Art museums across the Southwest highlight local artists in creative ways, elevating contemporary arts across the region.
PHOENIX—Although people tend to associate major art museums with monumental exhibitions of world-renowned artists, several museums in the Southwest are countering that assumption, using various strategies to bring more attention to the creatives working in their midst and the art ecosystems that exist within their own states and the region.
Phoenix Art Museum created a new curatorial position that signals its intention to spotlight more artists working in what’s now the nation’s fifth-largest metropolis. “I’ll be working to develop exhibitions and acquire works by Arizona-based artists,” says Christian Ramirez, who joined the museum as the inaugural assistant curator of contemporary and community art initiatives in late November 2022.
For the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, supporting local artists began with its founding in 1917, according to executive director Mark White, who says the first director was “interested in helping to create a local artist colony and community.” Early on, it took the form of free studio space, but it also included rotating solo exhibitions of contemporary New Mexico-based artists in several museum alcoves.
New plans for elevating local talent are in the works as the museum prepares to open its new Vladem Contemporary building in the Santa Fe Railyard in 2023. The contemporary art space will include a window-box project featuring rotating installations by emerging New Mexico-based artists, which people will be able to view around the clock.
Other strategies White cited include an oral history project, more connections with rural artists, and new artist collaborations with community groups. In 2024, they’ll present an exhibition of art created in New Mexico between 1970 and 2000.
“The museum’s roles include helping the local arts community flourish,” explains White. “It’s a place for local artists to engage with national and international communities.”
At the Rubin Center for the Visual Arts on the University of Texas at El Paso campus, the local arts landscape is imbued with international connections, in part because El Paso sits just across the U.S.-Mexico border from Ciudad Juárez.
In 2022, Laura August became the curator for the center, where her experience as an artist and writer working between the U.S. and Central America will help to expand and amplify the Rubin Center’s work with the region’s creatives.
Southwest Contemporary spoke with August earlier this year. While reflecting on social and racial injustices, she suggested the ways her work at the center might privilege local artists and community.
“I see artists at the forefront of those conversations, challenging institutions to be better, and to do better, and to acknowledge their missteps, particularly around their relationships with communities that have been excluded from art spaces for so long, and particularly around the ways they develop work environments in line with their values,” she said in a June 2022 curator profile.
For the Phoenix Art Museum, annual awards for emerging and mid-career artists anchor efforts to highlight creatives working in Arizona. From September 2022 through mid-May 2023, exhibitions featuring the latest recipients, including Tucson-based artist and Guggenheim fellow Sama Alshaibi, will fill the museum’s lower level.
“We want to have true engagement and investment with artists in the Valley, the state, and the region,” says Jeremy Mikolajczak, the museum’s director and CEO since April 2022, who says artists and other community members will see several changes come on board in the coming months and years—including a new community advisory committee and public-facing artist projects.
Across the Southwest, several additional museums showcase artists rooted in their own communities.
The Denver Art Museum, for example, has a creative-in-residence program open to artists within the metropolis and a Native arts residency that recently included Denver-based Steven Yazzie (Diné, Laguna Pueblo, European ancestry). The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City has both an artist residency and a projects gallery focused on Utah-based creatives.
“Often it’s the midsize museums that focus on local artists,” according to White.
Working in Santa Fe, White says he’s seen the rise of local-first thinking when it comes to eateries, shops, and other small businesses. Now, he’s hoping more people will take that approach to arts and culture. “People want their food locally sourced, but they don’t always think seriously about the art that’s being created where they live.”
As Ramirez began her new position at Phoenix Art Museum, she considered the rich multicultural landscape of the region and the role that university and college art programs are playing in the creative ecosystem, clearly eager to raise awareness about that talent in her own home state.
“There’s great art everywhere, although people often focus on what’s happening on the coasts,” she says. “Arizona is perceived as a little bit of a sleepy state, but there are exciting artists working here, and they deserve to be seen here on the same level as national and international artists.”