WITH ITS EYE-POPPING HOLLYHOCKS, bright ristras, and New Deal–era frescoes painted by Will Shuster, the courtyard at the New Mexico Museum of Art is a place of beauty and history. The museum’s collection includes the artists, many of them transplants like Shuster, who comprised the Santa Fe art colony, which saw its heyday before World War II. Still, despite the inviting elegance of its Pueblo Revival building, the 105-year-old museum is not anyone’s idea of the most happening place in town.
One evening at the museum this June, however, the sounds of Stevie Wonder gave way to a ranchera ballad. The molecules in the galleries’ rarefied air seemed to rearrange themselves. At Raashan Ahmad’s free two-hour DJ set, carefully crafted as a musical response to the exhibition Poetic Justice: Judith F. Baca, Mildred Howard, and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, a diverse crowd of mostly locals boogied down, singing along to nineties hip-hop while taking in social justice–focused artworks and poetry.
This kind of multicultural, multimedia, and multigenerational art happening is becoming commonplace in Santa Fe, heralding a new flowering of creativity at the nucleus of one of America’s most storied art scenes. Powered by the hard work and activism of recent arrivals and longtime residents alike, Santa Fe’s arts and culture landscape is embracing fresh ideas and perspectives. As the sharp, ultramodern profile of the art museum’s new Vladem Contemporary building rises in the Railyard District, grassroots collectives, upstart galleries, and community-minded artists are redefining the boundaries of Santa Fe culture, going beyond museum walls and traditional stages to make room for a new chorus of creative voices.
“Something is happening here,” says Ahmad. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.”
Chalk up the changes, in part, to younger creatives like Ahmad, who spent years breezing through town as a touring hip-hop artist before moving his family here in 2013. As the executive director of Vital Spaces, a nonprofit that helps to pro-vide art studios to under-represented people in Santa Fe’s commercial art scene, he plays a part in the explosion of opportunities for emerging and low-income artists. By repurposing the city’s empty spaces—untenanted buildings or properties awaiting redevelopment or sale—Vital Spaces nurtures a community of individuals who, given the current real estate squeeze, might otherwise be shut out of Santa Fe. (I was a lucky beneficiary: Vital Spaces granted me a writing studio for most of 2021.)
The organization also provides gallery space; a community art closet, where artists can choose tools for their arsenal from donated supplies; and a packed social schedule of openings, dance parties, art workshops, and events. One former Vital Spaces artist, Justin Rhody, has co-founded No Name Cinema, which offers by-donation screenings of historic and contemporary experimental films.
“I don’t think the city really realizes how much has changed,” says Ahmad, who also sits on the Santa Fe Arts Commission and co-founded the city’s Earthseed Black Arts Alliance in 2020. “So many people are here who are working on projects, opening up galleries, starting theater companies. There’s a whole lot of art and culture happening, especially at the beginning stages.”
Pointing to the profusion of new galleries, breweries, and coffeeshops in the Railyard District, he adds, “Even though a lot of sales come from tourism, people are thinking about how to make sure that locals are involved in Santa Fe. There’s a lot of awareness around how to make sure that when people are opening galleries or restaurants, they’re still making sure to keep the local traditions and local culture ingrained.”
The city’s most interesting creative energy is powered by artists who fill a void.
In 2019, Houston native Frank Rose founded Hecho a Mano, a print-focused gallery on Canyon Road, because he wanted to sell art at reasonable price points. “There weren’t a lot of galleries showing prints, and certainly not affordable prints,” he says. “It really felt like an opportunity to show this work here.”
Last spring, Rose opened Hecho Gallery, which centers on artists who live in New Mexico and Mexico. The second gallery is nestled into a historic building on Palace Avenue, a few doors west of the New Mexico Museum of Art. In the 1930s, the building housed arts maven Leonora Curtin’s Native Market, and it was home to the influential Elaine Horwitch Gallery in the 1980s and ’90s.
Santa Fe artists also mine the city’s complex cultural past for inspiration. Enrique Figueredo, a former Vital Spaces artist who has shown work at Hecho a Mano, emigrated from Venezuela as a child and has lived in Santa Fe on and off for more than a decade. Figueredo’s Pasó por Aquí series marries woodblock prints of mission churches to sandstone inscriptions from Spanish explorers who passed through what is now El Morro National Monument. The series also includes the mark-making of invasive bark beetles, or fir engravers, who score abstract hieroglyphs into trees in the national forests.
“The conquest was an invasive, destructive species,” says Figueredo, comparing Spanish colonists to the bark beetles. “The bark beetle and the inscriptions, together, I think, have that dialogue of destruction and conversion. I’m hoping that I’m creating a conversation by retelling an old story. Why not just tell it again, right? Especially right now, when a lot of people feel their rights are being challenged.”
The verdant fields of Reunity Resources community farm in Agua Fría village, now bursting with the produce of high summer, also tell a very old story. “There is archaeological evidence of agriculture in this river valley for at least 7,000 years,” says Reunity’s program director, Juliana Peterson Ciano.
In 2019, the self-described “regenerative nonprofit” took over the two-acre property previously known as the Santa Fe Community Farm and upcycled it with a soil and compost yard, a farm stand, a food truck, an education center, a community fridge packed with fresh and free produce, and a concert and event space. “We’re trying to look at our approach to food systems and health on both an immediate and long-term level,” says Ciano. “There’s a 10-day plan and a 30-year plan.”
Besides programs that promote food sovereignty and provide resources to younger and fledgling farmers, Reunity has emerged as a wildly popular arts venue. The outdoor stage plays host to everyone from toddlers in the Sunday-morning creative movement classes to bluegrass and electronic music acts. One Friday night this summer, I watched a crowd of Santa Feans dancing outside in the monsoon rains, enjoying both a burgeoning sense of community and a closer connection to the land.
Reunity’s farm is a favorite space of the Exodus Ensemble, a 11-person immersive theater troupe that made Santa Fe its home in 2020. Primarily made up of graduates from the Theatre School at DePaul University, in Chicago, the multicultural and geographically diverse group of actors, ages 23 to 34, was coaxed by director April Cleveland to relocate to New Mexico in the early days of the pandemic.
Most of the company members live together in a residence on the east side of town—and, in a seemingly fated callback to the days of the Santa Fe art colony, they perform at the 96-year-old Acequia Madre House, the onetime home of none other than Leonora Curtin. In the 1930s, the Curtin Theater hosted such artsy guests as Mary Austin and Witter Bynner. Now, Exodus’s roving, experimental production of Ivanov, based on a Chekhov play, takes audiences on a tour of the historic estate over the course of a nearly four-hour performance.
New York City native Kya Brickhouse, a performer with Exodus, says the success of the ensemble may not have happened anywhere else. “What keeps me in Santa Fe are the people. There is a sense of giving like no other, whether that be the art on the street or the donation model we’re able to operate under,” she says. “Especially as a Black artist, in a place where there’s not a lot of me, people are just so freakin’ welcoming. It makes sense that this is where I need to call home.”
Exodus members learned to honor another Santa Fe tradition originated by the last century’s artists: the annual burning of Zozobra. “We’d been here for maybe three days,” recalls Cleveland, “and I was like, ‘So guys, there’s this thing where they burn a massive effigy.’ ”
“I was into it!” exclaims Jayson Lee, an Exodus player who hails from Georgia.
“The idea of writing my glooms down and burning them is a practice that carries over multiple cultures anyway,” says Brickhouse. “It felt like I was already connected to this place in a different kind of way, coming from my background.”
In the face of splashy happenings created by newer artists, longtime residents are digging their heels into the arts and culture landscape to ensure they are represented. “Santa Fe has always been very good about using the very little resources we have for our community members to make the best of it,” says Alma Castro.
The second-generation owner of Café Castro on Cerrillos Road, Castro chairs the Santa Fe Arts Commission, where she focuses on creating artistic opportunities for the city’s immigrant, Hispana/o, and Southside communities. After taking over the day-to-day operations of serving New Mexican food at her family’s 32-year-old restaurant, she commissioned three murals at Café Castro that pay tribute to those roots.
Nuestra Señora de FantaSe, an outline of the Virgen de Guadalupe, was painted on the building’s stucco exterior in 2021. “Guadalupe is very much a symbol of resistance within our community,” says Castro. “It was painted by Reyes Padilla, a Santa Fe artist who moved to Albuquerque because there wasn’t support for him here.”
Castro says her community’s struggle for support from arts administrators is ongoing. But grassroots arts organizations like Alas de Agua Art Collective, an intersectional group devoted to uplifting marginalized artists, are helping. Alas de Agua’s commissioned mural at the café pays tribute to Indigenous people with a rendering of Quetzalcoatl.
Another mural, by Santiago Lucero, depicts Castro’s family members. “It speaks to the trajectory of migration,” Castro explains. “My mom is from here and my dad is from El Salvador. A lot of restaurants in town are run by my family members. It’s reminding us that our kitchen is so much bigger than just Castro’s, and so much bigger than Santa Fe.”
For Santo Domingo Pueblo artist Ricardo Caté, who draws the Without Reservations comic strip for The Santa Fe New Mexican, holding onto his place in Santa Fe’s Native arts scene meant deviating from tradition. For the past few years, Caté has eschewed applying for a booth at Santa Fe Indian Market in favor of the new Free Indian Market, begun in 2018.
With a mission “to honor the elders and respect the artists,” the alt-market was created by Gregory Schaaf to showcase artists that had not been juried into Indian Market by the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA). It has grown to feature nearly 600 Indigenous artists this year at Federal Park, just two blocks from Indian Market on the Plaza.
“I was really up for this concept of having a free market, with artists not paying for a booth or parking fees,” says Caté, who grew up helping his parents in their booth every year at Indian Market. “It intrigued me. I was one of the first artists to sign up for it.”
Free Indian Market, he says, embodies the original spirit of the 100-year-old Indian Market. “It’s the Pueblo people that pretty much started this whole thing, so I love the idea that it’s reverting back to that. A lot of these artists who really count on this show around this time of year—it’s their bread and butter—now they have this outlet. I really like Gregory’s concept of honoring not just the artists but the elders.”
Ahmad, Hecho’s Frank Rose, Reunity’s Ciano, and the Exodus artists are each careful to point out that as residents of Santa Fe, they are conscious of their occupation of unceded Tewa land. In tribute to the original artists of O’Ga Po’Geh, or White Shell Water Place, they see themselves as part of a long tradition of artistic synchronicity in what we now call Santa Fe. It’s the sense of a deep-seated creative community here—and the new shape it’s taking on—that intrigues everyone.
In the flower-filled courtyard of Iconik Lupe, a former Catholic school that was repurposed into a third-wave coffeeshop in 2018, members of the Exodus Ensemble tell me a story that illustrates the harmony they’re finding in Santa Fe. When the collective first moved to town, they lived on Artist Road, in a trio of adjoining casitas that were set to be demolished. One night, the lights inexplicably flickered off.
Uncertain of the cause, the group drifted up to the rooftop, where they had a discussion that ended in a collective communion. Forming a circle, they held hands and took a deep breath in unison.
“The moment we released the breath,” says Kya Brickhouse, “the lights turned back on.”
Go Where the Locals Go
“It’s my favorite place on the planet,” Vital Spaces executive director Raashan Ahmad says of Santa Fe. “There’s the tourist part, that’s kind of like Disneyland. But for the most part, a lot of folks are trying to find out where the other stuff lies.” We asked a few Santa Feans what they would do on a perfect day in town.
“On the way to fishing or hiking in the Pecos,” says Café Castro owner Alma Castro, “I’ll go out to either Harry’s Roadhouse or Café Fina. I like the huevos motuleños at Harry’s, but I’ll often get the blue corn piñon pancakes. And I love to get coffee at Dulce Capital.”
Exodus Ensemble director April Cleveland would start with a visit to the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market and Evoke Contemporary gallery in the Railyard. Dinner for Two, on North Guadalupe Street, “has the most extraordinary happy hour in Santa Fe, with eight drinks from $5 to $8.” In the evening, “I’d walk into the Railyard and hear some live music.”
Hecho and Hecho a Mano gallerist Frank Rose digs the lunch menu at Opuntia, a teahouse that also contains a greenhouse. For cutting-edge contemporary art by New Mexico artists, he endorses an afternoon spent browsing Title Gallery, Smoke the Moon, and The Bat and the Buffalo.
“I’ll go to the Pantry and have the Buenos Días—add vegan sausage, mushrooms, and avocado, scrambled eggs, Christmas,” says Exodus Ensemble member Kya Brickhouse. “I like to people-watch in the Plaza. I love Art Vault in the Railyard; it’s very inspiring. After dinner at Izanami, I might end up at La Reina [the bar at the El Rey Inn] and have a Negroni. Hopefully there’s live music and I can sit on the patio.”
Exodus member Jayson Lee recommends a milkshake at Kakawa Chocolate House, taking in a “cute little live event” at the Jean Cocteau Cinema, dinner at Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen (don’t miss the vegan flatbread), and “looking up at the stars in our backyard.”