Native Woman-Owned Gallery Curates Art for Sycuan Casino Resort

The headboard in this guest room at Sycuan Casino Resort features a print of an original painting of a canyon live oak, one of the Sycuan Kumeyaay Nation’s cultural touchstones. (Courtesy Ruth-Ann Thorn)

This article originally appeared in the summer 2019 edition of Native Business Magazine, ahead of the coronavirus outbreak and temporary closures of casino resorts nationwide. 

The Sycuan Kumeyaay Nation celebrated the grand opening of its expanded Sycuan Casino Resort on March 27, 2019. The $226 million expansion features a 12-story luxury hotel tower with 300 rooms, five new restaurants and bars, a full-service spa and even an adult-only pool and lazy river just outside of San Diego, California.

But one of the new venue’s highlights has its foundation firmly in the living culture of the Kumeyaay people through the curated art seen throughout the resort. The collection, which features both original art and prints, was developed with the help of one of the nation’s only Native-owned galleries and the remarkable woman who owns it.

Ruth-Ann Thorn (Luiseño), owner of EC Art Services, a division of Exclusive Collections Gallery. (Courtesy Ruth-Ann Thorn)

Ruth-Ann Thorn is a citizen of the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians, based in north San Diego County, and owner of Exclusive Collections Gallery, a full-service art curation service located in Solano Beach, California, and EC Art Services, which provides art solutions for larger venues such as the resort and Tribal government campuses. “I don’t think there are very many Native Americans that are specializing in art other than maybe at the museum level or helping to curate collections for their own Tribes,” says Thorn, whose father is Luiseño; her mother is a Chinese-Dutch artist.

Although she grew up surrounded by art and artists, “I didn’t really think that I would be involved in it,” Thorn says. “I went through a crisis as a young person because I didn’t really have those ties to the reservation because my parents were divorced; my identity was really in question.”

After marrying at a young age, Thorn moved to Hawaii with her husband and enrolled in college. “There was an opening in an art gallery, and I thought I was just going to do it for the summer while I was going to university,” she says. But after just two weeks, “I just knew that was my calling, and from that point on pursued it.”

Thorn worked for a Hawaiian gallery for six years. Then, she relocated back to California — and home. “I wanted to get back home to the reservation,” says Thorn. In 1995, Thorn’s goal to start her own gallery experienced a setback when she couldn’t obtain a business loan. “So, I started this company out of the back of a Ryder truck or a U-Haul truck,” she says. “I’d go to hotels and set up a show in a meeting room. I’d bring the artists and call my collectors. It was very grassroots at the beginning.”

The hotel shows proved to be successful, and after three years, she opened her first gallery in La Jolla, an upscale community in San Diego County. “I ended up having three galleries in San Diego for many years, in very prime locations.” Next came galleries in Las Vegas’ Forum Shops at Caesars, in Beverly Hills and Breckenridge, Colorado. Thorn also opened Crown Thorn Publishing, which creates print editions of original art. 

EC Gallery also won a prestigious “Best Gallery in California 2019” award and was named as one of the 25 best galleries or museums in America by American Art Awards.

But something was missing, even as the galleries were doing brisk business.

“I stopped really feeling like I was having the passion for the art,” Thorn says. “I started feeling like I was running businesses. The company was doing about $15 million a year, and that is a big animal to manage.” Thorn didn’t have time to focus on her passion of finding new artists, promoting her existing community and showcasing art through curating exhibits. So, she took what she felt was the next logical step: she downsized to a manageable single gallery.

However, the move to just one location not only freed Thorn up to concentrate on curation and nurturing artists but also proved to be a sound business decision. “[Brick and mortar] retail’s really taken a big hit,” she says. “It was good timing.” It also provided more time for Thorn to engage in larger projects.

“I was volunteering at my Tribe’s economic development programs,” says Thorn. “I kept running into people who were asking why I wasn’t overseeing these big public art deals in Indian Country hotels and public spaces.”

The headboard in this guest room at Sycuan Casino Resort features a print of an original painting of a canyon live oak, one of the Sycuan Kumeyaay Nation’s cultural touchstones. (Courtesy Ruth-Ann Thorn)

So, in 2011, she took on her first Tribal job: art for the Rincon Tribal administration building. “I was able to meet with our cultural community and really take the time to figure out what needed to be in that space through art.” The finished product: “I pulled out archived old photos of our people and modernized them by printing them on metal. This created a modern interpretation of our culture and it turned out really great.”

That project led to more public space work, first with the neighboring Pechanga Band of Luiseño, then to the Sycuan Casino project. 

The process to curate Sycuan’s resort expansion was a two-year project. “I curated everything for every portion of the resort,” Thorn says. She worked with the Tribal Council and Cultural Committee to achieve the look and feel the community wanted. “The art was inspired by lots of meetings, where we looked at different artists’ works.” Then, Thorn skillfully drew out what the Tribal members wanted. “I do an exercise where I ask questions like, ‘If you were color what color would you be?’” Those exercises helped committee and Council members tap into their creative sides.

“We would go out with some Tribal members and walk the reservation and take photos of things that are culturally significant, and then we used those photos to create oil paintings of the landscape.” The paintings include culturally significant plants and animals such as valley live oak and red-tailed hawks in flight. The art was created with contemporary techniques to showcase traditional culture. “They didn’t want traditional art,” says Thorn, “but they wanted images that showed their culture.” And, using a Native curator ensures cultural appropriateness. “What is too sacred that you don’t want to show to the public?”

The Sycuan Casino Resort also has something few other venues can boast — exclusive art. Most deals involve simply choosing art from a catalog, she says. Not to mention, Thorn ensures that all art created for a Tribal venue is proprietary and reflects the Tribe’s culture and history. “If you see it there, you’re never going to see it anywhere ever again.”

“It’s refreshing to have a Tribal person in charge of the project,” says Sycuan Chairman Cody Martinez. “Ruth-Ann is a successful art dealer, and also as a Native person; she knows where to use Tribal information — and where not to.” Martinez also notes that, as a member of a neighboring Tribe, she understands Kumeyaay landscapes and culture, and what is important to Kumeyaay people, such as their basketry patterns. “These and other aspects are unique to our Tribe.”

Thorn also notes that Tribes want to showcase their culture and history much more in their public venues and resorts. “We never really felt that sense of pride to show our culture when the Tribes first started into gaming,” she says. “Everybody wanted to look like Vegas because we weren’t sure how we were going to be accepted.” Especially in California, where Native people were brutalized, murdered and oppressed, she says that Tribal casinos sought to blend in. “But in the last 10 years, that’s changing! When you come into our state you’re going to be welcomed by our culture and by our ancestors.” And, that suits Thorn just fine. “That’s what I really want to focus on, because to me that’s such a great honor to be able to be involved in that.”

A guest room at Sycuan Casino Resort with art curated by Ruth-Ann Thorn. (Courtesy Ruth-Ann Thorn)

Along the way, Thorn also seeks out Native artists, and ensures that the project is brought in with the budget in mind. “It’s more cost-effective when I do a project,” she says. “I have the art created and then, because I have my own printing facility and my own framing facility, it’s usually less than they’re going to pay for anything off the shelf for the venue size. And, it’s all created by the Tribe.”

Thorn is now working with other Tribes on art projects. And she intends to continue working in Indian Country. “I’ve been asked to bid on jobs outside of Indian Country because they get some funding, because I’m a Native woman-owned business,” she says. “But I really want to stick in Indian Country, because I feel it’s not just a business, it’s my passion. If I’m involved with the Tribe, I know they will get the most value, and they’re going to get something special.”