Decades: The 1980s
February 25 – July 16, 2023
Russell Vernon Hunter Gallery
It is necessary to occasionally look back to better understand where we are now. Decades: The 1980s is a continuation of the Roswell Museum’s look at artistic output on a ten-year basis reflecting on how artists grappled with changing times. All works presented in this exhibition are from the museum’s permanent collection. On display are works of art created during the 1980s entering the museum’s collection from 1980 to 2012. At least one work is on display created within each of the 10 years comprising the decade. Works of art by 42 artists are exhibited, 15 of which have participated in the Roswell Artist-in-Residence (RAiR) program between 1970 and 2010: Jane Abrams, Ron Adams, Stuart Arends, Rosemarie T. Bernardi, Bessie Blackwater, Susan Bremner, Robert Colescott, John Connell, Daisy Craddock, Doris Cross, Eddie Dominguez, Ted Egri, Elen Feinberg, James P. Finnegan, Janet Fish, Vernon Fisher, Flavio Garcia, R.C. Gorman, Joe Grant, Harmony Hammond, Bob Haozous, Avra Leodas, Merina (Pop Chalee) Lujan, Ruben O. Montoya, Patrick Nagatani and Andrée Tracey, Anne Noggle, Nathan Oliveira, Pat Passlof, Mary Peck, Irene Pijoan, Agustin Lucho Pozo Galvez, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Gail Rieke, Bruce Rod, Meridel Rubenstein, Mark Spencer, Michio Takayama, Terrance (Honvantewa) Talaswaima, Luis Tapia, Jim Wagner, and Martha Zelt.
In 1981, the Roswell Museum hired its first Curator of Education, Audrey J. Olson. Recently re-titled, our current Museum Educator, Jessica Parham, oversees not only education partnerships with local and regional schools, but also leads the design and implementation of most of the museum’s community engagement efforts, including our monthly Second Saturday program. In 1987, the Roswell Museum celebrated its 50th anniversary. That same year, the RAiR Program celebrated its 20th anniversary. Originally created within the Roswell Museum’s organizational structure, the RAiR program became its own nonprofit organization in 2002. Despite this administrative separation, the RAiR partnership with the Roswell Museum is as strong as ever today.
As an era, the decade was dominated by conservatism, consumerism, and free market economics. Many multinational corporations began to relocate their manufacturing operations to countries with less regulations and cheaper cost of labor, including China, Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. Japanese automakers began manufacturing their cars in the United States, which would enable companies like Toyota to dramatically increase their market share of US domestic auto sales. The global internet took shape at this time, dramatically shrinking perceived distances between areas of the globe and personal computers began to be developed and sold for individual use. The end of the decade brought about major global economic and political shifts including the destruction of the 96 mile-long Berlin Wall that led to the reunification of Germany and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Margaret Thatcher was the first woman to lead a Western country and her conservative policies of deregulation and industry privatization echoed many items on US President Ronald Reagan’s economic and political agenda.
The 1980s also witnessed a number of tragedies around the world. Widespread famine in Ethiopia led to that country’s complete dependence on international aid to feed its population. Ethiopia also experienced a civil war in the 1980s and armed conflict and/or civil unrest occurred in Afghanistan, Angola, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Central African Republic, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, El Salvador, the Falkland Islands, Fiji, Grenada, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Laos, Lebanon, Libya, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Palestine, the Philippines, South Africa, the Soviet Union, Sudan, Suriname, Tunisia, Uganda, and Yugoslavia. A nuclear accident in Chernobyl in 1986 in what is now Ukraine initially killed fewer than 50 people. Over the next ten years it is estimated that approximately 125,000 had died from the effects of radiation in the area. It is estimated that it will not be safe for humans to inhabit the contaminated area for at least 24,000 years.
In the United States, Mount St. Helens erupted in the beginning of the 1980s and the San Francisco Bay Area’s Loma Prieta earthquake occurred toward the end of the decade. There was also the explosion of NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger in the mid-1980s. In 1989 the Exxon Valdez oil tanker spilled hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil into the ocean off the coast of Alaska, the effects of which continue to be felt today.
A number of advances in medicine occurred in the 1980s, including the first gestational surrogacy. Simultaneously, the AIDS epidemic was first recognized and defined in the 1980s as it decimated communities across the country and around the world and is still a part of our contemporary reality. Despite the global tragedies, the era witnessed incredible population growth worldwide.
In the 1980s, America’s museums begin to engage with broader, more diverse audiences. Women and people of color pushed for greater representation and created art reflecting a plurality of perspectives, ultimately challenging claims of the white male perspective as “universal.” Underrepresented artists were often excluded by white and male-dominated museums and galleries. What was clearly racism and sexism, efforts resulting in many women and non-white artists being screened out were often rationalized as a dedication to artistic competence and quality. Efforts to make the Roswell Museum more relevant to its various communities included a 1987 exhibition by Robert Colescott while he was in the RAiR program. Colescott’s works call into question traditional race and gender stereotypes.
The political and social climate of the late 1980s had a profound effect on the role museums play within society. According to Roswell Museum Director William Ebie, “Museums found they could no longer remain in the closet, could no longer remain [as a] cultural resource of the affluent, and could no longer rely on major patrons or the Federal tax trough to completely satisfy their operational needs. The general populace had long been questioning the relevance of museums in their lives, and now the museums had to deliver the goods if they hoped to cultivate a broader base of support to compensate for a tighter economy.”
Many of the dilemmas faced in the 1980s continue to challenge us today. Then, as now, artists’ perspectives on these issues from personal to political are unique to their own views and represent a diversity of experiences. In subject matter, style, and form the works included in Decades: The 1980s show a compelling range of approaches through which artists sought to reflect on what was happening around them. Four decades later, these artists’ works continue to invite us to reflect not only on the 1980s, but also developments since then and our own present-day life experiences.
Top: Patrick Nagatani and Andrée Tracey, Trinitite Tempest, 1988, Polaroid Color Photographs on Paper (Diptych), Gift of Ray Graham.