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Selections from The Richard E.

and Dorothy Rawlings Nelson

Collection of American Indian Art


The Tweed Museum of Art and the University of Minnesota Duluth proudly announce a major gift of over 400 American Indian artifacts and artworks, and an extensive research library, from the collection of Richard E. and the late Dorothy Rawlings Nelson of Duluth. The gift of the Richard E. and Dorothy Rawlings Nelson Collection is equal in importance to the original Tweed gift which established the museum in 1950, and the 1988 Sax Brothers gift which provided an acquisitions fund and a museum addition. A retired Presbyterian Minister, Richard Nelson was born in Marquette, Michigan, and was a pastor in churches in the Midwest, and on campuses in Iowa, Kentucky, and Minnesota, including UMD and the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He and his wife, the late Dorothy Rawlings Nelson, lived most of their married life on the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan and Duluth.


“We purchased our first Native American art in the early 1950s at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan - a small porcupine quilled container of birchbark. Little did we realize that as the decades passed it would be joined by dozens of additional pieces, or that our interests would expand. It seemed natural that the materials used to form items in the collection would come from the birch, ash, spruce, cedar and basswood trees, grasses and animals in the area. From containers and basketry, the collection grew to include the distinctive floral beadwork seen on bandolier bags, moccasins and other beadwork of the region.”   Richard Nelson, “The Collector's Eye,” in Shared Passion, Tweed Museum of Art, 2001.


In the 1980's the Nelsons also began collecting the work of contemporary American Indian artists, establishing in their collection a continuum of American Indian cultural life in the Great Lakes region, from 16th century maps, Ojibwe, Iroquois, and Cree artifacts from the 1850s to the 1940s, up to contemporary works by the major American artists George Morrison, Patrick DesJarlait, David Bradley and Frank Big Bear.


Selected portions of the collection of Richard E. and Dorothy Rawlings Nelson have been exhibited throughout the United States. In 2001 the Tweed Museum of Art created a document of the collection in the exhibition and book Shared Passion: The Richard E. and Dorothy Rawlings Nelson Collection of American Indian Art.


“This gift of Ojibwe and Eastern Woodlands artifacts, along with its associated maps, historical documents, and research library was carefully assembled over a forty year period by a dedicated couple who took on the task of collecting and researching the American Indian Art of this region. Because of their generosity and foresight, the Tweed Museum of Art, the University of Minnesota Duluth, its American Indian Studies programs, and the entire region will have a significant visual record and archive from which to enjoy and learn,” says Peter Spooner, the museum's Curator.


Recognizing the significance of the Nelson gift, the Tweed Museum's Board of Advisors took a lead role in raising funds for a new display system showcasing the Nelson Collection.  A fifty foot floor to ceiling glass case on the second-level balcony of the Tweed, was designed by architect Jon Helstrom, specifically for the art and artifacts of the Nelson Collection, and the museum's staff is working with a group of American Indian advisors to create the display's content, design and educational information for the opening in September of 2008.

David Bradley

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