Art Santa Fe, and the Market from an Artist’s Perspective

The last night of Art Santa Fe, I asked critic and historian Peter Frank about his experience here.  He said (I’m paraphrasing) that he was disappointed to find that Santa Fe is more of a market than a community.  He left New York a few decades back for that very reason.

For those of you who don’t know the history of New York’s art market, I’ll give a very brief, overly-generalized account.  New York City used to have cheap rent for large lofts.  Artists lived close to each other, exchanging free ideas. Critics and dealers cropped-up around the artists and showed the public what was cooking in the studios.  Decades later, rent went up and artists found new homes in Brooklyn, (now deep deep Brooklyn and Queens). But, this time, the galleries didn’t follow the artists. When the dealers no longer felt obligated to follow the artists, the change was similar to no longer backing paper currency with gold.

Living in New York is a like a vitamin for the mind.  There are a thousand distinct constellations of human experiences—like Jewish diners in the Lower East Side. In Santa Fe there is a wonderful photography exhibition at Counter Culture, which documents such Jewish diners, by David Scheinbaum and Janet Russek.  The pictures are snippets of “place”, culture and food so distinctly New York.  And every once in a while, I do miss the city. I miss my friends and I miss the art, but what I definitely don’t miss is the so-called art world. The art world experience in New York is closest to my junior-high nightmare at Capshaw. I’ve always—truly—hated Chelsea.

Chelsea helped me clarify what I am not. (Somehow mid-town felt more at home to me, possibly because of its high regard for painting.)

Whether I was on the outside looking in, or one of the cool kids looking out, I was invariably uncomfortable with the art and interactions.

I don’t think, for either Santa Fe or New York, the issue is the market. Artists rely on these markets to make a living.  The issue is that the markets are driving the ideas, and not the other way around.

Although my life began in an environment built on the ideals of freedom and independence—a result of the late 60s and early 70s—by the time I left Santa Fe in the early 90s my town was a “Fanta Se”.  You know what I’m talking about. Santa Fe went through a self-imposed, Disney-Land economy that propagated a false reality for the sake of its visitors.  In the 80s the word “tourist” became derogatory, and involved a very real dislike for Texans. Having grown up in Santa Fe, I am sensitive to the issue of authenticity.

“Nauman, O’Keeffe, and Martin came here for the peace and quiet – not the dialogue.  Some artists need a place that’s open and free. A place where there aren’t constant eyes watching or voices chattering. From that quiet place we find our unique truth, an unexpected idea or work that the world recognizes immediately as the thing its been unknowingly searching for all along,” says Eric Garduno, Santa Fean and artist. The type of person who lives in Northern New Mexico, and makes art, will inevitably be connected to local experience.  Although they may not admit that place impacts their work, a certain type of person is drawn here, and a certain type of person is able to stay.

Garduno too returned to his hometown, Santa Fe, after receiving an MFA from Yale and living in Chicago.  He works behind closed doors, only to reveal his craft and ideas when he has something important to say.  He aspires to operate at the highest levels of art and culture, yet acknowledges the strengths rooted in the specificity of his personal, cultural and geographic experience.

My dad, another personal example, was an artist in San Francisco and at the Art Students League in New York, before moving to Taos in the late 60s.  Although my earliest memories include the smell of oil paints, his focus turned to woodworking.  15 years ago, he sold his business and picked-up where he left off, painting.  The same way Cajuns speak a 400-year-old French, my dad was painting a 30-year-old dialect. To say that his work is distinctly Santa Fe would be foolish, but his work is a crossroads of East Coast, West Coast and most importantly, the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  He represents a generation of New Jersey Jews, who dropped out of Bard and ended up in Santa Fe.  No really…they all dropped out of Bard, and now they paint.

Santa Fe holds a place for artists by default—like a rock settling so deep into a riverbed that the water doesn’t mind. It’s not so much by design, as it is happenstance.

Lawrence Weschler wrote a book that was the result of a 30-year conversation with Robert Irwin, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. Irwin describes his experience with public art.  Only in the final stages, after buildings are near completion, will the planners select an artist to make a “site-specific installation”.  The artist is basically asked to drop their sculpture in the middle of a courtyard—a box filled with limitations.  It doesn’t occur to the planners to get an artist on board until the end.  Irwin insists on taking part in the early stages, and for good reason.  He states that an engineer’s job is to build a road that is safe and efficient.  The artist’s job is to add value to that road.  For a little bit of money we could have it meander along the river and give everyone a higher quality driving experience.  That’s the artist’s job: to make our lives better, to add value to our experience.

So, ask yourself this question:  as Santa Fe begins to re-brand itself as a contemporary art hub, should we ask the gallery dealers what’s the new flavor, or should we ask the artists, art historians and critics?

In the end, I’m not calling for a war because the dealers and historians are often the same people.  But I am asking the dealers to wear their historian caps when making decisions surrounding the future of contemporary art in Santa Fe, and the historians to ask the artists what they think before it’s too late, and we risk repeating some of New York’s missteps!

Editor’s Note: Art Santa Fe has raised many questions surrounding the future of the contemporary art market in Santa Fe–a topic that spurs particular interest for artists, critics and curators alike. In an effort to continue this intriguing conversation, originally prompted by Ellen Berkovitch’s “‘The Champagne-Tinged’ Art Santa Fe Falls Flat“, we bring you this review of Art Santa Fe by artist Willy Bo Richardson. We welcome others to participate in this on-going dialogue, as well. What is the future of contemporary art in Santa Fe? ~ Katy Crocker

(Photo: Christoph Morlinghaus)

Write us your thoughts about this post. Play nice.
  1. Nancy Reyner says:

    Dear Willy Bo,
    I appreciated reading your article, and glad you sent it out. I agree wholeheartedly with what you wrote, and was equally disappointed by the Art Santa Fe show. I’ve lived here since 1986, moved from NYC, and noticed the changes you mentioned. I’m surprised you haven’t gotten many comments on this article, as it is one of the more direct, clear and truthful articles I’ve read in a long time. Thank you and I look forward to more!
    Nancy Reyner

  2. Good article for Santa Fe artists and art-interested folks. i lived and painted in Santa Fe from 1972 until 2003, so I did experience that conversion Willy Bo’s talking about: Santa Fe turning into Santa Fe.
    I also experienced a specialsocial critical mass between artists in the mid-70’s which fizzled by 1980. There was a special relaxation of boundaries and artists actually formed committees and called on the Director of the Fine Arts Museum to express their disenchantment with the Museum’s lack of engagement with the community. There was an artist’s strike in 1977 and an installation show was cancelled due to artists walking out and taking a stand against censorship. When the social networking died out, so began the ‘every-man-for-himself’ phenomenon, which seems to now prevail in the United States with few exceptions. Another significant development was a serious cutting back on publication of real art criticism in the Pasatiempo, mainly because the sponsors started making a fuss because critics were not supposed to say negative things about the art for sale ( & consequently cut back on advertising in the Friday magazine ). In my opinion, this prevalent lack of real art criticism helped to mercantalize Santa Fe’s art scene…so began that ttransformation into a fundamentally schlocky art scene pandering to perceived touristic preferences. In any event, I wound up leaving town, partially because my personal brand of abstraction never could bowl anyone over except my artist – colleagues. When I helped to organize a historic exhibition of a group of Santa /Fe abstract artists at the Capitol Rotunda, the exhibition
    was not reviewed after it opened in any of the existing newspapers. Of course this was very demoralizing…and pointed out to me just how provincial and commercial the scene had become. I also remember a seminar presented at St Francis Auditorium which took place in the late 80’s I believe in which the late Rudolph Baranik was a panelist. He said clearly and loudly that he thought that tourism was deadly for creating a genuine art scene. Wow was that ever a splash of cold water…but failed to catalyze any change in the 50% of the serious artists in SF who showed up for that presentation….In any event – I ramble – and wish to return to Santa Fe, having been creatively vitalized by my living away from Santa Fe for a some years. The air is thin there making
    bread-making next to impossible and the ‘life’ begging for more life, noise, and feedback – which is finally offered by Adobeairstream ! YAY

  3. I appreciate the article and the thought. I think it is imperative that what is art is once again determined by artists. I was born and raised in Santa Fe and have watched the shift. While I value and depend on my gallery representation, I am convinced that artists need to connect and to have a collective voice about art. We have a monthly salon in Eldorado at my gallery. It is about exactly this and I invite you to participate. Our last speaker was Donald Rubinstein on “Art is a Crime” and our next guest speaker is Ellen Berkovitch of Adobe Airstream. She will present on September 1 at 6 pm. The presentations are personal, honest and open. I like what you wrote and I hope you’ll come.

  4. All very insightful comments. While writing the review, I realized how little I know about the history of New Mexico’s art and its many facets.

    Thanks for the invitation Destiny. It’s nice to know there are salon’s like yours in the city!


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