Unsettled Landscapes is the first of three biennial exhibitions in SITE Santa Fe’s six-year project SITElines: New Perspectives on Art of the Americas. Thursday, July 17, opening night events include a cocktail party and exhibition preview (5–7 p.m.) at SITE Santa Fe, and a gala dinner with artists, curators, and special guests (7:30 p.m.) at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Pavilion. Friday, July 18, Unsettled Landscapes artist Pablo Helguera presents a performance at 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. at San Miguel Chapel, 401 Old Santa Fe Trail. Saturday, July 19 (11 a.m.– 2:30 p.m.), the Davidoff Art Initiative presents a SITElines panel discussion featuring artists from the Caribbean at the Armory for the Arts Theater. At 1 p.m. on Saturday, July 19, Unsettled Landscapes opens to the public at SITE Santa Fe. It runs through Jan. 11, 2015. (505) 989-1199;

IN JULY 1995, inside an unassuming 19,000-square-foot warehouse near the well-worn train tracks of the Santa Fe Railyard District, a new chapter in the history of contemporary art in America was forged. It was in this space, known as SITE Santa Fe, that the first international biennial of contemporary art in the United States was held. The curators of the biennial, titled Longing and Belonging: From the Faraway Nearby, brought together 31 artists from 13 countries to explore notions of exile, heritage, and displacement in an art-rich city whose cultural history mirrored the exhibition’s themes almost to a T.

On July 20, SITE opens a new exhibition, Unsettled Landscapes, which is part of a six-year plan to reshape the very definition of the word biennial. Exhibitions in 2014, 2016, and 2018 will be organized by different teams of curators from throughout the Western Hemisphere, all operating under the banner of a new hub of collaboration called SITElines: New Perspectives of Art in the Americas.

The inaugural biennial at SITE was a bold undertaking. In addition to the risks involved in mounting such a complex international exhibition in a Southwest city whose population topped out at around 56,000, the only large-scale art events in town had been those that honored more traditional regional work— Santa Fe Indian Market and Traditional Spanish Market, for instance.

Luckily, in 1995, the timing was good: Sales of high-end contemporary art were on the upswing nationwide, and collectors from larger metropolitan areas were showing more interest in what Santa Fe had to offer. More than a year before it opened to the public, SITE’s first biennial was gaining a staggering amount of momentum in the art press and international art communities. For the first time, the global contemporary-arts spotlight was aimed squarely on the oldest capital city in North America.

As an organization that has always complemented its exhibitions with special programming and educational outreach, SITE invited the Museum of Fine Arts (now called the New Mexico Museum of Art) to serve as a second exhibition space for Longing and Belonging. Feeling the enthusiasm build for the biennial, the Center for Contemporary Arts and the Governor’s Gallery at the Roundhouse (the State Capitol) planned their own contemporary-art exhibitions to run concurrently with SITE’s inaugural show.

With the inclusion of renowned artists such as Bruce Nauman, Lorna Simpson, Jenny Holzer, and the notoriously controversial Andres Serrano, Longing and Belonging was, as an exhibition, an unqualified success; but SITE Santa Fe organizers made it so much more. It was an event that was as community-minded as it was internationally focused. Besides presenting Robert Ashley’s avant-garde opera Now Eleanor’s Idea, SITE offered lectures, films, concerts, and an array of kid-friendly programming, involving New Mexico artists and galleries at every opportunity.

That multidimensional show model has been at the core of SITE Santa Fe’s operational mission since day one, with more than eight international biennials and numerous exhibitions in between. Attracting tens of thousands of visitors from around the globe, SITE quickly began to draw talent from curators who would go on to join the upper echelons of their field. Francesco Bonami, who curated SITE’s second biennial, TRUCE: Echoes of Art in an Age of Endless Conclusion, was chosen to organize the Venice Biennale in 2003; Dave Hickey, who curated the fourth SITE biennial, Beau Monde: Toward a Redeemed Cosmopolitanism, earned a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” after doing so.

AFTER THAT FIRST BIENNIAL, SITE changed directions in the hopes of becoming an internationally known cultural institution with full-time programming. It succeeded in spades, by bringing in work by artists such as Ai Weiwei, Thomas Demand, Wangechi Mutu, William Kentridge, and Raymond Pettibon.

However, the organization’s board and the curatorial staff were restless and more than a little fatigued by the increasing number of biennials popping up across multiple continents. The ephemeral aspects of biennials were also of concern to SITE’s leadership, which involved a number of people: chief curator Irene Hoffman, SITE curator Janet Dees, Unsettled Landscapes cocurators Candice Hopkins and Lucía Sanromán, and five satellite advisers hailing from Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, Trinidad, and Newfoundland.

“One of the things we talked about was the sort of discontinuous nature of these exhibitions,” Hoffman says. “We weren’t happy with the idea of artists and curators sort of parachuting into places and then poof, they’re gone. It was long past the due date for reinvention.”

The solution is SITElines: New Perspectives of Art in the Americas, a six-year endeavor that takes to new lengths its dedication to collaboration and long-term focus on a particular theme. Hoffman and her team sought ways to create an international show that was uniquely Santa Fe, while claiming a larger territory that the artists and curators could become greatly familiar with over a longer period of time.

The 30,000 miles of Pan American Highway that connect almost all of the mainland nations of the Americas present plenty of romantic and thought-provoking ideals about Latin American and indigenous cultures, commerce, colonialism, and travel on the open road. “Santa Fe is a place with so many amazing layers of history that are so similar to those of the Pan American Highway,” Hoffman says, “and that’s why using it as the cornerstone of SITElines is such a good fit for us.” Parts of I-25 and adjoining roads are also known as the Pan American Freeway, an official extension of the Pan American Highway that largely follows the historic El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro trade route from the Río Grande valley north of Santa Fe, through Albuquerque and El Paso, Texas, and into Mexico City.

For Unsettled Landscapes, SITE has invited 45 artists from 16 countries, including New Mexico artists such as photographer Patrick Nagatani and mixed-media/installation artist Jamison Chas Banks (Cherokee/Seneca-Cayuga), to explore themes of landscape, territory, and trade in the Americas. Banks’ largescale installation and video project, titled Retour des Centres, examines historical and cultural relationships between the Louisiana Purchase, Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile to Elba and Saint Helena, and the relocation of Banks’ Native ancestors. Visiting artists include the San Francisco multidisciplinary collective Futurefarmers, which will investigate the history and contemporary conditions of New Mexico’s acequias (irrigation canals).

To help emphasize the continuity of SITElines’ three biennial exhibitions, SITE has invited New York–based Mexican artist Pablo Helguera to serve as artist-in-residence over the course of the first exhibition. Helguera’s contribution to Unsettled Landscapes is Nuevo Romancero, Nuevo Mexicano, a new commissioned performance piece and installation that explores New Mexico’s history as a province of Mexico (around 1821 to 1848). Moments in his account of this history are accompanied by songs that Helguera discovered while researching New Mexico’s state archives. Helguera, who has made multiple trips to Santa Fe over the past year, will perform with Santa Fe musicians he met while working on his project in November 2013. Eventually Helguera hopes to turn the performance into a full-length opera, and perhaps perform it as part of a future SITElines exhibition.

“Are we going to avoid every single pitfall of past biennials with this new approach?” Hoffman asks. “Maybe not. But we have a better chance for success by being more aware of our past mistakes, and daring to be different.” Indeed, that approach is what garnered SITE Santa Fe its stellar reputation to begin with.