Millicent Rogers Museum honors legacy of Taos’ artistic traditions

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As the story goes, after a traumatic breakup with movie star Clark Gable, Millicent Rogers came to Taos in 1947.

She fell in love with its landscape and cultural beauty, and decided to move here. The wealthy heiress of Standard Oil was a fashion model who had grown up in New York, lived in Europe and was fascinated by the cultures of the Southwestern United States.  

Millicent Rogers died in 1953, so her time living in Taos was short. However, her influence on the community was great and continues today through the Millicent Rogers Museum, which houses her exquisite collection of Native American and Hispanic art from the many diverse cultures of the Southwest.

When Millicent Rogers passed away, her youngest son, Paul Peralta-Ramos, became responsible for her collection of Southwestern jewelry, textiles, pottery, and other forms of art. At the age of 21, in 1956, he founded the Millicent Rogers Museum. Peralta-Ramos could have placed the museum anywhere in the nation, but he chose Taos.

“He wanted her collection to stay here and he wanted the legacies of these Taos families to stay here,” explained Caroline Fernald, executive director of the museum.  

Fernald has observed that many of the school children who visit the museum today are descendants of the artists’ whose work is on display.  Peralta-Ramos also mandated that a seat on the museum’s board of directors be reserved for the Governor of Taos Pueblo.  

Millicent Rogers was an advocate for Native American rights as well as a collector of Native American art. She had many friends from Taos Pueblo, and she chose to be buried at Sierra Vista Cemetery, located near the Pueblo behind the Allsup’s gas station. 

Millicent’s mother, Mary Rogers, was inspired by her daughter’s collection of Native American art. Together, mother and daughter purchased a large number of works on paper by Santa Fe Indian School artists.

The year that Millicent Rogers died, her mother arranged for a major exhibit of these works at the National Gallery of Art. The Millicent Rogers Museum is now the owner of this art.

The Millicent Rogers Museum has had an ongoing relationship with Taos Pueblo. The museum has always given its staff the day off for San Geronimo Day, Taos Pueblo’s feast day.

In recent years, the museum has partnered with Taos Pueblo for a winter showcase of Taos Pueblo artists held at the museum.

“We invite artists from Taos Pueblo to sell their work for a whole weekend,” said Fernald. “This time of the year is when the pueblo closes to the public for religious purposes, and it’s a way for us to help Taos Pueblo artists. It helps us, too. It’s our chance to see what’s new with Taos Pueblo artists. It’s another way to show our visitors that Native American art comes in all forms.”

The Millicent Rogers Museum was founded with less than 1,000 items. Over time, it has grown to around 7,000 pieces.

The museum always displays collections of Navajo and Pueblo jewelry, Navajo textiles, Pueblo pottery, Hopi and Zuni katsinas and western Apache basketry. Traditional Hispanic religious and secular arts, textiles and furniture are also part of the permanent exhibits. 

At any given time, Fernald said, the museum displays 30 percent of its collection. She added that this always includes a sizable amount of jewelry.

“One thing we like to tell people is Millicent Rogers, as a trend-setting person, helped to make popular the Southwest look inspired by Navajo women’s style of dress,” said Fernald. This style includes opulent numbers of bracelets and rings and stunning necklaces featuring large turquoise stones, and bold silver designs.  

“We have a lot of pieces on view in the jewelry galleries because we wanted to have a similar effect as Millicent Rogers,” said Fernald.

 In addition to collecting and wearing Native American jewelry, Millicent Rogers designed and sometimes crafted her own pieces; a few of these are on display at the museum.

The Maria Martinez exhibit deserves special note. The famous San Ildefonso Pueblo potter’s family chose the Millicent Rogers Museum as the permanent home for a large number of her pots and memorabilia in the 1980s. 

“Ever since then we have had a gallery dedicated to that collection,” said Fernald. Today, the gallery includes contemporary works by living descendants of Maria and Julian Martinez.

 The museum recently received a donation of a rare polychrome (multi-colored) pot made by Maria Martinez.

“That’s how we grow our collection. We have a reputation that’s positive and collectors want to work with us,” Fernald emphasized.  

The museum is housed in what was once the private hacienda of Claude and Elizabeth Anderson (parents of Chilton Anderson, founder of the Taos School of Music). The residence was donated to the museum in 1968 and was expanded by Nathaniel Owings, a renowned architect whose firm also built the Sears tower.

“Owings was on the board of the museum for a while,” said Fernald. “He was passionate about the building blending in with the historical structure and landscape.”

The Millicent Rogers Museum offers an unparalleled look at the history of Taos’ artistic traditions. This Taos treasure also displays contemporary Native American, Hispanic and Southwestern art in its gift store. The store illustrates that the traditions seen in the museum’s collection continue as living art forms.

Additionally, special events throughout the year link the museum to contemporary art traditions and the Taos community. Visit millicentrogers.org for more information and details on this year’s special events.  

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