The Poeh Cultural Center in Pojoaque, NM became a full-fledged safety and well-being resource at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We caught up with executive director Karl Duncan.
During the past year, the team at the Poeh Cultural Center has exemplified what it means to be a cultural and community-oriented organization. In July of 2020, we spoke with Keith Grosbeck and Leland Chapin from the Poeh’s marketing department, who at the onset of the pandemic quickly shifted from more traditional marketing tasks to delivering food to Pueblo members, coaching anyone who asked on how to photograph their work to be seen online, and promoting safe health practices amidst the pandemic. Frankly, that interview left us pretty floored. We were inspired to see what a small team with a lot of dedication can achieve for their community. Nine months later, the Poeh is still at it, so we checked in with their executive director Karl Duncan to see what he and his team are up to.
Daisy Geoffrey: The Poeh is an arts and culture organization, but at the start of the pandemic you and your team really shifted to being a community resource, not just for artists but for everyone, especially in terms of health and safety campaigns. How did you decide to make that shift?
Karl Duncan: We’ve always been working to be a resource for the community. When I got to the Poeh (in 2015) we shifted from our original name of the Poeh Cultural Center and Museum, and removed “museum” because we wanted to be more of a resource for the community first. The museum was something we happened to have there, along with something that was just as important, such as art classes. We’ve been working at having some community-driven exhibitions, and we headed up some community rallies and marches when Standing Rock happened, and we have been doing what we can to have local artists’ voices respected and [their] art seen. We’ve always tried to support the grassroots effort of local people and local issues. So when we closed down, we really felt like we wanted to continue serving the community and being a resource in some way.
What has the community’s response been to your efforts?
We’ve given out about over 4,500 masks, and we’ve masked up the tribal police department, all of the essential employees, and all of the tribal members. We then opened up to anyone who came by the Poeh during our mask events. It’s cool when I go by the supermarket or by the police checkpoint and they’re wearing our masks. It’s good to see that we actually made a real visible difference, and hopefully they feel not only safe with the mask but proud, because the masks have pottery designs that are from here, and the tribal emblem on the mask. So hopefully they feel that we’re united through those designs. They’re more likely to wear them. They did work, it really worked.
How is the Facebook Native Artist Marketplace that you organized going?
People are still posting on our Native Artist Marketplace, and we’re still promoting them as well, so people still utilize and see it as a venue to get their artwork out there. We also had some Native artists who we saw were active throughout the pandemic and highlighted them with our Facebook Live Poeh Talking Circles. As actual artists, they encourage their fellow artists to keep hustling and keep putting themselves out there, and that’s how they’ll get noticed. And to not be afraid of technology, that you won’t know unless you try. That’s been the message, and that if they need technical support, we’re here as well. We’ve shared videos on Facebook about product photography, business plans, social media marketing, how to set up a Facebook page as an artist.
Can you tell me about the financial support the Poeh has provided?
We had artist funds and were able to pay artists directly, and that was so, so helpful to them. It was really heartbreaking to read their stories in the statements of need they put on their applications. Native communities, the pueblos, and villages are closed down so they can’t leave. There are police checkpoints that ask people why they’re leaving, and if they’re not leaving for an approved reason they send them back, or they have time slotted schedules of when they can actually leave to go for essentials or things like that. So a lot of these pueblos are really hard hit.
We’re just helping with a small dent compared to what everyone needs, but we’re helping them a little bit, and try to encourage them to keep pushing forward. We’ve [given] about 250 relief grants, about $40,000.
What future projects are you working on?
We have our continuing Tewa pueblo arts programs, and we actually have got a lot of grants from the CARES Act and funders like the NEA and the IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services) to revamp our Poeh arts program to provide larger screen TVs for instructors to continue to work remotely, or as this pandemic continues, helping to provide some laptops or cameras for artists who can’t make it into the Poeh.
We’re also going to create a tribal museum reopening plan, which is going to be a shared document that we create as a resource for other tribal museums across the country as they look into reopening safely to the public.
Our existing projects that still continue are developing a park at the Poeh for the community here that’s going to be a draw for community members, families, and visitors. We’re also working with the state on their Main Street program to develop a Pojoaque arts and culture district. We’re going to create a plan that joins Pojoaque businesses, working with tribal and non-tribal business owners to create a plan that will promote tourism, their own businesses, and that is an authentic reflection of the Pojoaque heritage and what makes Pojoaque unique.
We’re also working on a new building called the Tewa Learning Center. Our collection and archives have been growing and we need more space, so we want to create a building that will have research rooms, workrooms, and open collection space. Our arts program students can easily use the collection for their research and inspiration for their projects. It’s a cycle of learning and use for our collections.
We’re really proud of everything that has developed and we want to continue that pueblo aesthetic and being a center for community, for gathering, for learning. The Poeh is really the centerpiece of the pueblo here for visitors and for the community, and we want to continue being that special place.