Autry Museum Acquires Major Collection of Harry Fonseca Art


The Autry Museum of the American West announced Monday that it acquired a major collection of art from the estate of Harry Fonseca. The collection, which includes over 500 original artworks, is the largest acquisition of one artist’s work in the almost 30-year history of the Southern California museum, which specializes in the art, history, and cultures of the American West.

Born in Sacramento in 1946 of Nisenan Maidu, Portuguese and Hawaiian descent, Fonseca was part of a generation of 20th Century Native American artists who created contemporary native works about the animals, life and history of California and the west. His more famous series depicted the coyote as trickster and transformer as well as the “Discovery of Gold and Souls in California” and its impact on area natives.

“Much of my work addressed the struggle of Native Americans in Northern California to survive the Gold Rush, religious intolerance,” as well as their loss of indentured servitude, homeland, abridgement of rights, and poverty, the artist once explained. Fonseca sought to advance understanding of Native culture beyond the static and stereotypical images in his art.

The Autry’s President and CEO Richard West, Jr., indicated that he that believes art history will eventually view the artist as a “valued bridge between Native art and the broader international contemporary art world. His impact on both was seminal and enduring,” he added.

Fonseca died in 2006. The acquisition from his estate includes 19 large-scale murals; 69 sketchbooks; various prints, collages, posters, and such; as well as all of the artist’s personal papers and journals.

The acquisition of the works from the estate of the late Harry Fonseca transformed the Autry, in one step, into a national center of collecting and interpreting contemporary Native American art, according to West. “Fonseca already is highly respected, specifically for his immense gifts as an artist and the uniformly high quality of his prodigious volume of work,” he added.

Beginning his art career at California State University, Sacramento, Fonseca was initially Influenced by his Maidu heritage, his participation as a traditional native dancer, dance regalia and designs in basketry. In the 1970s, his series on the coyote, which he used as a metaphor for a life well-lived, garnered the artist his first museum attention. The myth of Helinmaiden, the Maidu Big Man; rock art and petroglyphs; area flora; and other Western or Indian influences later inspired him. In the 1990s, he moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he died in 2006 of brain cancer.

The estate collection is not the Autry’s first Fonseca acquisition. Two of the artist’s mixed-media works are part of New Acquisitions Featuring the Kaufman Collection,” an exhibition on view until July 9, 2017. Others pieces by him will be included in the Autry’s forthcoming “California Continued” exhibition opening this October.

In the coming years, Amy Scott, the museum’s Chief Curator, will oversee plans for additional exhibitions and publications on Fonseca’s work. Scott said. The major Harry Fonseca art collection the Autry Museum acquired “presents seemingly endless possibilities for cross-collection connections, exhibitions, and research,” Scott noted.

Written and Edited by Dyanne Weiss

The Autry: The Autry Museum of the American West Acquires Major Collection and Archives of Artist Harry Fonseca
The Fonseca Studio
National Museum of the American Indian: Harry Fonseca

Photo courtesy of Billy Hathorn (Own work) – Creative Commons license.