The jewel of the American Southwest, Santa Fe is one of the oldest cities in the United States, with a rich, diverse artistic history and a thriving market for art. It is, in fact, the third largest art market in the nation, behind New York and Los Angeles. But, like most things, Santa Fe does art a bit differently.
Driven by the tourist industry, most of Santa Fe’s 250+ art galleries operate as showrooms year-round. Solo presentations, themed exhibitions, or curated shows—the staples of a typical art gallery in any major art center—are not the norm here, which can be disorienting for a visitor accustomed to digesting art in thoughtful, curated, month-long rotations. Santa Fe operates more like a 365-day, citywide art fair, a fact that can be off-putting to some, and utterly dazzling to others. There are some notable exceptions to this rule, of course, and exceptions to the exceptions to the rule (including an art space that is so far off the map of what one would expect that it verges on creating an entirely new paradigm for art viewing).
It’s well known that Santa Fe’s libertine spirit, open skies, and starkly beautiful high desert landscape have long attracted artists: Ashcan School founder Robert Henri, printmaker Gustave Baumann, pioneering painter Georgia O’Keeffe, Transcendental Painting Group leaders Raymond Jonson and Emil Bisttram, and abstract artist Agnes Martin, to name a few. Contemporary artists continue to plant roots in New Mexico, among them Judy Chicago, Bruce Nauman, and Richard Tuttle, and the area is home to many prominent Native American artists, including Emmi Whitehorse, Ramona Sakiestewa, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, and members of the art collective Postcommodity. While it may be a detour from the international art circuit, the same qualities that make Santa Fe and its environs a magnet for artists make it a great destination for art collectors, along with the region’s fascinating history, world-class cuisine, and unique architecture. Here are some of the unconventional, idiosyncratic, and quirky art spaces you’ll find in Santa Fe’s distinct art districts, and the best reasons to plan a visit.
Downtown: New Mexico Museum of Art
With Santa Fe’s strict rules on historic preservation, most buildings in Santa Fe have been repurposed for one reason or another, but the New Mexico Museum of Art, with its true adobe walls, picturesque courtyard, and original design elements, has always been an art museum. It boasts an incredible collection of modernist art created in New Mexico, some of which is on view in the excellent exhibition up until the end of the month, Conversations in Painting, featuring works by Marsden Hartley, Stuart Davis, Florence Pierce, Agnes Martin, Hans Hoffmann and Mala Breuer. The museum celebrates its 100th anniversary in November this year.
Canyon Road: Art House Santa Fe / Thoma Foundation
Situated at the beginning of the gallery-dense Canyon Road neighborhood, the non-profit Thoma Foundation shows curated exhibitions of New Mexico-based and international artists. Their current exhibition, Mouse in the Machine, explores the intersection of digital art and nature, featuring a video performance by Bruce Nauman, an algorithm-based animation by Marina Zurkow, and paintings created by an artificial intelligence painting machine devised by the artist Harold Cohen.
Railyard District: SITE Santa Fe
Anchoring the city’s Railyard District is Santa Fe’s premier contemporary art kunsthalle, SITE Santa Fe. Host to the United States’ first international biennial of contemporary art, SITE serves as the conduit between Santa Fe and the international art world. Recently, it’s reinvented its biennial as SITElines: New Perspectives of Art from the Americas (the SITElines.2018 curatorial team will be announced in July). And it’s currently reinventing the museum itself, building a needed expansion and infrastructure improvements. SITE will reopen Fall 2017; in the meantime, galleries in the area like Zane Bennett Contemporary Art, Charlotte Jackson Fine Art, and Tai Modern will satisfy your appetite for contemporary art.
Museum Hill: Museum of International Folk Art
Up off the old Santa Fe Trail, the historic road that leads into the city, Museum Hill offers great views of the city and mountains, a botanical garden, and a complex of art museums dedicated to Spanish colonial art, Native American art, and folk art. The folk art museum is well worth the trip, not only for its excellent temporary exhibitions, but also for its mind-blowing permanent installation of the Girard Collection. Containing over 10,000 objects, collected from Alexander Girard’s travels, the collection is arranged in fanciful, precise, complex, and dramatic dioramas. With each visit you’ll find something new.
Siler-Rufina Arts District: Meow Wolf
The funky giant robot sculpture out front might make a skeptic wary, but step inside Meow Wolf’s fun-house installation The House of Eternal Return and you will get swept up in the intriguing science-fiction backstory, the beyond-intricate details, and the maze-like structure. This is the immersive art installation experience to beat them all, and with Meow Wolf’s collective authorship structure (135 artists contributed to the project) and for-profit model, it upends many of our expectations about how art is supposed to be made. Since opening last year, the area around Meow Wolf has sprouted alternative spaces and art galleries, forming Santa Fe’s newest art district.