From the start, Suzanne Sbarge’s 516 art space was envisioned as a spark for bringing new life to Downtown and the Central Avenue corridor.
But Sbarge’s goals are so much grander than that.
“One of the things I focus on in this work is trying to connect Albuquerque and New Mexico to the rest of the world,” says Sbarge, a 53-year-old artist, arts administrator, educator and activist.
Sbarge is the founding executive director of 516 ARTS, a “non-collecting contemporary art museum” that she started 13 years ago. Funded with seed money from the McCune Charitable Foundation, Sbarge’s mission was partly to “bring the business community together with the arts community.” The McCune foundation at the time was heavily involved in revitalizing Downtown Albuquerque.
Instead of selling art, 516 focuses on using art to educate people about topics such as immigration and the environment. Its current project, “Species in Peril Along the Rio Grande,” is a massive effort that involves artists and scientists across the region with presentations, art displays, nature walks and panel discussions.
However, Sbarge’s biggest effort, the International Symposium on Electronic Art 2012, focused on connections among art, science and technology. It brought people to Albuquerque from 37 countries, with exhibits at five sites and a six-month collaboration involving three states.
“It was really huge, and we worked on it for three years and it almost killed me, it really did,” says Sbarge, whose own art involves creating surreal images from collage and painting. “But I was really glad we did it, and it was amazing that we pulled it off. It really put 516 on the map, and a lot of people internationally know us because of that.”
Sbarge, who grew up in Connecticut, is deeply rooted in the South Valley because, she says, “the South Valley has been my home and where I make art for the past 25 years.”
She’s also around a lot of music. She took up the accordion at one point, and her husband, Rufus Cohen, is the nephew of folk legend Pete Seeger.
Among the things Sbarge would like to change is the “arbitrary separation” she sees between the business world and nonprofit arts organizations such as 516.
“It’s an incredible missed opportunity because the arts overlap and interact with business in a myriad of ways,” she says. “Arts and culture are what make people want to come work here and what make a community feel vibrant and interesting and engaging and meaningful.”