Forge Project, an Indigenous-determined cultural organization, has proved ever-evolving since its founding in 2021. 

Under the leadership of Candice Hopkins (Carcross/Tagish First Nation) and Sarah Biscarra Dilley (yaktityutityu yaktiłhini [Northern Chumash]),Forge now operates a two-building campus located in the Hudson Valley that hosts artists-in-residence and classes on art, music, medicine, and agriculture. In 2021, Forge established a lending collection of Indigenous art, the first of its kind anywhere, that includes some 200 artworks by mostly contemporary artists hailing from across the continent. 

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And there’s still bounds to traverse: on Wednesday, the Forge team announced a transition to a new organizational model predicated on Indigenous sovereignty. With this shift, Forge’s assets and 60-acre campus fall under nonprofit status, opening itself to new funding—and new institutional oversight. The Indigenous Steering Council, a collective of seven regionally diverse Indigenous leaders, will articulate the high-level priorities—and ultimately, the legacy—of Forge. 

The steering council currently includes chair and board Liaison Kerry Swanson (Michipicoten First Nation) and Vice-Chair and Board Liaison, artist Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians); as well as Monique Tyndall (Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohicans), G. Peter Jemison (Seneca Nation, Heron Clan), Jasmine Neosh (Menominee), Jolene Rickard (Tuscarora Nation, Turtle Clan), and artist Jeffrey Gibson (Choctaw and Cherokee), whose US pavilion is now on view at the 2024 Venice Biennale. Hopinka and Swanson will also serve on Forge’s board of directors, led by Mimi Joh-Carnella.

The point, Hopkins explained in a recent interview, was to create a path apart from nonprofit conventions—which in her experience often become mired in self-inflicted bureaucracy—or even traditional museum organization models that function from top-down decrees. 

“The thought was, if you could inherit any nonprofit model, what would you do differently? We didn’t want a committee, we wanted to set up a government structure that is more how Indigenous people govern—as a gathering,” Hopkins, Forge’s executive director and chief curator, told ARTnews

Biscarra Dilley, Forge’s director of Indigenous programs and relationality, added that the decision to establish a steering council was influenced by the American government’s duplicitous behavior with Native tribes. “A lot of our communities have really had to be very creative in the ways that we assert our sovereignty and shape our governance models,” Biscarra Dilley said.

In California (unceded Nisenan land) where Biscarra Dilley is from, a lack of ratified treaties paired with historical policies solely advantageous to the United States resultedin manytribes lacking federal recognition and consequently, self-determination. In their homelands in the Central Coast of California, tribes traditionally had a decentralized government model that relied on collective leadership and community members sharing healthy communication. Forge’s non-profit structure draws from that, so the financial model affirms the decisions of the tribal representatives. 

“Many of us [at Forge] have been on ‘advisory councils,’ or committees where our knowledge is solicited, but then there’s actually no real responsibility to implement any of those ideas. Really the power is still situated within the calcified structure of a nonprofit or museum,” Biscarra Dilley continued. “It’s a kind of performance of engagement we want to avoid with the steering council.”

A visitor views art in the Forge Collection.
Courtesy Forge Project

Forge Project was started as an initiative by collector Becky Gochman and former gallerist Zach Feuer (now director of the Gochman Family Collection) to support Indigenous artists. The pair realized that for Forge to have measurable impact, it needed to be Indigenous-guided so they relinquished control. The campus, after all, is perched on the unceded and ancestral homelands of the Muh-he-con-ne-ok (known today as the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians), and cultural restoration underpins the endeavor. The significance of Forge is difficult to overstate; it is one of the few Native-led arts initiatives in the country with a physical location. Others include the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation in Portland and the Center for Native Futures in Chicago. 

Forge’s lending collection comprises Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, First Nation, Métis, and Inuit artists. It was intentional that the majority are living artists, Hopkins said, and that it has no discernible hierarchy. (The entire collection is available for online viewing.) A pedagogical resource, it’s begun to correct thematic omissions in art history. Works from the collection, for example, appeared in last fall’s “Indian Theater: Native Performance, Art, and Self-Determination since 1969,” curated by Hopkins at Bard College’s Hessel Museum of Art. The show is one of the scarce sizable institutional dedications to the subject.

Revitalizing the past while investing in the present is a ceaseless effort for Forge. The organization maintains a dialogue with both local Indigenous communities (the transition includes a memorandum of understanding with the Stockbridge-Munsee Community) and those beyond the Mahicannituck River Valley on what they need from an organization with its resources.

Tangible wealth distribution, both Hopkins and Biscarra Dilley stressed, is paramount to Forge’s mission. There are several initiatives aimed at that ongoing, like a fee to visit the homeland for non-Natives that is then returned to tribal projects, and the nonprofit status promises more opportunities. 

“Transitioning from an LLC to a nonprofit will open us to new funding, can immediately expand our base of operations. We’re trying to ensure a sustainable future for Forge,” Hopkins said.