In terms of New Mexico’s history, one hundred years is but a drop in the bucket of time. Still, it was noteworthy when, this past November, the New Mexico Museum of Art celebrated its centennial anniversary. This is an especially significant moment when considering the meaning of “Santa Fe” today, for it was the construction of the museum in 1917 that established how we’ve come to define Santa Fe style.
During the Belle Epoque in the late nineteenth century, expositions and world’s fairs were all the rage in Western Europe and the United States. These fairs were seen as expressions of all that was good in the name of modern progress. To celebrate the opening of that major engineering feat called the Panama Canal, the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego ran from 1915 to 1917, where one of its most popular exhibits featured the State of New Mexico’s pavilion of buildings. These were constructed in the newly minted architectural pastiche we call Pueblo Revival—purportedly an authentic mix of Spanish colonial and older Indigenous styles of adobe structures. So popular were New Mexico’s expo entries at the Pan-Cal Expo that a team of influential Santa Feans, led by future museum director Edgar Lee Hewett, an “ethnologist” who had curated New Mexico’s contributions in San Diego, decided to build a permanent structure that would come to define Santa Fe style: the Art Gallery of the Museum of New Mexico.
In order to gussy up for its 100th, the New Mexico Museum of Art closed last fall for a couple of months’ worth of renovations, seeking to return the site more closely to its origins. The lobby is less crowded than in the past, revealing its original purpose as a gathering and events space, and invites guests to enter the Clarke family galleries, freshly painted in a piney forest green, from the door nearest the Museum Shop. The concrete floors throughout have been cleaned and are much brighter in appearance. (Preparator Sam Rykels revealed that one hundred years ago, burros carried loads of sand to mix into the original concrete; color variations reveal different sources from arroyos around the Plaza.) Besides the new paint and general scrubbing that the walls, floors, and ceilings have received, new lighting and the removal of various temporary walls throughout the museum lend a sense of how sparkling and innovative everything must have been on opening day in 1917. It was important to current museum Director Mary Kershaw that the whole place feel accessible to the twenty-first century public; the renovation has succeeded in opening the place up and allowing for a more sensible flow.
Thanks to the vision of Hewett and painter Robert Henri, the Gallery was conceived with separate bays that served as individual gallery spaces for invited artists to show their work. This can be seen in both the Clarke and the adjacent Goodwin Galleries. The original main entrance has been uncovered on the east side of the Goodwin Gallery, though it no longer functions as such. By April of this year, updated skylights will be installed in the Goodwin to allow the natural light that originally illuminated the gallery to shine in.
The Clarke family gallery is dedicated to historic art of New Mexico and features the exhibition Horizons: People and Places in New Mexican Art (through November 25, 2018). Classics by Marsden Hartley, Gerald Cassidy, and Henri show well in the first bay, with a vitrine display of Maria Martinez’s black clayware enjoying pride of place at the center of the entrance. Curator of Twentieth Century Art Christian Waguespack has explored the stacks with the clear intent of creating a sense of delight in museum visitors. This is historical New Mexico art at its best; especially compelling was the second bay’s display of Native works from the early twentieth century, featuring rugs, pottery, and paintings, ranging chronologically from Dorothy Dunn’s Studio to a 1967 canvas by Fritz Scholder. The third bay spotlights works by Santa Fe’s beloved Gustave Baumann.
One enters the Goodwin, painted a cheery crimson, and is treated to an illustrated history of the tradition of Fiestas de Santa Fe. Luís Tapia’s fantastic Viva La Fiesta Zozobra gives his audience a bird’s eye view of his boyhood Fiesta, complete with a lowrider, La Reina and her court on a float, the Entrada, and mariachis swirling around Old Man Gloom in mid-confrontation with the Fire Dancer. Other bang-pow scenes from nineteenth- to twentieth-century life in Santa Fe include murals by Zozobra’s creator, Will Shuster, and paintings by contemporary artist Elias Rivera and a couple of lesser known historical artists reveal one hundred years of Fiesta scenes. Still in the Goodwin, the “Visitor’s Choice” bay includes a personal favorite by Ernest L. Blumenschein, Dance at Taos, 1923.
The “new wing,” built in 1982, also gleams with fresh floors, paint, and lighting. Head of Curatorial Affairs Merry Scully created for her exhibition, Contact: Local to Global (through April 29, 2018), a showcase of several pieces by important artists who have connections to New Mexico today, from Agnes Martin to Carol, Paul, and Peter Sarkisian, to Bruce Nauman and Meridel Rubenstein. Scully included ceramists Rick Dillingham, Virgil Ortiz, and Jami Porter Lara, and nearby, Susan York’s Floating Column of graphite. A highlight of the exhibition was the installation piece by the artist collective Postcommodity. Seven peep show booths open, thanks to a token given to the visitor by security staff, onto a garden of real and fake plants that are lovingly tended by museum staff, who prune and water diligently. So diligently, in fact, that the line between what is real and what is not becomes very blurred. The oddness of the piece is enhanced by Raven Chacon’s subtle score, reminiscent of a sci-fi TV show at the moment that the plot takes a decidedly creepy turn.
Perhaps this next observation reveals a metaphorical truth about Santa Fe itself: the juncture between the old and the new parts of the museum lacks luster of any sort. The carpet and walls leading from the older galleries to the new wing are just sad. The Sculpture Garden leading off the foyer is hardly inviting either. Clearly the budget didn’t include this transitional part of the NMMA, and it shows.
Upstairs, where Curator of Photography Kate Ware’s exhibition Shifting Light is located (through October 7, 2018), the Women’s Board Room sparkles with its newly cleaned ceiling. Again, lighter floors and a less cluttered appearance lend freshness to the whole upstairs. From here, a second original stairway leads down to the entry point on the first floor, allowing guests to experience a continuous sense of flow much more effectively than the blocked-out passageways of the past.
The forthcoming addition of a stand-alone contemporary museum in the Railyard Arts District bodes well for the NMMA. Hopefully, a review in another hundred years will give our growing museum another five-star rating.