allowed her to “give back” to a community. When the associate American art curator job opened at the NYHS, Ikemoto saw an opportunity to continue this work.
“It married my love of art and the research and opportunity to continue serving the public,” Iklemoto said.
One of the many juxtapositions in Ikemoto’s new permanent collection display places Johannes Oertel’s “Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, New York City” (c. 1852–53) next to Betye Saar’s “Extreme Times Call for Extreme Heroines” (2017), the first major work Ikemoto acquired at the NYHS. Saar’s assemblage features one of the artist’s characteristic “Mammy” figures — thought to have been carved during Jim Crow in a woodworking class — armed with a rifle. Oertel’s historic work depicts another act of rebellion: early colonial New Yorkers tearing down the gilded statue of the British king after listening to a reading of the Declaration of Independence. A Native family cowers toward the frame; a Black man lies in the statue’s path.
“It’s a really pivotal moment in the fight for liberty and democracy, and yet it’s a very selective form of liberty and democracy that that was being called for,” Ikemoto said of the oil painting, explaining that its pairing with Saar’s contemporary artwork demonstrates how this fight for freedom has continued through the present.
“I want to use our permanent collections, which have untold depths, and recontextualize them,” Ikemoto said. “And reframe them in a way that guides visitors or opens new perspectives for them.”