WITH ITS EYE-POPPING HOLLYHOCKS, bright ristras, and New Deal–era frescoes painted by Will Shuster, the courtyard at the New Mexico Museum of Art is a place of beauty and history. The museum’s collection includes the artists, many of them transplants like Shuster, who comprised the Santa Fe art colony, which saw its heyday before World War II. Still, despite the inviting elegance of its Pueblo Revival building, the 105-year-old museum is not anyone’s idea of the most happening place in town.
One evening at the museum this June, however, the sounds of Stevie Wonder gave way to a ranchera ballad. The molecules in the galleries’ rarefied air seemed to rearrange themselves. At Raashan Ahmad’s free two-hour DJ set, carefully crafted as a musical response to the exhibition Poetic Justice: Judith F. Baca, Mildred Howard, and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, a diverse crowd of mostly locals boogied down, singing along to nineties hip-hop while taking in social justice–focused artworks and poetry.
This kind of multicultural, multimedia, and multigenerational art happening is becoming commonplace in Santa Fe, heralding a new flowering of creativity at the nucleus of one of America’s most storied art scenes. Powered by the hard work and activism of recent arrivals and longtime residents alike, Santa Fe’s arts and culture landscape is embracing fresh ideas and perspectives. As the sharp, ultramodern profile of the art museum’s new Vladem Contemporary building rises in the Railyard District, grassroots collectives, upstart galleries, and community-minded artists are redefining the boundaries of Santa Fe culture, going beyond museum walls and traditional stages to make room for a new chorus of creative voices.
“Something is happening here,” says Ahmad. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.”
Chalk up the changes, in part, to younger creatives like Ahmad, who spent years breezing through town as a touring hip-hop artist before moving his family here in 2013. As the executive director of Vital Spaces, a nonprofit that helps to pro-vide art studios to under-represented people in Santa Fe’s commercial art scene, he plays a part in the explosion of opportunities for emerging and low-income artists. By repurposing the city’s empty spaces—untenanted buildings or properties awaiting redevelopment or sale—Vital Spaces nurtures a community of individuals who, given the current real estate squeeze, might otherwise be shut out of Santa Fe. (I was a lucky beneficiary: Vital Spaces granted me a writing studio for most of 2021.)
The organization also provides gallery space; a community art closet, where artists can choose tools for their arsenal from donated supplies; and a packed social schedule of openings, dance parties, art workshops, and events. One former Vital Spaces artist, Justin Rhody, has co-founded No Name Cinema, which offers by-donation screenings of historic and contemporary experimental films.
“I don’t think the city really realizes how much has changed,” says Ahmad, who also sits on the Santa Fe Arts Commission and co-founded the city’s Earthseed Black Arts Alliance in 2020. “So many people are here who are working on projects, opening up galleries, starting theater companies. There’s a whole lot of art and culture happening, especially at the beginning stages.”
Pointing to the profusion of new galleries, breweries, and coffeeshops in the Railyard District, he adds, “Even though a lot of sales come from tourism, people are thinking about how to make sure that locals are involved in Santa Fe. There’s a lot of awareness around how to make sure that when people are opening galleries or restaurants, they’re still making sure to keep the local traditions and local culture ingrained.”
The city’s most interesting creative energy is powered by artists who fill a void.
In 2019, Houston native Frank Rose founded Hecho a Mano, a print-focused gallery on Canyon Road, because he wanted to sell art at reasonable price points. “There weren’t a lot of galleries showing prints, and certainly not affordable prints,” he says. “It really felt like an opportunity to show this work here.”
Last spring, Rose opened Hecho Gallery, which centers on artists who live in New Mexico and Mexico. The second gallery is nestled into a historic building on Palace Avenue, a few doors west of the New Mexico Museum of Art. In the 1930s, the building housed arts maven Leonora Curtin’s Native Market, and it was home to the influential Elaine Horwitch Gallery in the 1980s and ’90s.
Santa Fe artists also mine the city’s complex cultural past for inspiration. Enrique Figueredo, a former Vital Spaces artist who has shown work at Hecho a Mano, emigrated from Venezuela as a child and has lived in Santa Fe on and off for more than a decade. Figueredo’s Pasó por Aquí series marries woodblock prints of mission churches to sandstone inscriptions from Spanish explorers who passed through what is now El Morro National Monument. The series also includes the mark-making of invasive bark beetles, or fir engravers, who score abstract hieroglyphs into trees in the national forests.
“The conquest was an invasive, destructive species,” says Figueredo, comparing Spanish colonists to the bark beetles. “The bark beetle and the inscriptions, together, I think, have that dialogue of destruction and conversion. I’m hoping that I’m creating a conversation by retelling an old story. Why not just tell it again, right? Especially right now, when a lot of people feel their rights are being challenged.”
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