Current Visual Arts Exhibits THROUGH MID-AUGUST AfroBrasil: Art and Identities, an exploration of South American and African culture in the unique multiracial and multiethnic country.

THROUGH AUGUST 30 MARCO! Celebrating Nuestro Maestro José Marcos Garcia, featuring more than 100 works depicting political figures, popular heroes, and santos created by the Albuquerque artist.

Upcoming Visual Arts Exhibits
SEPTEMBER 13–OCTOBER 18 Quinceañera: Nuestra Historia, Nuestro Futuro (Quinceañera: Our Story, Our Future), a pop-up exhibition featuring works from the permanent collection, celebrating the NHCC’s 15th anniversary. Opens with a free family day on Sunday, September 13.

Upcoming Performing Arts Event
SEPTEMBER 25–26. ¡Globalquerque!, a festival celebrating world music and culture.

National Hispanic Cultural Center
1701 Fourth St. SW, Albuquerque; (505) 246-2261;

Art Museum
Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for seniors, free for children under 16 and members; free on Sundays. Tues.–Sun., 10 a.m.–5 p.m. (505) 246-2261;

Performing Arts
Ticket sales: (505) 724-4771;

When New York–based Nation Beat and New Orleans’ Cha Wa appeared onstage together in February, their sounds met at the intersection of Carnival rhythms and Mardi Gras Indian chanting. The former’s bandleader, Scott Kettner, struck up a tambourine duet with the latter’s Irving “Honey” Banister, whose lime-green feathered headdress shimmied to the hybrid rhythms. The concert was both timeless and utterly of the moment, mind-expanding and irresistibly danceable. Before long, the audience members were grooving up the aisles and onto the stage.

You might expect to find this kind of throwdown at the New Orleans Jazz Fest or Rio’s Carnival, but this one ignited closer to home, at Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC), which is in the midst of a yearlong celebration of its quinceañera.

On its 15th birthday, the NHCC is starting to come of age as a national and international institution for the preservation and promotion of Hispanic culture. This quince, however, hasn’t arrived on swirling taffeta skirts; it has come in business attire. The center’s team, under the leadership of an energetic new executive director, Rebecca Avitia, is making the center a magnet in Albuquerque’s historic Barelas neighborhood.

Avitia is turning the center into a lively place where visitors can show up Thursday through Sunday and find something happening. The same week as the Carnival caravan this February, the center also hosted Cuban-style salsa classes, screened the Brazilian film Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus), and staged Xicanos with Guns in its Siembra theater series. The center is offering some 700 events this fiscal year, compared with 200 two years ago.

The packed calendar is a far cry from 1983, when Edward Lujan and the center’s other eventual founders began hosting one-off Hispanic heritage preservation events. The seed of the idea eventually grew to encompass a permanent center built with state, federal, and private funding and now composed of a sweeping campus with a half-dozen buildings, including an art museum, restaurant, three theaters, and an outdoor plaza.

Lujan and his fellow founders aimed to promote the Spanish language and eliminate discrimination through cultural familiarity. “When you begin to lose the language, you lose your culture,” Lujan observes. “[The NHCC] is for Hispanics to get to know their own culture, but it isn’t just for Hispanics. It’s about preserving the culture and sharing it so everyone begins to know each other.”

Although any number of places could have laid claim to a national center—Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., Miami, or a number of cities in Texas could have rallied support—Albuquerque was first in line. The NHCC was then and remains the only national center devoted to all Spanish-speaking cultures. In Lujan’s eyes, establishing the center in New Mexico wasn’t so much a coup as the state’s birthright. “Starting with Oñate in the 1500s, this is where Hispanic culture started in the U.S. It’s not by happenstance that the center is here,” he says.

The center opened in October 2000 with the grandeur befitting Crown Prince Felipe VI of Spain (now the king), who attended the celebration, but the years that followed were hardly as gilded. In 2007, at the start of the recession, the center’s financial acequia stopped flowing—and soon the number of programs it was able to host slowed to a trickle. The NHCC Foundation, which is responsible for bringing to life events from exhibit openings to art happy hours (much of the facility’s state funding goes to operations, not to enrichment), fell into debt.

Tey Marianna Nunn, who has served as the NHCC’s museum and visual arts program director since 2006 and formerly curated at the Museum of International Folk Art, learned what she calls “commando curating—when you don’t have the time or money to do what a perfectionist curator would want to do.” The staff and its patrons felt the center was the proverbial child who hadn’t lived up to its potential. How could the diverse, dynamic Hispanic culture be preserved with little money to do so? How could barriers between people break down when few visitors were coming to the center?

The NHCC also experienced a vertiginous ride through executive directors. “Having 10 or 11 executive directors in 15 years is an awful lot for an institution to endure,” observes Nunn. Most recently, the center listed for two years without an official leader before Avitia took the helm in February 2014.

Avitia, now 33, attended Columbia Law School and had an externship with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was then a federal judge, before working at a white-shoe New York firm and one in the Duke City. Taking the leadership role at a nonprofit cultural institution was an intriguing prospect, though not a foreign one for the native New Mexican, who had been involved in Latino and Hispanic organizations since college. “I had never had the opportunity to make it my job that I got paid for. That was a really exciting difference,” she says. “It was the combination of being able to dive into our culture and the tremendous opportunity I saw at the center.”

Avitia immediately strengthened the connections to the center’s key partners, including its own foundation. In February of this year, Lujan, 82, came out of retirement to act as the foundation’s interim president and CEO. Together, they have taken steps to get funding flowing again. 

Working with Tom Frouge, one of the founders and producers of ¡Globalquerque!, the center has parlayed the blockbuster success of that annual global music festival into developing year-round music programming. The center’s Chispa (Spanish for “spark”) music series has showcased musicians from Frouge’s Avokado Artists label, Los Angeles–based band La Santa Cecilia, Chilean songwriter Nano Stern, and Argentine vocalist Sofía Rei, expanding the center’s preservationist vision. “They’ve got their ballet folklorico down, and that’s all great,” says Frouge of the center’s heritage offerings. “But we’re also doing hip-hop music and a Brazilian group that’s totally avant-garde, showing the 21st century and what’s going on with music today.”

After a decade of restaurants moving through the center as if through a revolving door, the NHCC is once again a dining destination, with the recent addition of M’Tucci’s Cocina, a spinoff of the popular Westside restaurant M’Tucci’s Italian. The kitchen prepares thematic meals prior to events—a three-course Argentine menu prior to the Sofía Rei concert, a French meal prior to Opera Southwest’s La Bohème in March—and is expanding into regular dinner and lunch service. The partnership was a natural fit for Jeff Spiegel, who owns M’Tucci’s with his wife, Katie Gardner, and has deep personal and professional experience with Latin and Mexican cuisine.

“We have a shared vision of what the National Hispanic Cultural Center should be,” he says of working with the center’s new leadership. “It should be one of the iconic venues of the state, to rival the Santa Fe Opera or Popejoy.”

Avitia has also devoted more resources to the visual arts program, allowing the museum exhibits to become less MacGyver, more masterful. In June 2014, Nunn set a new benchmark for the center’s art exhibits with ¡Papel! Pico, Rico y Chico, featuring four artists who rework the ephemeral art of papel picado into contemporary creations. Their work hung on sherbet-hued walls beneath strings of the traditional punched paper. “It made it feel more intimate, less of a staunch museum display. It made it really accessible and approachable,” says Nunn.

“It’s clear that what we have is amazing, we just need people to witness it,” Avitia says. One of her first new hires, Roswell native Jessica Sanchez, who has a dozen years’ experience in local non-profit marketing and development, has expanded the museum’s grassroots promotional efforts. The NHCC’s attendance is up 10 percent overall, and the stats are even more impressive in the visual arts realm: Since July 2014, attendance at the museum has increased month over month from the previous year.

“When something is presented authentically, with real passion behind it, it just attracts an audience. You can’t manufacture it,” says Avitia.

The museum’s next large-scale effort is possible only thanks to another new talent: curator April Bojorquez. Nunn’s fellow graduate from the Smithsonian’s Latino Museum Studies Program joined the visual arts team last December. Bojorquez will be instrumental in plan ning the NHCC’s next celebration—a September pop-up exhibit in honor of the center’s quinceañera. The show will highlight works from the wide-ranging permanent collection—which, despite lean times, has doubled in size in the past five years. This quince will no doubt include music, theater, films, and food—and an invitation to join the festivities.

Ashley M. Biggers is the author of 100 Things to Do in Albuquerque Before You Die (Reedy Press, 2015), which naturally includes visiting the National Hispanic Cultural Center.


31 Rienstra Winde Bamboo Heel InsertWinde Rienstra. Bamboo Heel (2012). Bamboo, glue, plastic cable ties. 
(Photo Credit Jay Zukerkorn/Courtesy of Winde Rienstra)

Get your kicks this month at Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe, which opens May 30 and runs through August 9 at the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History.

This traveling show, developed by New York City’s Brooklyn Museum, showcases some 160 vintage and modern heels, including colorful footwear by Cochiti artist Janice Ortiz, Santa Fe beadworker Teri Greeves, and Albuquerque boot-making virtuoso Deana McGuffin. (505) 842-0111;

Get ready, get set ... paint! More than 50 juried artists compete June 7–12 during the third annual Santa Fe Plein Air Festival (, which comprises several competitive “paint outs” themed according to specific outdoor settings. On Tuesday evening, June 9, participants set up their easels at the Cross of the Martyrs overlook and vie with one another to paint the most spectacular sunset. “The artists have to work very quickly and hope the direction they’ve chosen really gives them something,” says festival chair Tobi Clement.

Another highlight is the two-hour “quick-draw” at 9 a.m., June 12, in Santa Fe River Park. “These are great opportunities for people to stroll among the artists and watch them create a painting from start to finish,” says Clement.

You can view finished works at the opening reception and awards ceremony the evening of June 12 at InArt Santa Fe Gallery (505-983-6537; inartsantafe. com), which will continue to show them until July 5.

On June 19–21, the Taos Art Museum Garden Party Art Show and Sale takes place on the manicured grounds and shaded back patio of the beautiful Nicolai Fechin home. Local artists will display and sell works that resonate with the arrival of summer—think birds, flowers, and garden scenes. (575) 758-2690;