Ever since Dr. J.W. “Bill” Wiggins, a chemistry professor and higher education administrator, retired from UA Little Rock in 2002, he’s spent his days sharing his love of indigenous North American art with the world.
The School of Art and Design at UA Little Rock is home to an auspicious collection of more than 3,000 pieces of contemporary Native American art that Wiggins has meticulously collected for nearly 50 years.
One of the most unique aspects of the collection is Wiggins’ familiarity with the artists. Considered an expert in his field, Wiggins knows many artists personally and remains friends with almost all the artists whose work is included in the collection.
His collecting days began when Wiggins first visited the Five Civilized Tribes Museum in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in late summer 1974. Wiggins grew to love the museum so much that he served as president of the board of directors for a decade.
“When I first stepped into the museum in Muscogee, I immediately felt at home and I enjoyed the art,” Wiggins said. “That is when I started collecting. Today my collection has more than 3,000 pieces, and that is larger than what most art museums have.”
Wiggins now spends his days curating the massive collection that is housed and displayed at the Fine Arts Building at UA Little Rock. A large part of his work includes loaning out pieces of the collection to other museums and academic institutions. This is fine with Wiggins, who greatly enjoys sharing tales of his unique collection. Over the years, pieces of his collection have been displayed at more than 30 institutions across North America.
The latest institution to display one of the pieces of his collection will be the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. A sculpture by Canadian artist Nick Sikkuark will be displayed in the upcoming exhibition, “Nick Sikkuark: Humor and Horror,” from Nov. 17, 2023, to March 24, 2024.
The retrospective exhibition will bring together for the first time a significant number of Sikkuark’s artworks created over a 45-year period. The exhibition, which was put together by associate curator Christine Lalonde, will feature more than 100 artworks displayed throughout five rooms in the Special Exhibition II galleries.
“This is a significant event for the Indigenous peoples of Canada,” Wiggins said. “The first time an Indigenous person’s art was allowed to be shown in the National Gallery of Canada was 1967. It was a retrospective exhibition of the Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) artist Norval Morrisseau, and there have been very few retrospective exhibitions for Indigenous artists since then.”
Sikkuark was Nattilingmiut from the Kitikmeot region of present-day Nunavut, Canada. Born in 1943, he lived an extraordinary life, from his childhood at family hunting camps to becoming a leading artist and Elder, highly respected and valued within his community of Kugaaruk and the art world at large.
The piece from Wiggins’ collection that will be included in the special exhibition is titled “One Legged Man,” a 1988 sculpture made from stone and caribou antler.
“The curator that has been working on this show has worked for 10 years to get this show in the Canadian National Gallery,” Wiggins said. “I bought this piece at an art auction in Vancouver, Canada, in 2017. The artist is very interesting, and I own several of his other works. Nick is noted for the strangeness of his carvings and the unique faces on his pieces.”