Santa Fe, the Creative City, Comes of Age

In 2009, Santa Fe’s 400th anniversary commemoration gains momentum with the opening of the new History Museum near the plaza on May 24th. The occasion also marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Museum of New Mexico, a central focus of the capital’s cultural life for a century.
This year too, Santa Fe’s thriving arts and culture economy—worth about $1 billion in receipts annually—is expected to remain strong, despite an economic downturn. Cultural tourism (visitors seeking arts and cultural experiences) will continue to be a key factor in the local economy. And, Santa Fe’s touted art market, the nation’s third largest, is still a big contributor to the bottom line.

Santa Fe’s designation in 2005 as a Creative City by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization)—the first city in North America to be so named—was the natural culmination of cultural developments in New Mexico that began before the twentieth century. (The Creative Cities Network has expanded to 16 cities around the world that promote local creative industries in support of social, economic, and cultural development.)

Santa Fe author Carmella Padilla points out, “Santa Fe’s roots as an international arts and culture crossroads stretch back to the Spanish Colonial period and the Camino Real, when artworks from around the world were transported to the region as an extension of Spain’s vast trade network in Europe, Asia, and the Americas.” Padilla is a native Santa Fean and arts consultant who writes about New Mexico arts and culture.

In fact, New Mexico’s first “artist colony” was neither the famed Taos Society of Artists nor the Cinco Pintores in Santa Fe. According to Dr. Joseph Traugott, curator of 20th-century art at the New Mexico Museum of Art, “…the first artist community in the Southwest was actually at the Hopi pueblos. The community started around the potter Nampeyo in the 1890s and expanded to include basket makers and weavers, and these goods went into outlets of the Fred Harvey Company and venues along the Santa Fe Railroad.”

Even in New Mexico’s wild territorial days, cultivated men and women dominated the capital’s cultural life, with the Historical Society of New Mexico being formed in 1859. General Lew Wallace and Bradford Prince both served as territorial governors of New Mexico and both were authors—with Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ being one of the best-selling novels of the nineteenth century.
Many writers, artists, and arts patrons began settling in Santa Fe (and Taos) at the beginning of the twentieth century. These included Witter Bynner, Mary Austin, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Gustave Baumann, and Gerald Cassidy, among others.

The archaeologists like Edgar Hewett and Adolph Bandelier had “discovered” New Mexico even earlier and gravitated toward Santa Fe as a home base. Hewett and other city leaders of this time were the impetus behind establishing not only the Museum of New Mexico but also the marketing of Santa Fe as “the City Different,” and establishing a distinctive architecture that became “Santa Fe Style.”

The Santa Fe Opera, founded in 1957, and the Lensic Theater, along with many local music and dance organizations have raised Santa Fe’s profile in the performing arts. In addition, today’s impressive literary scene, culinary arts, a growing film industry—and an international reputation for both preserving its traditional architecture and advancing innovations in “green” building techniques—add to Santa Fe’s creative cachet.
Santa Fe became a center for 20th-century contemporary art with the opening of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1917 (re-named the New Mexico Museum of Art). New Mexico’s most famous contemporary artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, began painting her high desert images in the late 1920s, but, ironically, little of her work was displayed in Santa Fe until the opening of the O’Keeffe Museum in 1997.

MNM Courtyard

Today, Santa Fe is recognized as one of the most important art centers in the United States with a global presence and an ever changing kaleidoscope of artists and galleries, major art fairs, and museums exhibitions. The first International Folk Art Market was held here in 2004 and has grown rapidly as a prestigious and popular annual art event.

The most striking change in Santa Fe’s visual arts market in the past thirty years, most agree, is the growth in contemporary art, especially high-end, serious contemporary art.
Tom Maguire, the City’s Culture & Heritage Tourism Planner, cites the 1995 founding of SITE Santa Fe, “not just as a museum, but also as an international biennial location” and “the emergence of Art Santa Fe as a very competitive international art fair” as evidence of Santa Fe’s prominence in this important art market.

He adds, “Santa Fe needs to recognize this subtle, but fundamental shift and embrace it: contemporary art, architecture, and culture, side-by-side with tradition.”
Carmella Padilla agrees. “A strong contemporary art community takes nothing away from a solid traditional art community, and vice versa. Diversity is part of Santa Fe’s calling card to the world, and that includes the expressions of a variety of artists, local and otherwise.”

In June 2009, the International Exposition of Sculpture Objects and Functional Art (SOFA) will hold its first conference in Santa Fe—another prestigious art event drawn to a leading arts travel destination.
Some may say that the Creative City is a mere variation of the City’s brand, while others point to the enlarged and enhanced international reputation it conveys. Regardless, the local arts and culture communities continue to evolve as a livelihood for many of Santa Fe’s residents. The way forward is informed both by the lessons of the past and the hopes for the future.

Tom Maguire, an artist and arts administrator, credits the role of creative entrepreneurs like Charlotte Jackson, the force behind Art Santa Fe, for Santa Fe’s prominence in the arts world today. He also notes the value of local land use rules, which allowed the city’s arts districts like Canyon Road and Baca Street to “grow organically as neighborhoods changed.” He points out that “the bold step taken by the City to buy and establish the Railyard as a community destination has lured many arts businesses there.”

Maguire described the Santa Fe International Conference on Creative Tourism, held in October 2008, as a “global conversation,” bringing together cultural tourism officials from most of the Creative Cities worldwide. The first conference of its kind in the United States, it was held at Santa Fe’s new Community Convention Center, offering “an enormous range of experiential activities.”
Looking forward, Maguire says that, “The City must try to make it easier to establish and grow a creative industry. Santa Fe must see artists as independent and often struggling business people. As such, the same economic development resources that are applied to traditional businesses should be applied to creative industries.”

Carmella Padilla cautions that “Santa Fe’s prominence as an international arts destination has the potential to be both a good thing for Santa Fe and a bad thing. In many cases, Santa Fe’s image of itself has created a style of conformity in art and architecture that threatens to stifle the city’s vitality.”

“The importance of nurturing an artistic community that values both traditional and contemporary art is critical,” she adds. “The City needs to show that it continues to be a home for a vibrant community of working artists whose daily lives—and economic success—contribute to the economic success of Santa Fe in the short term and the long term.”


Barbara Harrelson a Santa Fe-based author who writes about arts, literature, and culture. Originally appeared in The Collector’s Guide - Volume 23

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