In an eastern New Mexico town known for Billy the Kid, the Art in Public Places program confronts complex and difficult histories, including the tragic Long Walk to Bosque Redondo.
Fort Sumner—the far-flung village on U.S. Route 60 headed east out of Albuquerque—is not always considered a destination for those seeking the expression of culture beyond gunslingers and caricatures of the Old West. This summer, however, guided by Art in Public Places, the biggest town in De Baca County has become a polestar for important conversation inside—and outside—of the gallery.
Two projects are driving the Art in Public Places initiative, which is a project of New Mexico Arts (NMA) and delivered with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs.
One is the most recent iteration of TIME NOW, a fifteen-year program of NMA whose aim is to bring temporary, outdoor art to rural communities. Previous hosts for the long-running project include Hobbs (2020), Edgewood (2017), and parts of the Navajo Nation including Coyote Canyon (2014) and Waterflow and Tse-Bonito (2012).
The other is spearheaded by New Mexico Historic Sites and offers an expansive examination of the internment of more than 8,000 Diné and Mescalero Apache people at the reservation of Bosque Redondo from 1863 to 1868 after the Long Walk—a forced march from their traditional homelands.
The exhibition, Bosque Redondo: A Place of Suffering… A Place of Survival, which held a soft opening on July 1, was inspired by a letter left by Navajo students at the Fort Sumner Historical Site in June 1990. In response to what they felt was more of a shrine to Billy the Kid (who met his end in Fort Sumner) than an accurate take on history, they asked for a revision to the story to include “what really happened to our ancestors.”
What’s now on display has been in the works ever since, though with considerable starts and stops. The resulting exhibition is expansive and the result of a collaboration between New Mexico Historic Sites, the Navajo Nation, and Mescalero Apache tribal government.
Nearly all of the 6,000-foot building, built explicitly to house the exhibition, is occupied with interpretative signage, photographs, historical and contemporary objects, textiles, oral history, and room for contemplation. “A space for people to talk has been lacking for a very long time,” says Aaron Roth, site manager for Fort Sumner Historic Site.
After thirty years of exhibition planning, development, scrapping materials, and starting over again, all stakeholders longed to see the project realized in a way that felt right. Now that the doors are open, Roth has seen the exhibition’s reception as bittersweet.
“People are excited that it is telling an accurate and truthful history, but it pulls the veil back on a very sad truth,” Roth says. That’s one reason that, between the final gallery and the rotunda, a decompression room was integrated into the final design. To sit, to think, to talk.
And the outcomes of those conversations will be honored. Roth is quick to note that while this is a permanent exhibition, the contents are not permanent. There was literal space left to add to the story.
The ethos of TIME NOW and this year’s works also speak to the history of place and embraces changeability. Responding to the landscape both poetically and practically (and the sun-bleaching, monsoons, and high temperatures that come with a New Mexico summer), this year’s project features work by artists Paula Castillo, Mirian Diddy, Sarah Diddy, Winoka Yepa, Garron Yepa, Mark Horst, Sara Rivera, and Amaris Ketcham.
These “spontaneous and immediate artworks,” as Art in Public Places Project coordinator Meredith Doborski puts it, respond to “a deeply complicated and difficult history.” As such, the added context provided by Bosque Redondo: A Place of Suffering… A Place of Survival lends richness to these dynamic meditations.
Whether exploring the landscape of memory through poetry painted on fabric in light-sensitive ink fading under the sun (the sun itself a force akin to those that shape history’s impact on the present) or through 237 pairs of donated shoes assembled in the pattern of a traditional Diné wedding basket—each pair representing a life lost on the Long Walk—these works are deeply tied to site. But the relationship doesn’t stop with the land itself. Each of the four installations was created alongside the community, who contributed their efforts, words, or creative energy in some way.
This year’s TIME NOW works will be on view until August 31, at which time the artists will dismantle them, leaving no trace behind. Later in the fall, Bosque Redondo: A Place of Suffering… A Place of Survival will hold a formal reception for the new exhibition on October 9 between 10 am and 4 pm, and will be open to visitors during regular site hours.