WHEN THE NEW MEXICO MUSEUM OF ART opened its doors in 1917, archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewett (1885–1946) envisioned the downtown Santa Fe building—a swooping adobe example of then-new Pueblo Revival–style architecture—as a space to show works by local luminaries like Will Shuster and regional Indigenous artists such as San Ildefonso potter Maria Martinez. As the museum’s director, Hewett worked with famed Ashcan School painter Robert Henri to select 30 artists for the first show, which included Oscar Berninghaus, William Herbert “Buck” Dunton, and George Bellows.

In the beginning, the museum had an open-door policy. Artists could sign up for exhibitions. Some, like renowned woodblock printmaker Gustave Baumann, worked in the museum’s basement woodshop, making furniture and frames and crating art. Throughout its history, the museum has paid homage to its original policy with a series of Alcove Shows, or small solo exhibitions by local living artists, to demonstrate that new work by New Mexico artists is still part of its mandate.

Nancy Holt's "Mirrors of Light II," 1974, at Vladem Contemporary.

But the New Mexico Museum of Art is not a large institution. Restricted by its location on Santa Fe’s historic Plaza, it has been forced to limit its collection practices. The 1917 building curbed the presentation of digital art, and the demand to showcase its stellar permanent collection conflicted with the museum’s need for contemporary relevance.

Hence, a new museum was born. Vladem Contemporary, named for donors Ellen and Bob Vladem, opened in September in the city’s Railyard Arts District to grow the Museum of Art’s contemporary collection, provide spaces specifically designed for art based on new media and dedicated to education, and—in keeping with the museum’s original 1917 mission—to create a studio for artists in residence.

The new building repurposes an existing one: a former Charles Ilfeld Company warehouse that, from 1960 on, served as the State Records Center and Archives and became known as the Halpin Building. “The way in which the skin of a building performs is always very critical,” says Devendra Contractor of the architectural team DNCA + StudioGP, led by Contractor, Deirdre Harris, and Graham Hogan, who reimagined the Halpin. “On the Vladem, one of the things we really wanted to do was preserve and highlight the brick masonry of the old warehouse building.”

With its sharp angles and abundant natural light, Vladem Contemporary contrasts with the organic forms of its earthen mother building downtown. “We did our best to bring natural light to spaces outside the galleries,” says Harris.

A "Shadow and Light" installation includes works by Jennifer Joseph and Judy Chicago.

In the luminous main gallery on the upper floor, the architects were inspired by the northern light that’s drawn countless artists to the region. “There’s almost a fantasy that a museum can somehow replicate an artist’s studio environment,” says Contractor.

Featuring local, national, and international artists, the Vladem’s inaugural show has a name, Shadow and Light, that also applies to the footprint of the new building
itself. The exhibition provides fresh insight into artists and movements that inspire the creative pulse of New Mexico. “Shadow and Light has provided a through line for me to the collection with some important pieces that I was thrilled to learn are in it,” says Alexandra Terry, the museum’s new curator of contemporary art. It also offers several lessons about the state of art in the Southwest.

Five untitled spheres by Helen Pashgian, 2018–2021.


Known for site-specific land-based installations, Nancy Holt literally took art out of the box—the gallery and museum space—and placed it in a more expansive setting. Holt, who moved to Galisteo in 1995 and died in 2014, is best known for work that’s monumental in scale. Completed in 1976 in the Great Basin Desert, Sun Tunnels consists of four 18-foot concrete tubes, each one nine feet in diameter, arranged in a cross formation. Aligned with the solstices and the surrounding Utah landscape in the traditions of archeoastronomy, each tube bears the name of a specific constellation.

The concept of the relative nature of light, its reflection, its shadow, and how integral they are to one another forms a conceptual underpinning of Shadow and Light, which runs through April 28 and includes precursors to Holt’s epic installation. Mirrors of Light II (1974), composed of 10 circular mirrors and a 650-watt quartz light, is an immersive experience that captures the ephemeral nature of light and its constancy, perhaps drawing inspiration from the waxing and waning of celestial spheres. Light reflecting from the mirrors along one wall, like sunlight from the moon, glimmers on an opposite wall.

"Three-Part Serial Cube Set" by Charles Ross at Vladem Contemporary.

New Mexico’s expansive vistas, its colors, and its light have drawn artists for more than a century. The contemporary perspective, expressed in a variety of media, including painting, installation art, new media, photography, and sculpture, internalizes the outer experience of place. Holt’s work, for instance, brings a sense of the cosmic indoors, using light and shadow as both the medium and the subject. Similarly, Shadow and Light honors the movements and people who continue to inspire New Mexico’s resident artists and newcomers alike.

“I was thrilled to learn that our collection includes Three-Part Serial Cube Set by Charles Ross,” Terry says of another land artist, whose massive earthwork Star Axis, under construction on the eastern plains of New Mexico and slated to open in 2026, is a superlative example of the movement.

Gallery 2 features Yayoi Kusama’s peppy 2015 stainless steel "Pumpkin."


The artistic movement known as Light and Space encompasses a broad spectrum of Op Art, minimalism, and land-based art, among other artistic styles and themes. Like Holt’s work, it takes the perceptual phenomena of light and scale as its concern, often focusing on large-scale exterior works that are site-specific.

Many artists associated with the movement, which grew out of the 1960s Southern California art scene, settled in New Mexico, including Larry Bell and Bruce Nauman. The affinity between those artists and our state is perhaps one of inspiration and immersion. Their outdoor works, whether located in New Mexico or not, reflect the inner/outer experience of such a light-drenched place, where shadows from passing clouds can change the colors on the landscape and light illuminates the terrain’s jewel tones.

Such opalescent timbres can be found in the untitled spheres of California-based artist Helen Pashgian, an early member of the movement. Pashgian’s spheres, on display in the second-floor gallery, capture light in solid form. Like striated patterns in the earth, color bands ring the circumference of these resin-and-epoxy sculptures. But the eye sees past the reflections on their surfaces to the objects’ essence: prismatic light.

"Shadow and Light" provides fresh insight into artists and movements that inspire the creative pulse of New Mexico.


Santa Fe sculptor Erika Wanenmacher reveals the infinite and the eternal in the here and now, whether she’s creating large-scale sculptures—such as the Time-Traveling Interdimensional Spider in Meow Wolf’s permanent fixture, House of Eternal Return—or using her medium for commentary on some of the darker ambitions born in New Mexico.

Stealth to Bring You Home, part of a larger body of work called I Stole Stealth, Coyote Taught Me, draws on the power of the trickster Coyote, whose spiritual descendants inhabit this land. The 3½-by-5-foot sculpture, on view in Shadow and Light, is modeled on stealth aircraft. Made of painted balsa wood, the aircraft’s surface includes light-emitting diodes that mimic the constellations of a celestial map like those that guide sailors at sea.

Erika Wanenmacher’s "Stealth to Bring You Home," 2007.

Wanenmacher takes militarized technology and inverts its meaning and purpose to reveal the long shadows of the military-industrial complex in New Mexico.

“I was thinking about some of Coyote’s attributes and what I could learn from him,” Wanenmacher says of the series, which was first exhibited at Santa Fe’s Linda Durham Contemporary Art in 2007. “I wanted to steal objects of power that were highly valued back for good use. When I made that show, stealth technology was in the news a lot. They flew out of Holloman Air Force Base, and you would see them sometimes overhead. They were super creepy and evil looking.”

By coincidence (or not), shortly after I Stole Stealth premiered, the stealth fighters that Wanenmacher used as a model were retired from the Air Force.

Vladem Contemporary, named for donors Ellen and Bob Vladem, opened in September in the city’s Railyard Arts District to grow the Museum of Art’s contemporary collection.


A long legal battle and a global pandemic delayed Vladem Contemporary’s opening. The former highlights long-held concerns over gentrification in a city that’s fought for centuries to retain its identity.

Now settled, the legal struggle involved Gilberto Guzman, the lead artist of the 1980 mural Multicultural, which adorned the street-facing side of the Halpin Building for more than 40 years. During the museum’s construction, the mural was deemed unsalvageable, which led to community protests. Many felt a greater effort was needed to preserve the Indo-Hispano narratives of the artists who worked on the mural. After all, their voices are a critical component of the contemporary art scene the museum purports to preserve and promote.

The Multicultural mural led by Gilberto Guzman is part of the museum’s origin story. Photograph by Steve Gleydura.

In a 2021 settlement, Guzman agreed to lead a team of artists in creating a 24-foot replica of Multicultural for the Vladem lobby. In this, the controversy became a teachable moment for the state’s museum system, highlighting the disparity between museum mandates and the perception of art institutions as elitist entities.

Now, the wooden beam that once hung outside the Halpin Building bearing a quote often attributed to Winston Churchill—“A nation that forgets its past has no future”—is displayed inside. It’s preserved alongside a scale replica of the Multicultural mural and an interactive kiosk where visitors can absorb the history of both the mural and the activism it has generated over the years. The Vladem’s uneasy start is now part of its identity.

Virgil Ortiz’s high-fire and glazed "Kailer Nopek" and "Jai Nopek," 2022, "Recon Watchman."


Born at Cochiti Pueblo in 1969, artist and fashion designer Virgil Ortiz has been re-imagining the 1680 Pueblo Revolt in his work for decades. The uprising, in which regional pueblos overthrew Spanish colonial rule, led to 12 years when Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors (once the seat of power in New Spain and now part of the New Mexico History Museum) was under Indigenous control. The resistance forever changed colonial governance in the region. In Ortiz’s newest works, an event in the not-too-distant future reflects the sign on the museum’s first floor that warns of what happens when a nation forgets its past.

In imposing outfits made of postapocalyptic armor that reflects a distinctively Cochiti aesthetic, Ortiz’s massive ceramic busts Kailer Nopek, Jai Nopek, and Mitz Nopek comprise the Recon Watchmen. They’re Indigenous sentries from the world of tomorrow, where self-determination is decided not just by a genocidal state but by the aftermath of environmental catastrophe.

In Shadow and Light, the Recon Watchmen and their shields, or ha’pons, inhabit Ortiz’s ongoing project Pueblo Revolt:1680/2180. Made with high-fired clay and glazes, the busts and shields were a collaboration with South Korean artist Soojin Choi, who did the surface finishing. Ortiz’s project is an example of Indigenous Futurism, a Native-centered art movement that explores both the past and present in the landscape of an imagined future.

Angela Ellsworth's "Pantaloncini Double Untitled (Agnes)," 2019.


Growing up in the United States in a family of Mexican descent, Chicana multidisciplinary artist and educator Cristina González strives to link her present-day experience with her ancestral past. New Mexicans’ preoccupation with history provides contemporary artists with a foundation for both point and counterpoint—for embracing and expanding on the past through innovation, while also questioning, challenging, or rejecting longstanding artistic traditions altogether.

González’s Window Box Project, located next to the museum’s entrance in the Barbara Foshay and Thomas C. Turney Alcove, is the first in a series of planned commissions featuring work by emerging New Mexico artists.

González’s Apapachando la Matria is visible from the exterior and does not require admission. “Apapachando is a word that means ‘to hold with tenderness, to caress with the soul,’ ” González says in a recorded interview for the museum project. “La Matria is an internal space of knowing, a matriated space within.”

The Vladem’s commitment to its collection includes a rotating view of works in storage.

Created using acrylics, collage, and ink on amate paper—a type of bark paper that was used in the creation of Mesoamerican codices and is still in use today—her project combines ancestral imagery with familial portraiture. “Particularly for Chicanos, Chicanas in the United States, it can be very hard to reclaim ancestral memory,” the Santa Fe–based artist continues. “It’s like a weave, and we don’t know where every thread in that weave exactly comes from.”

In that way, Apapachando la Matria is a fitting first installation for the ongoing Window Box Project. It nods to the museum’s original open-door policy and its Alcove exhibitions while reviving an emphasis on free public engagement.

González may as well be summing up the Vladem Contemporary’s mission when she says, “The Southwest is all part of my heritage. Where do I find a relationship to land? So much of what I’m trying to do is remember through the work. My effort is to synthesize that heritage and the images and patterns and colors of that heritage with contemporary forms, materials.”

Read more: A new exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art elevates a traditional form of folk art.

Michael Abatemarco’s love for contemporary art was nurtured at the New Mexico Museum of Art, where he was a guard for 12 years.


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Many New Mexicans affectionately view the state as off-center: It’s a part of the Union that nevertheless retains a unique identity rooted in both Indigenous culture and Spanish colonization. In a region where art and tradition are closely linked, “off-center” also reflects a view on art that deviates from the norm. New Mexico’s artists challenge the status quo.

Vladem Contemporary’s next exhibition, Off-Center, opens in June. “Off-Center is a joint project, so all the curators at the museum have been working on it together,” says Christian Waguespack, who serves as head of curatorial affairs at the New Mexico Museum of Art. The show covers New Mexico’s contemporary art scene from the 1970s through the 1990s. “It’s going to be a yearlong exhibition, and the way we approach it is to have three rotations,” he says. “My version will be about how artists engage with a sense of place.”

“Working alongside my curatorial colleagues on Off-Center has allowed me the time to look more deeply at the museum’s collection while gaining insight into this vibrant time, 1970 to 2000, in Santa Fe’s art history,” says Alexandra Terry, the curator of contemporary art.

Off-Center draws from the museum’s permanent collection to a greater extent than Shadow and Light, about 60 percent of which is from the museum’s holdings. “Over the course of that year, it will be the same exhibition, but people will be able to come back and get different takes on it,” Waguespack says.