Emerald Tanner enjoys highlighting contemporary artists in and around Gallup at Tanner's Indian Arts. Photograph by Brian Leddy.
AS THE FIFTH-GENERATION OWNER of Tanner’s Indian Arts, Emerald Tanner has grown up in the Gallup trading post. Her earliest memories include cross-country road trips with her father, Joe, bringing art to market. “I’d be wedged between piles of Navajo rugs in his white Celebrity station wagon,” she recalls. Before attending Arizona State University to study finance, Tanner held summer jobs that included buffing and tagging pieces within the collection. Since rejoining the business in 2014, she’s focused on marketing Native American goods as a global fine art and worked with national museums to highlight contemporary artists in and around Gallup.
Finding Her Place: Tanner was well versed in the trading post’s specialties in rugs, jewelry, and historic pieces. “My challenge was navigating what I wanted to focus on at Tanner’s,” she says, which includes amplifying contemporary early-and mid-career artists by promoting their work to international collectors and curators.
Old Habits Die Hard: Despite women serving as silent pillars behind many operations, traders have historically been men. “When I started working full-time, customers said, ‘Oh, is your dad here? I want to talk to him.’ This habit hasn’t gone away, but I have a place.”
Light-bulb Moment: One of Tanner’s favorite projects was working with the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian on Glittering World: Navajo Jewelry of the Yazzie Family, a 2014 exhibit that promoted the silversmithing work of the Gallup family. “I got the idea to pull out Navajo pearls by local third- and fourth-generation bead makers related to the Yazzie family,” she says of the 20-something artists. “The curator loved them.” Those beads were eventually incorporated into the New York museum’s exhibit.
What’s Cooking: In her spare time, Tanner cooks like her grandmother did. “I make her red chile,” Tanner says. “She inspires me, because when she lived on a trading post, she baked bread for people. That bridged her relationships with local weavers.” The bond created through food is something she has missed over the past year. “Before COVID, we’d host artists and collectors and cook meals. Food is love made visible.”
Cutting Gems: One of Tanner’s favorite contemporary artists is Bryan Tom, a Navajo silversmith and lapidarist who draws inspiration from iconic figures in art history. She points to a necklace with a range of perfectly cut rectangles made from coral, turquoise, lapis, and more that hearkens back to Pablo Picasso’s Cubist paintings. “He’s going to be very famous someday,” Tanner says.
Fueling Futures: Tanner enjoys working with artists and guiding their creative whimsy into marketable pieces. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from—if you have drive, your pieces can be in a museum or be sought out by collectors around the country,” she says. “Your art can take you places.”