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Ralph T. Coe, c. 2003

Ralph T. Coe

All my life I've relied on this measured process of aesthetic absorption, whether the work is a Renaissance plaquette or a Native American wearing blanket. It involves returning over and again to the individual work of art. I revisit and bear constantly in mind the objects of my own collection, however large or small, to gain new insights. They are not trophies but instruments of passion, with the power to unexpectedly reveal mysteries.
—Ralph T. Coe

Known as Ted to his family and friends, Coe was not only an early champion of North American Native Art, but also one of the foremost authorities in the field. His interests were vast and he felt if one sincerely took the time to look at objects, they would "draw us into the circle." His passion for knowledge is evident in the varied collections he left behind and the legacy he left by creating a center to continue his work and vision.

In 1976, Coe curated the groundbreaking exhibition Sacred Circles: 2,000 Years of North American Art at the Hayward Gallery in London and later at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, MO. Sacred Circles focused visitors on the aesthetic pleasures and beauty of Native art, replacing the prevailing ethnographic museum viewpoint of the day. Following Sacred Circles, Coe went on to curate Lost and Foundation Traditions: Native American Art, 1965-1985 in 1986, organized by The American Federation of Arts and travelled extensively around the United States. Coe's last exhibition was The Responsive Eye: Ralph T. Coe and the Collecting of American Indian Art in 2003 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Over his lifetime Coe's collecting was consistently informed by his appreciation of beauty and finding it in the most functional to elaborate objects. He remained innately focused on education about aesthetics and its production and appreciation, as well as the cultures and people who made and used the objects; creating a continuing legacy embracing worlds not always known or understood for future generations to respond to. Located in Santa Fe, the Ralph T. Coe Center's purpose is to continue this legacy and mindful appreciation of the world's indigenous arts.

Cleveland, Ohio, August 27, 1929

  • B.A., Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, 1953
  • M.A., Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1957
  • A.& S. Department, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England 1957-1958

Special Fields and Interests:
  • American Indian Art
  • Ethnographic Art
  • French Nineteenth Century Painting
  • Twentieth Century Painting
  • American Architecture

Career Summary:
1958-59Assistant Curator at The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Helped organize exhibition, "Masterpieces of Impressionist and Post - Impressionist Paintings"
1959-65Curator of Paintings and Sculpture, Nelson Gallery of Art, Kansas City, MI.
1965-77Assistant Director, Nelson Gallery of Art
1977-82Director, Nelson Gallery of Art
1982-83Senior Visiting Scholar, National Museum of American Art
1984-2010Freelance Art Historian

Exhibitions Organized at Nelson Gallery:
  • The Logic of Modern Art, a comprehensive modern painting exhibition; the first show of its kind in the Mid-America region, 1961.
  • The Imagination of Primitive Man, with over 300 objects from Oceania, Africa, North and South America, tracing the stylistic evolution of the non-iterate peoples of the world, 1962.
  • Kansas City Collects, a selection of works of art privately owned in the Kansas City area, 1965.
  • Light Paintings by Howard Jones, held in the Sales and Rental Gallery of the Nelson Gallery of Art, 1965.
  • Sound, Light, Silence: Art That Performs, Nelson Gallery, 1966.
  • Ethnic Art from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Baker, Nelson Gallery, 1966.
  • Paintings of 17th Century Dutch Interiors, Nelson Gallery, December 1967.
  • The Magic Theater, commissioned for the Nelson Gallery of Art-Atkins Museum by the Performing Arts Foundation, Nelson Gallery, May-July 1968.

Exhibition organized for the Arts Council of Great Britain:
Sacred Circles: 2000 Years of North American Indian Art, held at the Hayward Gallery, London, England, October-January 1976-77; and in the United States at the Nelson Gallery, Kansas City, Missouri, April-June 1977.

Exhibition organized for The American Federation of Arts, New York City:
Lost and Found Traditions: Native American Art 1965-1985. Opened at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, June 1986. Traveled for two years under the auspices of the American Federation of Arts to venues including The Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, and the Kulturhuset, Stockholm, Sweden, among others.

Memberships and Affiliations:
Internal Revenue Commissioners Art Advisory Panel, 1973-1976.
National Endowment for the Arts panels and sub-panels, 1970-.
The American Federation of Arts Trustee, 1977-.
Association of Art Museum Directors Committees, 1977-1982.
Association of Art Museum Directors Trustee, 1979, Vice President, 1980.
Association of Art Museum Directors Trustee and President, 1981-1982.
Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts Museum Policy Panel, 1980-1981.
Reappointed Internal Revenue Commissioners Art Advisory Panel, 1982-1984.
Trustee: SWAIA (Southwestern Association on Indian Affairs), 1985-1989.
Indian Market Judge, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, 2000.
Visiting Committee, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio 1996-
The American Council for Cultural Policy, Board of Advisors, 2002-
The Archives of American Art, Washington, DC, 2003-