MANY a roadside sign boasts of a locale’s special quality: the best river walk in the country, the most scenic village in the Berkshires. So if those unfamiliar with the abundance of art in Santa Fe heard that it is the second-largest art market in the U.S. (after New York), they might dismiss the description as the hyperbole of local boosters. They would be wrong.
There isn’t just a lot of art in Santa Fe; there is important art. Who would think a trove of museum-quality, 20th century Abstract Expressionist paintings would be displayed behind the adobe facade of a former supermarket? Such discoveries were the reward for leaving my patio, home of the most bountiful bougainvillea in Santa Monica, to spend a three-day weekend in July tracking the art scene in New Mexico’s capital, a city that has been a cultural center for more than a century.
For anyone easily overwhelmed, the quantity of art in Santa Fe could be a problem. “You feel you must go into every gallery because you might miss something,” said Jane Egan, director of the Chiaroscuro gallery. “You can’t, or you’ll get glazed-eye disease.”
I knew there would be no way to get to the more than 200 galleries and dozen museums. And I hadn’t anticipated how energy-sapped I would feel my first day. Flatlanders often need time to adjust to the 7,000-foot altitude.
Focus was my salvation. Here’s what barely crept into my peripheral vision: Native American art, crafts, folk art, photography and textiles. I concentrated on contemporary art, which in the last 10 years has exploded here, taking its place beside or even eclipsing the regional and Western paintings and sculpture commonly associated with Santa Fe. With some research and help from knowledgeable locals, I culled a list of a dozen galleries and a few exhibitions that the serious collector and the discerning tourist would not want to miss.
For a long time, Santa Fe’s galleries were concentrated around the Plaza at the center of town or along Canyon Road, a winding street of adobe homes originally built by starving artists. The new, adventurous arts district is the Railyard, a mile south of the Plaza. Several galleries have sprung up there, some opening as recently as July.
International art show
THEIR anchor is SITE Santa Fe, a cutting-edge exhibit space in a former beer warehouse. Host of the only international biennial in the U.S., SITE Santa Fe is so highly regarded in the art world that three of the five curators who have overseen it have gone on to curate the Venice Biennale. SITE’s Sixth International Biennial, which runs through January, attracts collectors and the sort of art-loving nomads who travel the world to survey the latest in conceptual works.
One room contains 2 tons’ worth of lacquered-wood, stairway-like sculptures by Wolfgang Laib. A 7 1/2 -minute video of demolition derbies by Stephen Dean and Jennifer Bartlett’s large-scale paintings of words punched into steel plates are among the other offerings.
After visiting SITE, the art for sale at the cream of Santa Fe’s contemporary galleries looked almost safe. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Artists from the East and Midwest first began visiting New Mexico in the late 19th century, drawn by its dramatic landscape, rich multicultural heritage and a social climate tolerant of artistic types. The six founders of the Taos Society of Artists, individuals with established reputations in other cities, banded together in 1915 in a mountain village 70 miles north of Santa Fe. The Santa Fe Art Colony came together shortly thereafter and blossomed after the Museum of Fine Arts was founded in 1917. The museum, which still borders the lively Plaza, welcomed newcomers with free studio space and organized group shows of their work.
In the 1920s, some of the tuberculosis patients in residence at Santa Fe’s well-known sanatoriums were artists, and many others were affluent and intellectual. With the addition of wealthy people from Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kansas who came to town to escape the summer heat, before air-conditioning, the elements of a patronage society were in place.
Although the art colony members maintained friendships for decades, their styles were so diverse that no single Santa Fe school developed. Most of the painters in the group produced representational works with varying degrees of Cubist, Impressionist, Modernist or Abstract influences. Were they regional artists? Southwestern? Western? Parsing genres can be risky business in Santa Fe.
After all, how to categorize Georgia O’Keeffe? At one time, she was a contemporary artist. Now she is considered one of the greatest American painters of the last century.
O’Keeffe began spending summers in Santa Fe in 1929 and moved nearby in 1940. It takes nothing away from her talent to say the reclusive O’Keeffe had a mystique, which both benefited Santa Fe and was fed by it. Gallery owner Nat Owings says, “Did living as a recluse in Santa Fe, a mystic place, help her? Probably. If she’d moved to Poughkeepsie, I’m not sure it would have had the same impact. Tourists come here now just to see O’Keeffe.”
And doing so enriches the visit. Like some modern art and hard-edged contemporary architecture, the New Mexican landscape isn’t instantly accessible. At first, a hardscrabble field dotted by boulders and pierced by prickly shrubs does not evoke the same romantic response as a lush green meadow dusted with wildflowers. But looking at the countryside after seeing it through O’Keeffe’s eyes alters the view. Suddenly, the colors and shapes of the desert and its stubborn vegetation are all the more seductive for the subtlety of their harsh beauty.
The Museum of Fine Arts has 10 O’Keeffe paintings in its permanent collection. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, founded in 1997, rotates 130 of the artist’s works. You would also find some at the Gerald Peters Gallery, her main outlet from 1976 to her death in 1986. “When she was alive, we never sold more than four paintings a year,” Peters said. “She liked her art better than she liked money.” Peters still deals in O’Keeffes, but the volume isn’t close to what it was in the late ‘80s, when he owned or controlled 80 of her works. “At that time, $1 million was a lot for a major picture.” The last O’Keeffe sold at auction in 2001 went for $6.6 million.
Today, the gold standard in Western art -- the Remingtons, Russells and Taos and Santa Fe masters -- is expensive and rarely on the market, and contemporary works can be a risky purchase. Finding reputable and knowledgeable gallery owners can make the hunt for original artworks less perilous. A gallery’s inventory can be an indication of quality, but marquee names are no guarantee, since second-rate work by first-rate artists can be all that’s still available.
In the most sophisticated galleries, living artists who treat now-cliched subjects -- adobes, desert scenes, coyotes and Indians on horseback -- in traditional ways are dismissed as derivative. Neither the Gerald Peters Gallery nor the Owings-Dewey Fine Art gallery, which sits on the second floor of a historic building on the Plaza, sells such contemporary Western art. Beyond categories, many gallery owners follow the principle that good art is good art. “We have everything from Gilbert Stuart to Jackson Pollock, with some Agnes Martin and Georgia O’Keeffe thrown in,” Peters says.
Galleries with a strong point of view tend to survive in the volatile art market of Santa Fe. Charlotte Jackson, who produces Art Santa Fe, a biannual art fair that attracts dealers and patrons from around the world, has operated her gallery for 18 years. “There have always been lots of galleries here, but they come and go,” she said. “Probably 25 of the galleries that are here now won’t be around next year.” Her own gallery specializes in abstract modernism created since 1989. “There are so many collectors who have a foot in different styles. They buy monochromatic work from me, then they walk down the street to Billy Siegel’s gallery and buy phenomenal South American textiles.”
AFTER a morning spent cruising the downtown galleries, I was feeling the so-many-galleries-so-little-time crunch. So instead of taking a lengthy break for lunch in a restaurant, I bought cold drinks while my companion got corn on the cob and chicken tamales from one of the food carts parked on the Plaza. We settled in the grassy park at the center of the town square and inhaled a delicious, quick, cheap meal.
From that vantage point, it was easy to see how Santa Fe’s indigenous style continually asserts itself -- by way of the food and the ubiquitous Southwestern architecture. Women who might visit another town wearing jeans drift around in flowing skirts and silver-and-turquoise concha belts. So when I stepped inside the Riva Yares Gallery a short walk from the Plaza, the high-ceilinged, white-walled rooms lined with huge canvases by such blue-chip 20th-century modernists as Morris Louis, Milton Avery and Helen Frankenthaler were a surprise. The galleries looked more like spaces in New York. “Because we’re in the Southwest, some people assume that we show Southwestern art,” Dennis Yares said. “The adobe facade here doesn’t dictate what’s inside.”
The contemporary works shown in the better galleries aren’t priced like souvenirs, and cost can also be a clue to what’s considered good. A visitor not in the market for the sort of $5-million Charles Russell oil to be found at the Peters Gallery might acquire a major work by 90-year-old New Mexican Elmer Schooley at the Meyer-Munson Gallery for less than $100,000. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen owns more than a dozen of Schooley’s abstract landscapes, and the Museum of Modern Art recently added one to its collection.
But even without such a pedigree, a $20 landscape watercolor purchased from an artist camped out on the Plaza is also a valid piece of original art. And the hope lives that the artist will become the next Georgia O’Keeffe.
Savoring Santa Fe’s finest
From LAX, Southwest and United fly nonstop to Albuquerque. Connecting service (change of plane) is available on America West and Delta from Burbank, Ontario and Orange County. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $238.
From Albuquerque, it’s an easy one-hour drive north on Interstate 25 to Santa Fe.
WHERE TO STAY:
Inn of the Anasazi, 113 Washington Ave.; (505) 988-3030, www.innoftheanasazi.com. This hotel offers a modern interpretation of Santa Fe style. Among its beautiful public rooms is a cozy library, stocked with books on Southwestern art, history and culture. Doubles $325-$550.
La Posada de Santa Fe Resort & Spa, 330 E. Palace Ave.; (505) 986-0000, www.laposada.rockresorts.com. Adobe-style rooms and suites, many with fireplaces, plus a pool and spa on 6 landscaped acres. Doubles from $219-$249 in September, plus $15 daily resort fee. Rates vary by season.
Hotel St. Francis, 210 Don Gaspar Ave.; (505) 983-5700, www.hotelstfrancis.com. Built in 1923, the St. Francis is the only Santa Fe hotel on the National Register of Historic Places. Afternoon tea is served daily in the charming lobby. Doubles $142-$269 in September.
WHERE TO EAT:
Santacafe, 231 Washington Ave.; (505) 984-1788, santacafe.com. A historic 19th century house is the setting for this elegant but not stuffy bistro. People-watching on the courtyard is as good as the food. Entrees $19-$34.
La Mancha at the Galisteo Inn, 9 La Vega Road, 20 miles from Santa Fe; (505) 466-8200, www.galisteoinn.com. The restaurant at the 1705 hacienda that houses the inn provides a relaxing escape from the crowds and busyness of downtown Santa Fe. Chef Enrique Guerrero’s continental dishes are best enjoyed outdoors on the patio. Entrees $22-$30.
The Shed, 113 1/2 E. Palace Ave.; (505) 982-9030. This family-owned New Mexican restaurant is a local institution. Reservations are accepted for dinner only but the wait for lunch, when most people go, isn’t usually long. Closed Sundays. Entrees $6.75-$8.25.
Many galleries are closed Sundays and Mondays. Art VanGo, a free shuttle service, operates between downtown, the Santa Fe Railyard and Canyon Road every 10 minutes, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.
1. Gerald Peters Gallery, 1011 Paseo de Peralta; (505) 954-5700, www.gpgallery.com. Classic Western art, Taos Society and Santa Fe Art Colony, Georgia O’Keeffe, 20th century American modernism, photography, sculpture.
2. Linda Durham Contemporary Art, 1101 Paseo de Peralta; (505) 466-6600, www.lindadurham.com. An avant-garde gallery with paintings, sculpture and mixed media by New Mexico artists.
3. Owings-Dewey Fine Art, 76 E. San Francisco St.; (505) 982-6244 and Owings-Dewey North, 120 E. Marcy St.; (505) 986-9088, www.owingsdewey.com. Offering 19th and 20th century American paintings and sculpture.
4. Charlotte Jackson Fine Art, 200 W. Marcy St., Suite 101; (505) 989-8688, charlottejackson.com. Monochrome, light and space, modernism, color field and photography since 1989.
5. Riva Yares Gallery, 123 Grant Ave.; (505) 984-0330, www.rivayaresgallery.com. Museum-caliber modern and contemporary art.
6. LewAllen Contemporary Art, 129 W. Palace Ave.; (505) 988-8997, www.lewallencontemporary.com. Formerly the Horwitch Gallery. Internationally known and emerging artists in painting, sculpture, photography, prints, ceramics, jewelry, tapestry, glass. Open every day.
7. James Kelly Contemporary, 1601 Paseo de Peralta; (505) 989-1601, www.jameskelly.com. A pioneer in the Railyard area. American and European contemporary art from established artists.
8. Evo Gallery, 554 S. Guadalupe St.; (505) 982-4610, www.evogallery.org. Innovative young artists and contemporary artists with national and international reputations.
9. Box Gallery, 1611-A Paseo de Peralta; (505) 989-4897, www.boxgallerysf.com. Emerging New Mexico artists.
10. Chiaroscuro, 558 Canyon Road and 439 Camino del Monte Sol; (505) 992-1100, www.chiaroscurogallery.com. International midcareer abstract artists and sculptors.
11. Meyer-Munson Gallery, 225 Canyon Road; (505) 983-1657, www.munsongallery.com. The gallery showcases representational art with an edge.
12. Dwight Hackett Projects, 2879 All Trades Road; (505) 474-4043, www.dwighthackett.com. A 10-minute drive from downtown. Well-established contemporary artists such as Charles Arnoldi and Richard Tuttle as well as emerging artists in a variety of media.
-- Mimi Avins