Pound for pound, Santa Fe, NM is the world champion of visual art. With some 300 galleries highlighting everything from Zuni fetishes to photography and a dozen world class museums devoted to Georgia O’Keeffe, contemporary Native American art, folk art, Hispanic art for starters, Santa Fe packs a wallop.
Not to mention its world’s best art fair, its wonderful art-filled hotels, the remarkably influential and prolific Institute of American Indian Arts which calls it home, a state capital building boasting a museum-quality art collection, and the School for Advanced Research’s Pottery Vault, the most spiritual art space anywhere.
Then there’s all the artists living and working in Santa Fe and the area’s artisan tradition of Pueblo potters and weavers dating back centuries.
New York and London may have more galleries and bigger museums, but they also have metro populations of 20 million people. Santa Fe punches like a superheavyweight at a population of roughly 90,000.
Its next haymaker will be delivered on September 23, 2023, when the New Mexico Museum of Art Vladem Contemporary opens in the city’s Railyard District. Vladem Contemporary breaks away from the New Mexico Museum of Art’s 1917 building in the Santa Fe Plaza while remaining under its management, focusing on work made post-1980.
“This is really just an extension of our original mission; we have always been a contemporary institution, so for us, this is a way of reaffirming and continuing to show contemporary art, but also it’s important that Santa Fe continue to make strides in its interest and enthusiasm for contemporary art,” Mark White, executive director of New Mexico Museum of Art, told Forbes.com. “Having Vladem Contemporary in addition to Site Santa Fe, the Thoma Art Vault, all of the galleries, it does, once again, affirm that Santa Fe can be a destination for those interested in contemporary art.”
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Site Santa Fe is co-commissioning the U.S. Pavilion’s presentation of Jeffrey Gibson’s (Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and Cherokee) work at the 2024 Venice Biennale, the Olympics of contemporary art, another significant feather in the hat for Santa Fe’s art scene.
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A new old building
“The Plaza building, when it was built for contemporary art in 1917, that meant something very different than what it means today,” White said. “What we have needed to do for some time is to expand and really make space for contemporary art of our age, which is obviously very different than it was early in the 20th century.”
The New Mexico Museum of Art not only needed more space for its ever-expanding collection, it needed larger spaces–higher ceilings, longer walls–and basic technical upgrades like more electrical outlets and data cables for digital art.
“We've been collecting for over a century and as contemporary art has grown in size, as it has gotten more complicated in terms of its media, it's been increasingly difficult to continue to collect some of the more experimental work, and with an expansion of our storage space, that really makes this possible,” White said.
Not as sexy as new exhibition space, but every bit as essential, Vladem Contemporary allows the New Mexico Museum of Art to nearly double its storage space for art.
The $20.2 million museum wasn’t built new, it’s a retrofit of an existing brick building which presented architectural challenges, primary among them creating an envelope to properly seal the structure, acclimatizing the building to protect artwork by increasing the interior humidity beyond Santa Fe’s dry, desert climate.
A place of pilgrimage
The New Mexico Museum of Art’s collecting strengths are contemporary art of the Southwest, particularly artists who have settled or spent time in New Mexico. That covers a surprisingly broad cross section including many of the most important American artists over the past century.
“There was a moment where if you were a modern artist working in the United States worth your salt, you came here, and that has continued,” White said.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, John Marin, Maynard Dixon, the Taos Society of Artists, the Cinco Pinteros, the Transcendental Painting Group. All were drawn to northern New Mexico for a time, or forever.
They set a mold others would follow.
“There was this interesting moment in the 1970s that did continue into the 80s and 90s, in which you saw many of those early modernists–either towards the end of their career, or they would pass away–but a younger generation was coming in, not to replace them, but because they were lured by the dynamic in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Taos, you see this huge influx–especially from Southern California–of artists that would become international names: Bruce Nauman and Susan Rothenburg, Judy Chicago, Larry Bell, Ron Cooper, Ken Price, Allen and Gloria Graham, Fritz Scholder (Luiseño), T.C. Cannon (Kiowa, Caddo).”
Santa Fe and the surrounding area continues to be home for a staggering number of top contemporary artists, Native Americans foremost among them. Either born and raised in New Mexico’s Pueblo nations or drawn there by studies at the Institute for American Indian Art, “locals” Cara Romero (Chemehuevi), Rose Simpson (Santa Clara Pueblo), Roxanne Swentzell (Santa Clara Tewa), Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo), Dan Namingha (Hop-Tewa), Diego Romero (Cochiti Pueblo), Nocona Burgess (Comanche) and dozens of colleagues have work in top museum collections around the nation.
“Shadow and Light”
Drawing all those artists to New Mexico is the area’s light. It has a quality which must be seen to be properly appreciated.
“It's partly the desert atmosphere, which is somewhat thin, and our higher altitude, but there is a clarity and intensity here that has drawn artists,” White said. “You do have those that can't quite contend with it–Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, they had a hard time with the New Mexico light and didn't produce a lot of work here because they did struggle with it–but there were so many other artists that did really appreciate it.”
Vladem Contemporary’s inaugural exhibition, “Shadow and Light,” plays upon the famed New Mexico light, “not only as a physical medium, but as a metaphor, as a symbolic construct often for ideas of spirituality, transcendence,” White explains.
“Shadow and Light” demonstrates one of the original notions behind the founding of NMMOA, the belief that the impact of the arts is greater than simple replication and illustration. The impact is the understanding and enjoyment of art as well as the exploration of human experience, new ideas, and diverse cultures.
While New Mexico’s light is commonly associated with representational landscape paintings, the West has also nurtured and attracted artists who expressed more than mere naturalistic representation in their artwork. These artists use experimental styles and techniques, often maximizing the atmospheric quality and vast stretches of sky and horizon, not to mention making references and connections to honor ancient Indigenous civilizations who have called this land home for hundreds of years.
“I'm probably most excited to show that inaugural exhibition because it shows how versatile this building will be and how aesthetically pleasing this building is,” White said of Vladem Contemporary’s opening. “It will give people an idea as to what is possible for the future, which is to say a lot; we're not going to have a whole lot of restrictions when it comes to a building like this.”
“Shadow and Light” will be on view through May 28, 2024.