“Uncharted” is an interview series created in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re talking to people in the New Mexico arts world and beyond to see how the community is navigating this unprecedented health crisis. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Santa Fe Art Tours was founded in 2015 by Elaine Ritchel. Known for a creative, in-depth approach to arts education, Santa Fe Art Tours specializes in themed tours, multi-day experiences, and is currently offering online studio visits.
What inspired you to start Santa Fe Art Tours?
I’d been living overseas and giving tours as an independent guide, then I found myself back in New Mexico. It was very difficult to find a position in museum education at that time, and I thought, “I have to do something, so maybe I can do these tours and try to turn it into an actual business.” I spent some time pounding the pavement, visiting all the galleries and art spaces. When I moved here I looked for a tour of galleries, and it didn’t exist, which I thought was kind of mind-blowing. That also was a huge reason why I decided to start doing this. There was nobody helping people navigate this massive art scene.
I didn’t want to give people just a historical walking tour, I wanted people to engage with art more deeply. I wanted to provide this experience that’s more interactive, and give people skills they can take away with them as they visit other museums and galleries.
It sounds like you’re giving people life-long skills.
It’s really amazing. It’s one of those things that’s been kind of difficult for me to market, and even to describe because there’s this magic that happens when you approach looking at art in this way.
They’re also transferable soft skills which is great, and other industries are starting to realize that. There have been a lot of studies showing that medical students make more correct diagnoses after they’ve done art appreciation programs that are very similar to the kind of things we’re doing on tours. I’ve had businesses reach out, citing those surveys, and ask to do team-building and leadership programs. It’s exciting that people are realizing art can be used in these ways.
Your business is all about fun, creative in-person tours, so how did you begin to rethink how Santa Fe Art Tours would work once the pandemic hit?
It took me a minute. In March, when restrictions were placed on travel, I had a couple of major group tours cancel, and then the cancellations started rolling in. For those couple of weeks, I was sort of in shock. I saw this business I had built over years fall apart—collapse—over a couple of days. I really didn’t know what I was going to do with it, and as I slowly started to realize that we’re probably going to be in this for the long haul, I thought I better start thinking creatively about what I can do in a situation like this.
Oddly enough, I’d been toying with the idea of offering something online for a while. I have a background in museum education, so I’m teaching people how to analyze art and how to interact with art more deeply. That was in the back of my mind as something that I wanted to develop eventually, some kind of course that people can access from anywhere.
Once I came out of being dazed and confused that first couple of weeks, I was really inspired by people putting things out online. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it can be an experiment, and once I gave myself permission to just try something, I reached out to several artists to see if they would be interested in experimenting with me on this and doing these artist studio tours.
Can you tell me about the Mindfulness with Art digital program?
I learned an approach to interacting with art that blew me away. The difference is that it’s more conversation-oriented and rooted in taking the time to look, to describe what you’re seeing, and then to interpret that as a group. There are a few different methods for this, and I combine them organically: we’ll look at one work of art very deeply for an extended period of time, and people begin to make meaning together, which is really a cool thing to see unfold.
Somewhere along the line, I started learning about mindfulness. Mindfulness as a meditation practice, and the idea that you’re observing objectively, and allowing yourself to do that without judgment. I thought about how cool it could be to use art as a tool for mindfulness practice. Really you’re using art as a tool to tap into the present moment, and think about the things that come up, the things you’re observing. That’s pretty much what we do in these sessions. I choose the work of art, I don’t tell them what it’s going to be beforehand. I give them a few moments to look at it in the beginning, then I lead them through this process of observing first and really, really looking at detail.
There’s a statistic that most people, when they visit museums or galleries, only look at a work of art for 30 seconds or less, which is kind of wild because there’s usually a lot going on that they miss.
When you say, “we’re going to look at one piece of art for a long time” it maybe doesn’t sound that compelling, but really amazing things happen. People say they feel calmer, more in touch with themselves, they may have processed something on a deep level, and they feel connected to everyone else in the group. So it really is a very restorative practice.
Is there anywhere you are finding hope or inspiration?
I think seeing the feedback from these online tours was really good for me. Apart from the whole, “I have to rebuild my business to stay afloat” part, I was also feeling so down because I wasn’t doing what I love to do. So, being able to do these online tours and seeing that it can work, and seeing that people can still connect has given me a lot of hope. It’s interesting to me that people have attended from all over the world. Italy, Nigeria—people were waking up at 2 am to attend, which was really unexpected, so that tells me that there’s a lot of potential here to reach people through this format that I wouldn’t have been able to reach otherwise.
What do you think the role of art is in a time of crisis?
I think art is very important in times of crisis. Because art is something concrete that people can gather around. They can observe the same thing, but it’s open to interpretation. Everybody can bring their own experience to it, and that’s okay. I think there’s a lot of power in art to bring people together through discussion or just through shared looking. That’s incredibly powerful when people are going through a challenging time and maybe have different perspectives on that challenging time. It’s an interesting thing because art can hold both—differing perspectives and shared interpretations.
What does the future look like for you?
It’s so hard to answer that on one level because we have no idea how this thing is gonna go. Something very interesting happened for me. People say to “take it as it comes,” “live one day at a time,” all of those mantras. It was always difficult to get to that place, and suddenly I was forced to because of this situation. So I completely readjusted my expectations. I was on track to have the best, most successful year of my business, and now that’s off the table. I’m looking at staying afloat this year, so I’ve adjusted a lot of things—the way that I live, business practices, so on, to just make it to the next tourist season.
It looks like continuing the tours I’ve been doing. We did an exhibition tour at No Land which was really great. I’d like to expand the artist studio visits into other areas, maybe work with museums and galleries in some capacity. I’d like to do more online workshops and seminars about bringing some of the museum education work into that. I’m doing what I can and letting it unfold every day. I am excited though to expand online programs, and I’ve been encouraging a lot of my colleagues to think about how they can do that. It’s not something you have to do away with if we go back to normal. You’ll just have another income stream, which is great. I’m looking at it as a time to develop another aspect of my business that I wasn’t able to before. That’s how I’m being positive about it.