as SITE Santa Fe renovates and expands its building, curator Irene Hofmann marks a new tempo for the contemporary art institution.
When SITE Santa Fe’s multimillion-dollar renovation and expansion project concludes this October, the contemporary museum space will debut an exhibition called Future Shock. The title is taken from a 1970 book by Alvin Toffler, who defined the term as “the social paralysis induced by rapid technological change.” The book was an international bestseller, offering the world a vocabulary to describe the psychological effects of a burgeoning “super-industrial” civilization. You can thank Toffler for popularizing the term “information overload,” which has come to define everyday existence in the new millennium.
“He recognized that in all of the history of man, we’re in an era where the most change is occurring in a single lifetime,” says Irene Hofmann, SITE’s director and chief curator. “That’s kind of a staggering idea, that more is changing in our lifetimes than any generation before us, ever.”
Future Shock, the SITE exhibition, will be filled with expansive installations—a swarm of vinyl insects by Regina Silveira, a to-scale Mars Rover made from cardboard and tape by Tom Sachs—but one of its best conversation pieces fits on a small pedestal. BW by Patrick Bernatchez is a black wristwatch that makes one rotation in one thousand years. The clock’s single silver hand started its first turn in 2010 and will finish long after the artist is gone. Bernatchez’s work is a serene eye in the technological storm, steadily but imperceptibly marking real time in a millennium that is only getting farther ahead of itself. It represents the antithesis of the pressure faced by contemporary art museums and biennials (of which SITE is both). In these places, the clock must roll forward with exponential speed, outstripping the motion of its own hands.
Hofmann led a walkthrough of the museum’s bustling construction site earlier this spring, revealing once pristine surfaces that had been torn asunder. Glimpses of SITE’s physical framework offered reminders of its history as a scrappy pioneer among contemporary art institutions. With SITE’s clock momentarily at rest, Hofmann and her team were contemplating new, more deliberate ways to restart the spin.
Glimpses of SITE’s physical framework offered reminders of its history as a scrappy pioneer among contemporary art institutions.
“We got here this morning, and we were locked out,” says Anne Wrinkle, SITE’s director of public relations. “We were like, ‘Who has the key?’ It was chaos.” She’s standing in one of the museum’s loading docks, which is SITE’s hidden entrance while the front of the building transforms. This is the staff’s first day in their new offices, after a winter and spring of working in a makeshift bullpen in Hofmann’s living room.
The renovation and expansion project, by SHoP Architects, broke ground in August and will add 36,000 square feet of interior and exterior space to the museum. It’s part of a larger initiative called SITE Tomorrow, which has so far raised over nine million dollars towards the construction project, operating costs, and the museum’s endowment.
Wrinkle is accompanied by Hofmann, who wears a hardhat with a silver brim that was specially designed for her. “I just got my first phone call,” Hofmann says with a grin. “We were scrambling to figure out the phone system, ‘battle stations!’”
It seems fitting to start the tour in a dusty loading dock, considering the building’s humble origins as a beer warehouse. When Santa Fe art dealer Laura Carpenter first walked these floors in the early 1990s, she saw an empty, cavernous space with cinderblock walls.
Carpenter envisioned a biennial here and worked to raise over a million dollars—with significant help from art world luminaries John and Anne Marion—to make it happen. Director and Head Curator Bruce W. Ferguson headed the project, mounting the first international biennial in the United States at SITE in 1995. The show was so successful that the institution established a year-round exhibition schedule soon after.
Hofmann gave Carpenter a tour of the building a week ago. “Here’s someone who really saw this institution, nurtured it, and helped get it off the ground,” says Hofmann. “She was super impressed, and she knows from architecture, right?”
The building’s original renovation was spearheaded by New York architect Richard Gluckman, who transformed the abandoned warehouse into a 19,000-square-foot exhibition space. SITE’s work with Gluckman kicked off a series of collaborations with notable architects that spans the museum’s history and includes building improvements, exhibition designs, and even installation art.
One such project is the museum’s current workshop, which occupies two large rooms just inside the loading dock. It was built in 2007 with artists in mind. Since its first biennial, SITE has facilitated the creation of site-specific installations by offering up its galleries as temporary studio spaces. The fabrication equipment in the workshop is central to this mission, and the space has received a thorough cleanup and reorganization over the course of construction.
“Next is the vault,” says Hofmann, clearly eager to move on to more dramatic parts of the project. SITE’s vault is just past the workshop, and it has tripled in size as part of the expansion. “We don’t have a permanent collection, but there’s a lot of art incoming and outgoing that has to acclimate,” she says.
Climate control was one of the project’s main priorities. Due to the industrial origins of its building, SITE had an unsophisticated heating and cooling system and lacked humidity control. “It’s not necessarily about the specific temperature or the specific humidity, it was the fact that it would rapidly change and we couldn’t control it,” says Hofmann. “For people, we can put on a sweater, but there’s a very specific range that art wants.”
Throughout its history, SITE has been unable to borrow certain artworks from other institutions—particularly historic works that could add context to its contemporary storytelling. Sensitive photographs, prints, and paintings have always been out of reach. The project will add temperature control to the entire building, but humidity control was a trickier proposition.
“This building was really challenging for the engineers,” says Hofmann. “Frankly, in this severe, crazy climate, we couldn’t achieve humidity control in the whole building.” She winds out of the vault and into a large gallery, which has a constellation of silver vents anchored to its ceiling. Construction workers are busy adding a layer of blue insulation to the walls, and glass doors will span each entrance to the space.
Through another door across the gallery, the crux of the expansion comes into view. At the back end of SITE’s original structure, an entirely new wing of the building has sprung up.
Aside from the vault, this is the only room in SITE that will have humidity control, though Hofmann says that the vast majority of loaned works will only require temperature control. For Future Shock, monumental photographs by Andreas Gursky will anchor this room, featuring densely detailed imagery of stock exchanges in Chicago and Kuwait. “Two totally different cultures, and yet one global market and celebration of wealth,” notes Hofmann. “They’re definitely works that we couldn’t have exhibited previously, so it’s great to add that.”
Through another door across the gallery, the crux of the expansion comes into view. At the back end of SITE’s original structure, an entirely new wing of the building has sprung up. There’s a room where Education Director Joanne Lefrak will conduct programming and present behind-the-scenes content, a courtyard with a staircase that leads up to a large mezzanine for outdoor events, and a sprawling auditorium.
“A large percentage of what we’ve added to the building is about the community. It’s about gathering spaces,” Hofmann says. “We’ve never had a space for talks, symposia, or workshops. All of these education programs that have been expanding for years can become more visible to the public and can take place in our own building.”
The moment Hofmann steps into the auditorium, the hubbub of the surrounding construction site dampens and her voice amplifies. This room is nearly finished, though it’s currently packed with boxes and filing cabinets that have resurfaced from storage. One box, labeled “Press Clippings 1997,” surely holds Newsweek’s report on SITE’s second biennial, Truce. Critic Peter Plagens captured the milieu with a heavy dose of New York snark.
“The second biennial has a grandiose political theme (‘Echoes of Art in an Age of Endless Conclusions’) and is painfully trendy,” wrote Plagens. “Nobody here seems to care whether the show is good; they’re happy to have a vest-pocket version of European avant-garde extravaganzas like ‘Documenta’ in town.”
Plagens concluded that there was “something missing in the Santa Fe scene,” calling for a new ecosystem of top-end galleries, tough critics, and young, avant-garde artists to elevate the discourse. A quarter century later, Santa Fe seems to be inching closer to that reality, though it has still never bent to the icy will of visiting Manhattanites.
When Hofmann took the helm of SITE in 2010, she brought the museum’s biennial to a screeching halt for a shocking number of New York minutes. Taking stock of nine biennials, with international headliners such as Anish Kapoor, Andres Serrano, Marina Abramovic, Takashi Murakami, and Andy Goldsworthy, Hofmann challenged her team to examine the purpose of the biennial in its own right.
In the decades since SITE’s founding, the biennial format has grown increasingly popular. There are more than one hundred and fifty biennials and triennials across the world, and it’s getting harder to stand out from the pack. Hofmann wanted to deflect the mounting pressure to feature big names and Instagram-worthy installations and return to the raw experimentation and off-center storytelling of the institution’s early years.
One of the things we’re actually trying to preserve in this building are the floors, the walls. We’re not going to pour new, pristine concrete.
SITE’s biennial relaunched in 2014, and it came with a new name and geographic focus. SITElines: New Perspectives on Art of the Americas—a series of three interconnected biennials that will run through 2018—is dedicated to “underrepresented perspectives” from “Nunavut to Tierra del Fuego.” A network of advisors from across the Americas was installed to help steer SITE away from the glittering, commercial shores of so many modern biennials and into deeper waters.
The building project represents an extension of this incubation period, and Hofmann has emerged from it even more excited to dirty up SITE’s new walls. “I was talking to Ann Hamilton a couple years ago, and she told me that SITE was one of the last institutions in the United States that was still willing to do these kinds of big projects,” Hofmann says. “We speculated that maybe one of the reasons why is that once a new building opens, there’s a kind of preciousness to the building. One of the things we’re actually trying to preserve in this building are the floors, the walls. We’re not going to pour new, pristine concrete.”
Hofmann strolls back into the exhibition space and towards the front of the museum. The galleries still bear remnants of SITE’s 2016 biennial, much wider than a line, which closed in January. Anna Boghiguian’s mural chronicling the history of the cotton trade is covered in grit, and a placard for Maria Hupfield’s display of performance art accoutrements has been knocked askew.
Past a cratered wall and through the new lobby, which will house a gift shop and cafe, the project’s only added exhibition space comes into view. The new “SITElab” is a triangular room at the very front of the building, designed for smaller exhibitions that will be free and open to the public seven days a week. A massive, rotating wall in the center of the 1,800-square-foot space will allow artists to reshape the room with a push.
“There’s amazing potential for this space to generate projects that can travel,” says Hofmann. “We commission so much, but there aren’t often opportunities for the works that are made in these galleries to go someplace else.” Kota Ezawa’s solo exhibition The Crime of Art, which will christen the space, already has a tour lined up and a monograph by Radius Books in the works.
When Hofmann described the impending construction project to the Santa Fe New Mexican last year, she called it “modest.” Even in the thick of the action, that descriptor feels right. Yes, there will be added space for art and events, but the primary changes come down to a handful of key functionalities. The project will expand the breadth and depth of SITE’s exhibitions, centralize its operations and programming, and improve its ability to vault artists into other institutions.
Workers will wrap two corners of the building with the gridded material, forming an undulating skin with no parallel in a city of flat planes.
There is one element of the structure’s makeover that’s pure vanity, however. Back in the lobby, Hofmann stops to peer out at a fifty-foot, triangular steel prow that has sprouted from the museum’s facade. Visitors will pass under this angular, monolithic form to enter SITE. Soon, the prow’s skeletal frame, which is scarred with weld marks, will hide under a blanket of perforated-aluminum cladding. Workers will wrap two corners of the building with the gridded material, forming an undulating skin with no parallel in a city of flat planes. The cladding will stand out against charcoal gray walls and hide a system of LED lights to illuminate the building at night. Around the corner of the building, a series of billboards will feature monumental art, starting with work by Andrea Zittel.
These flourishes hint at the climate of the larger art world, where institutions like The Broad and the Whitney Museum of American Art have erected headquarters that compete with their collections for attention. At the end of a long incubation period, SITE is aiming to elbow its way back into the big league, equipped with a literal sharp edge—and perhaps some added wisdom to protect from bombast and frivolity.
At the time of this writing, SITE’s new armor is taking its time to arrive. “The cladding is on a boat from China,” says Hofmann. The giddy grin she’s maintained throughout the tour briefly slips from her face. “I’m told it’s a fast boat.”