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News Release: Religion focus of new Eiteljorg initiative funded by $2.5M Lilly Endowment grant

Spirituality and religion in Native cultures and the West explored through exhibitions, programs

José Rafael Aragón (Colonial Spanish American santero, ca. 1796–1862)
San Jose Retablo, ca. 1830-1840
Ponderosa pine board, water-based paints, hide
Museum purchase with funds provided by the Brian and Kim Buchanan Foundation, a fund of the Legacy Fund

INDIANAPOLIS – Religion and spirituality throughout the American West and Native America will be the focus of significant future exhibitions and programs at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, thanks to a $2.5 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.

Part of Lilly Endowment’s Religion and Cultural Institutions Initiative, the grant will support the Eiteljorg Museum’s exploration of religion in a holistic, thoughtful and ongoing manner, through art, educational and scholarly programs and a new museum endowment. Among its components:

  • The museum will incorporate the relationship of Native peoples to religion and spiritual beliefs into the planned renovation and reinstallation of the Eiteljorg’s Native American galleries, scheduled for 2022.
  • The Eiteljorg will partner with the New-York Historical Society to showcase an exhibit, Acts of Faith: Religion and the American West, in 2024, and will take the lead in producing a companion publication.
  • With the Clements Center for Southwestern Studies at Southern Methodist University, the Eiteljorg will co-sponsor a symposium in 2024 on Religion and the American West.
  • A new endowment will be created to make religion a central element of the museum’s work. That endowment will fund a new position on the Eiteljorg staff to coordinate the Acts of Faith exhibition and the associated publication, participate in aspects of the Native American galleries reinstallation, research and identify items in the Eiteljorg collections related to religion and digitize them, and develop future exhibitions and programs.

“Although religion and spirituality have been a component of the Eiteljorg Museum’s collections, exhibitions and programs, this generous Lilly Endowment grant will allow us to be more purposeful about it and to develop a leadership role in the museum field nationally. It’s hard to overstate how important this initiative is to the museum and how much it will expand our impact, and we are grateful for Lilly Endowment’s support,” Eiteljorg President and CEO John Vanausdall said.

“The Religion and Cultural Institutions Initiative grant will serve as a catalyst for exploring the role religion and spirituality have played in the American West and the lives of Native peoples and other groups. Individual perspectives and community stories will be important elements as the Eiteljorg prepares for the reinstallation of its Native American galleries in 2022, the exhibition and symposium in 2024, and beyond,” Eiteljorg Vice President and Chief Curatorial Officer Elisa Phelps said. “This ongoing project will enhance our interpretation and contextualization of artworks and cultural objects associated with faith and belief systems in our museum collections, and create fascinating visitor experiences and scholarship for years to come.”

Through the initiative, Lilly Endowment awarded grants totaling more than $43 million to 18 institutions nationwide. The grants enable museums and other organizations to develop exhibitions and education programs that fairly and accurately portray the role of religion in the U.S. and around the world. The initiative is designed to foster public understanding about religion and celebrate the contributions that people of all faiths and diverse religious communities make toward greater civic well-being.

“Museums and cultural institutions are trusted organizations and play an important role in teaching the American public about the world around them,” Christopher Coble, Lilly Endowment’s vice president for religion, said. “These organizations will use the grants to help visitors understand and appreciate the significant impact religion has had and continues to have on society in the United States and around the globe. Our hope is that these efforts will promote greater knowledge about and respect for people of diverse religious traditions.”

An Indianapolis-based philanthropic foundation, Lilly Endowment launched the Religion and Cultural Institutions Initiative in 2019 and awarded an earlier round of planning grants to organizations to help them explore how programming in religion could further their institutional missions.

The Eiteljorg Museum’s $2.5 million grant is one of nine grants made at this level of funding in the Religion and Cultural Institutions Initiative. The Eiteljorg Museum thanks Jessica Criales, Ph.D., coordinator of the museum’s Religion and the American West planning project, which was supported by an earlier grant. Dr. Criales helped develop the proposal and worked on the grant application, which was informed by the planning work that preceded it. Exhibition details and event dates as they are scheduled will be posted on the museum’s website,, and on social media.

Ernest Leonard Blumenschein (American, 1874 – 1960)
The Penitentes, ca. 1935
Oil on linen
Gift of Harrison Eiteljorg

About the Eiteljorg Museum
For more than 31 years, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in White River State Park in downtown Indianapolis has inspired an appreciation and understanding of the art, history and cultures of the American West and the Indigenous peoples of North America. Located on the Central Canal at 500 West Washington St., the Eiteljorg Museum was named one of the USA Today Readers’ Choice 10 Best Indiana Attractions.

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