The New Mexico Museum of Art Vladem Contemporary is set to become the Santa Fe Railyard’s newest and highest profile occupant.
Update 6/11/2023: Vladem Contemporary is scheduled to open to the public on September 23, 2023.
Update 5/27/2022: Vladem Contemporary’s fall 2022 grand opening has been delayed due to supply-chain issues and inclement weather conditions earlier in the year.
When the New Mexico Museum of Art, as it is known today, was established in 1917, it was founded under the premise that it would display contemporary art from regional, national, and international artists. While the contemporary art field has grown and morphed, the original New Mexico Museum of Art building, with all of its old-school constraints, has more or less remained the same.
This fall, the New Mexico Museum of Art will unveil a new contemporary art space, a first-of-its-kind in the state. The New Mexico Museum of Art Vladem Contemporary, buoyed by private and public monies, will become one of the newest and highest-profile tenants of the ever-changing Santa Fe Railyard. It’s the first significant expansion of the downtown state-run museum since the 1917 opening of its Pueblo Revival-style building on West Palace Avenue—and it’s happening at a crucial time for regional contemporary arts.
Museum officials say that the $16.5 million, 35,000-square-foot building will not only allow the cultural institution to expand its educational offerings and curatorial programming—along with a brand-new artist-in-residence program—but it will also help alleviate unrelenting storage issues for the museum.
While proponents are applauding the addition to the Santa Fe art scene, opponents say that the new space, which eliminated a revered landmark in the Multicultural mural, is another sign of rapid gentrification of the city. The art piece—painted in 1980 by lead artist Gilberto Guzmán, along with members of the community and students from the Institute of American Indian Arts—represented a sense of place and belonging for Chicano and Indigenous people. Opposing parties disagreed on whether the more than forty-year-old mural, which had deteriorated, could have been affordably restored.
The expanded Vladem, currently under construction at South Guadalupe Street and Montezuma Avenue, is scheduled to open this fall.
“This museum will add to Santa Fe’s general interest in contemporary art,” says Mark White, New Mexico Museum of Art executive director. “It can be seen as a complement to what’s going on at SITE Santa Fe, [the Institute of American Indian Arts’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts], and the local galleries.
“I think one of the important distinctions is that, as a collecting institution, we’re going to be collecting more broadly than any of our colleagues across the city,” adds White. MoCNA’s collections focus on Native American and Indigenous art while SITE Santa Fe and the Center for Contemporary Arts are non-collecting institutions.
In 2014, as the New Mexico Museum of Art approached its centennial, museum officials brainstormed future opportunities. They eventually landed on constructing a new and separate space to display and house contemporary art. In New Mexico, only a handful of institutions, such as the Albuquerque Museum and Santa Fe’s Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, collect contemporary works. White says they’ll acquire pieces from regional, national, and international artists.
A year after the museum’s 2017 centennial, Santa Fe philanthropists Bob and Ellen Vladem, both originally from Chicago, gave a $4 million gift, the single largest donation in the museum foundation’s history, for in-perpetuity naming rights. Additionally, the state of New Mexico chipped in more than $6 million towards construction costs as part of the museum’s $12.5 million fundraising campaign.
White says that the museum—which will hire eleven additional positions, increasing the overall New Mexico Museum of Art workforce to forty staff members—received $850,000 from the general budget approved during the 2022 New Mexico Legislature; $200,000 of that money is a special appropriation, he says.
The building’s construction, which began ramping up in February 2021 following funding and pandemic delays, angered some of the community due to the destruction of the Multicultural mural, which displayed New Mexico’s multicultural heritage from pre-colonization to modern times. Local activists and groups such as Keep Santa Fe Multicultural attempted to save the mural during a contentious back-and-forth covered by local and national arts media.
A district court records search shows that Guzmán filed suit in March 2021 against the New Mexico State Department of Cultural Affairs (which oversees the state’s arts and cultural heritage agencies, including the New Mexico Museum of Art), and the City of Santa Fe in an attempt to halt the 15,000-square-foot addition to the 20,000-square-foot former Halpin Building. According to a court document, the case was settled in September 2021. The parties agreed that Guzman will create a pared-down version of the mural, which was covered as part of the construction, inside of the Vladem Contemporary lobby, reported the Santa Fe New Mexican and Santa Fe Reporter. The legal settlement ensures that the mural, in its replicated form, will still be accessible to the public.
Once completed, the New Mexico Museum of Art Vladem Contemporary will include nearly 10,000 square feet of new exhibition space in a two-level gallery, with public-facing exterior displays including a video projection system and a “Window Box Project” that will showcase three annual installations by local emerging artists. The newest occupant of the Railyard—home of the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, SITE Santa Fe, and El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe—will also feature outdoor spaces for community gatherings, including a second-floor terrace with views of the surrounding mountains.
[Vladem Contemporary] allows us to broaden the scope of who we reach and what we show. It’s going to be exciting in that we are provided with different kinds of opportunities for artists in that building and it also addresses changes in the art scene in Santa Fe in an expansive and positive way. —Merry Scully
One of the biggest pluses for museum officials will be the addition of a dedicated educational center that can accommodate up to 100 people, something that is absent from the Plaza building. The Vladem will have a classroom programmed with continuous educational opportunities; one of the first classes will be a three-week cell-phone photography course.
“We’re really setting our sights on working more closely with the public schools in Santa Fe in a way that we really have not been able to do thus far. It is our ambition to bring one grade of the public schools into the museum on an annual basis,” explains White, who adds that family days will take place on select weekends.
Additionally, a new artist residency program, scheduled to begin in January 2023, will feature five artists each year—two artists from the Land of Enchantment and three nationwide or international creatives.
“We really want them to engage with the community, whether that is the community of New Mexico at large, working with our museum collections, or with other institutions in town. We want there to be a regional relevance to what they’re working on,” says curator Merry Scully, who adds that many of the 2023 artists in residence will have a connection to the Vladem’s inaugural exhibition, Shadow and Light. The Vladem’s debut show, scheduled to take place this fall through September 2023, will feature works by Angela Ellsworth, Nancy Holt, Agnes Martin, Helen Pashgian, Susan York, Judy Chicago, Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti Pueblo), and more.
Scully says that the additional space will allow the museum to expand its curatorial program.
“We will be able to have more shows and it will allow us to work more deeply on the postwar contemporary part of the collections,” she says. “We’re really limited by the amount of space we have in [the Plaza building] and the types of things that we can show.”
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of the new space will be the additional 4,100 square feet for storing museum acquisitions. As of late March 2022, the storage facility at the Plaza building for the museum’s 20,000-piece collection was at ninety-eight percent capacity.
“Storage is a real concern for us and contemporary art tends to fill up those spaces fairly quickly. It will allow us to move a lot of our contemporary collections over to that space so that they’ll be more readily available over there on one end, and it will allow us to free up room [at the Plaza building],” White explains. “We’re getting to the point that we might not be able to collect for much longer without that expanded space. That’s going to be a real godsend,” says White, who adds that there will be a visible upstairs storage space for Vladem visitors.
“They’ll be able to see some things that aren’t necessarily on view in the gallery, but they can get a glimpse of certain objects within the collection,” he says. “We will also have a study space downstairs that will allow researchers and students to work more closely with objects from our collection. That’s not something we really have the space to do now.”
Overall, Scully says that the Vladem Contemporary will enhance local arts while staying true to its original purpose. “It furthers the mission of the museum from the very beginning when we were first founded, which was to show contemporary art,” she says. “What’s exciting is it allows us to broaden the scope of who we reach and what we show. It’s going to be exciting in that we are provided with different kinds of opportunities for artists in that building and it also addresses changes in the art scene in Santa Fe in an expansive and positive way.”