Roy J. Kurtz Collection of American Indian Art

Roy J. Kurtz remembers the early beginnings of Tohono Chul when he could reach it from Ina Road. He remembers the Haunted Bookstore and speaks about the incredible place Tohono Chul has grown to be. This story – Roy’s story – blends his passion for collecting with Tohono Chul’s mission of “connecting people with the nature, art, and culture of the Sonoran Desert region…” and has culminated with a wondrous gift that will significantly enhance Tohono Chul’s Permanent Collection.

The Kurtz family emigrated from Germany in the 1870s and settled in the coal mining country of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Roy was born in Greensburg, Pennsylvania in 1933. After graduating from Greensburg High School in 1952, Roy worked in the steel mills. Earning enough money to attend the University of Pittsburgh, he graduated in 1957 with a B.B.A. in Economics. The day of his graduation, Roy received a draft notice and obediently joined the Army. Stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, Roy developed an admiration and appreciation for other cultures and began to see serious collecting as a way to preserve them. Coming home, Roy took a position with the Westmoreland County Child Welfare Department that intensified his interest in social work. Backed by a scholarship and the GI Bill, Roy attended West Virginia University and earned a Master of Social Work degree that launched his 42-year career in 3 social work. For over a decade, he devoted himself to child welfare. In 1972 and ready for a change, Roy moved to Tucson to work with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Roy retired in 2003. To celebrate, he acquired a beautiful piece of Tohono O’odham basketry, a large tray with a squash blossom motif of red yucca root. It serves as an acknowledgment of hard work and the importance of tradition.

The Roy J. Kurtz Collection is vast and will provide endless possibilities for Tohono Chul’s Education and Exhibits programs for years to come. Apart from Dick and Jean Wilson’s original gift, no gift has been as significant in representing the arts and traditions of our region as Roy’s donation. Not only did Roy gift his remarkable collection, but he has generously provided funding from his assets and through his estate to care for the collection in perpetuity.

“Tohono Chul is a place to be proud of,” Roy said, “I sincerely believe The Collection will reach its true potential at Tohono Chul.” Roy’s gift has filled our hearts with amazement and delight, and we are overjoyed and humbled to carry on his life’s passion and legacy. 


Once a week, James Schaub, Director of Education and Exhibitions, goes over to Roy’s house to collect 30/40 pieces. He photographs each piece at Roy’s house and writes a list as he packs them into a box labeled with the date of pickup. When James brings the box to Tohono Chul, it is placed in our storeroom to acclimate and then into our Permanent Collection storage to acclimate to the colder controlled temperature that room.

Nicole George, Assistant Curator of Exhibitions and Collections Manager, takes the list and updates the inventory comprising of all the pieces that have been collected thus far and James downloads the images he took while at Roy’s. When a box is opened, Nicole carefully takes them out and assigns them an accession number, this unique number lets the exhibits staff know the year it was collected, the donation number in that year and the number of that piece. For example, 2021.1.0202, 2021 (the year the donation started coming in) . 1 (Roy was the first donation in 2021) . 0202 (the piece was number 202 to be conditioned).

Condition reports take anywhere from 5 min to 15 min to fill out. Nicole and the Exhibitions Intern Samuel Rodarte look at each piece to discover the materials and culture, along with any damage. Once the condition report is done, they play a game of Tetris in the collection storage room to store each piece safely, we record its location as well, so we know where each piece is located. As pieces get moved, the location gets updated. We have a new volunteer, Shari Coia, who has taken on the task of photographing each piece for our records and marketing.

Looking to the future, we will have an exhibition in the Main Gallery in February 2022 and a revolving display of Roy’s baskets in the Education Center coming soon as well. The education will not only help get the word our about this donation but help with storage of the pieces as well. We will also be getting new storage cabinets to help house the pieces, this will be a multi-step process as we reorganize our collection storage and archives.


January 12, 2022 Written by Shari Coia, Exhibit House Volunteer and Photographer

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Shari Coia, a volunteer at Tohono Chul’s Exhibit House, has been photographing the Native American baskets that are part of the Roy J. Kurtz Collection of American Indian Art since September.

“I have studied photography since the late 70’s having started with a Pentax K1000 and developing film in my Brown Jr. High School darkroom which led to my parents putting in a dark room in the basement of our Ohio home. I worked as a teen at Campus Camera Exchange in Kent, Ohio. 

I am fortunate to have an incredible mentor in teacher Jerry Jividen who taught me to see the beauty in the details of objects and to spend time focusing on patterns, light, and details. Jerry took many of his students on field trips in nature and to seminars and workshops where I was able to attend a presentation by none other than Ansel Adams! This experience led to winning the Kodak Medallion of Excellence for the Northeast Region and having my work displayed in New York City.

My background was primarily in nature and landscape photography but then transitioned to food and product photography, after founding and opening Zia’s Gelateria e Caffè Bar in El Dorado Hills, California. I produced much of the marketing and social media photographs for my award-winning coffee house/bakery and later for the Placerville Food CO-OP in Placerville, California.

Having recently moved to Catalina in June of last year, I instantly fell in love with the nature, art, and culture focus of Tohono Chul and became a member. During a behind-the-scenes member tour, I was introduced to Tohono Chul Curator of Exhibitions James Schaub as he gave a sneak peek of the incoming American Indian baskets. I contacted James and Assistant Curator and Collections Manager Nicole George and began work on the task of photographing the baskets, both to aid in cataloging the collection and to use for social media and marketing.

This endeavor has been challenging and extremely rewarding. My early work gave me an immediate appreciation and respect for the intricate detail in the patterns and designs these artisans crafted into the baskets. Lighting them and getting the focal depth to properly capture this detail and honor the time-worn texture and colors of the baskets proved the biggest challenge! I felt very privileged with the opportunity to carefully handle each piece from the tiny basket no larger than a pencil eraser to the massive 3-foot baskets with lids. 

Some pieces are woven from horsehair, others with plant materials such as yucca, beargrass, and devil’s claw. I was pleasantly surprised to see how some of the patterns magically appeared more clearly once viewed as a thumbnail photograph versus looking at the basket in person. My desire is to give anyone who had the opportunity to view the photographs the feeling and impression of intimately handling each piece up close the way I can. I am both blown away and honored to be a part of this process.”

Tohono O’odham


Tohono O’odham


Tohono O’odham





January 6, 2022 Written by Nicole George, Assistant Curator of Exhibitions and Collections Manager

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The time has come to start focusing on pieces that will be in the Main Gallery exhibition opening on February 11th. Roy has selected a few of his favorites and provided a pile of receipts he has kept. I went through the large pile, organizing and removing duplicates, and arranging them by culture. Next week I will be scanning them to the computer and cross-referencing the information with our inventory.

On Monday, our IT department set up our collections computer, this houses our database system Past Perfect. Now we need to start inputting the 329 condition reports, Shari’s images, and the condition report images into Past Perfect. Past Perfect is one of the most widely used collection databases for museums so this will be great experience for our intern.

To help expand our knowledge of this collection, I have been working on creating informative labels and documentation materials for future exhibits and for staff/interns working with the collection. This information can help not only Roy’s collection but with our Permanent Collection as well. It will include helpful tips on how to identify the materials, culture, and design of a basket. I have included some pictures below.

Collections Computer Station

Knot Start – Tohono O’odham

digitally altered detail of 2021.1.0044

Circle Start – Apache

digitally altered detail of 2021.1.092

Man-in-the-Maze Design

Tohono O’odham



December 20, 2021 Written by Nicole George, Assistant Curator of Exhibitions and Collections Manager

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We are over halfway to catching up cataloging pieces received so far!

I have made it my goal to catch up with the pieces received by cataloging 19 pieces a day. So far, I have gone above that each day and it has been great opportunity for me to dust off my collection management skills. I am slowly becoming skilled at identifying baskets which is a trait I never thought I would have. While there are some that need further research, it has been a great opportunity for me and our intern Sam. The research and information I have collected to help myself and Sam has been invaluable to help with this process. I am excited to formally get the information organized to help future interns and others working with the collection.

Tohono O’odham

Joseph Lopez




Akimel O’odham





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