Reimagined for the COVID-19 era, this year’s entirely virtual monthlong Indian Market is ushering in a new era for SWAIA and many Native artists.
In April, the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) announced that this year’s Indian Market would be postponed to 2021. The market, which brings an estimated $160 million and nearly 120,000 visitors to the state of New Mexico annually, was originally scheduled for August 16-17. In the intervening months, the team at SWAIA has partnered with Clark Hulings Fund for Visual Artists and Artspan to reimagine the market for the pandemic era. On August 1, this year’s monthlong market debuted online, marking a major shift for both the organization and for the hundreds of participating artists.
Kim Peone (Colville/Eastern Cherokee) took over as SWAIA’s new executive director just weeks after the postponement was announced. The biggest hurdle in the transition to a virtual market, she said, was getting all of the participating artists set up with websites. Of the 437 participating artists, only around 77 had websites in place. At a typical market, visitors spend hours wandering the streets of Santa Fe, visiting artists booths, and purchasing work. This year, artists’ websites serve as their virtual “booths.” SWAIA created webinars to help participants create websites on Artspan and advise on marketing and branding. Artists also had access to the Clark Hulings online academy, which provides business strategy support. “As an organization, we’re committed to the education piece,” said Peone.
The biggest hurdle in the transition to a virtual market, she said, was getting all of the participating artists set up with websites. Of the 437 participating artists, only around 77 had websites in place.
Lokosh (Joshua D. Hinson) (Chickasaw/Choctaw/Muscogee (Creek)/Cherokee/Euro-American), a first-time artist at Indian Market, said “the organization was super supportive, whether you were an artist with no social media all the way up to established artists that are pretty savvy. […] They offered us the opportunity to share videos; they posted a video that my tribe made about me on their website.” He said his virtual community of artists, who he connects with through social media, has expanded via the market network.
Hinson nearly sold out his booth on the very first day of the market, and most of the buyers were new clients. His series of daily drawings, created over the past few months in quarantine, were the most popular. From a financial standpoint, he’s very happy with the virtual version of the market. “But I’d gladly give up the profit. I want a vaccine, I want to see people, I want to hug,” he said. Looking to future markets, Hinson described a blended version that wouldn’t be prohibitive for artists who couldn’t travel to Santa Fe but still might offer the in-person experience that Indian Market veterans know and love. “A hybrid market would be pretty compelling for folks that don’t have the resources to get to Santa Fe. That would be pretty amazing.”
Elizabeth Kirk (Isleta/Navajo), who has been coming to the market since she was a child, did not have a website or social media presence before this summer. She had considered it, but “this was the push [she] needed,” she said. Kirk noted that because a typical market is incredibly frenzied and social, it’s hard to take note of which work is getting the most attention. “This way, you can track it all, and get a better idea of what is appealing to the audience,” she said. Kirk also appreciated the expanded audience the virtual market allowed. “Really, Market is about family and community,” she said—and with a virtual market, that community only grows.
As someone who has been participating for almost her entire life, Kirk took it upon herself to carry on the communal ethos of the market, even in a virtual setting. “I’ve been reaching out to artists who aren’t familiar with what’s going on. This is our first rodeo all the way around, so let’s all pitch in and see where we can help one another.”
Peone echoed Kirk’s sentiments about communal support. She said artists were helping each other build their websites, and that the virtual market had given artists an opportunity to reach out and connect in a new way, building relationships that will—someday—exist offline as well.
In addition to the virtual booth-hopping, which is free and open to the public, there are a number of marquee events that require SWAIA membership, starting at $25. These events include film screenings, artist interviews, a fashion show, panel discussions, and a virtual gala. “This is a whole new business model for SWAIA,” said Peone. “There’s a real synergy behind it, and it’s a model to share with others who were not able to pivot at this moment. We’ve already had organizations reaching out to us.” The exact future of Indian Market—like the exact future of all things, right now—is not quite in focus yet, but it is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has catalyzed positive changes for the organization and the market that will persist long past 2020.