ONE WINTER DAY IN SANTA FE, I WALKED along Rodeo Road, camera in hand, seeking inspiration. I was also on the verge of tears. I was depressed—haunted by a future that seemed to be slipping from my grasp.
Last fall, after quitting my job at Pasatiempo, the weekly magazine of the Santa Fe New Mexican where I’d covered art and culture full-time for a decade, I was determined to find myself. I wanted to explore creative impulses of my own. But on this day—out of money, coffee, and groceries—I still wasn’t ready to return to work. I was at a crossroads, and the right direction remained elusive.
That had always been my problem, I reflected. There was a calling out there with my name on it, always at the edge of my seeing but ever indistinct. As a kid, I wanted to be a dog, then Indiana Jones, then a filmmaker. I made a go at painting in the late 1980s and early ’90s, but I dropped out of Massachusetts College of Art and Design in my second semester. I tried acting, completing a year at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where you had to be invited to attend the second-year program. I wasn’t putting in the effort, so I didn’t expect a callback. I didn’t get one.
AFTER MOVING TO SANTA FE, I TOOK A STATE JOB in museum security, which had morphed into a quasi career. Having spent 14 years at three museums in two states, that’s how I felt about it. It was a mostly entry-level position that required few skills—the bottom rung of the museum ladder, though every ladder needs one. As security sergeant at the New Mexico Museum of Art, in Santa Fe, I took pride in the fact that I was contributing, in some small way, to the preservation of an artistic patrimony while learning—every single day—about art.
The museum’s tour guides and curators put the art in its historical context, which planted a seed I wanted to grow. After a short time absorbing the museum’s collection, I saw New Mexico as a crossroads. For a fledgling art enthusiast, it seemed like the center of the universe, but I felt its significance to the art world at large remained underappreciated. As I spent my days watching visitors come, marvel, and go, that seemed to be changing. I could help foster the change.
That meant understanding and appreciating the flow of creativity that comes out of the region’s storied and often disturbing past. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680, for instance, lives today in the works of Jason Garcia (Santa Clara), Virgil Ortiz (Cochiti), Bryon Archuleta (Ohkay Owingeh/Santa Clara), and other artists of the Indigenous Futurisms movement. When I began working in New Mexico, I knew nothing about the Pueblo Revolt. Artists, not history books, opened my eyes.
Museum guarding gave me time to see.
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On a quiet day of guarding, you can only read the text panels so many times and run through the same musical track list in your mind without going batty. But looking at the art itself presents a window onto endless interpretations and perspectives. Even at its most unambiguous, a picture on the wall can bring mystery and magic into the viewer’s world.
At the New Mexico Museum of Art, I fixated on Gerald Cassidy’s painting Cui Bono? (circa 1911), which depicts a Taos Pueblo man on the eve of New Mexico’s admittance into the Union. The portrait prompts the viewer to consider what good is gained through the appropriation of Indigenous lands. The title is Latin for “Who benefits?”
Cassidy (1869–1934) was a founding member of the Santa Fe Art Colony in the early 20th century. Cui Bono? depicts a life-size Taos Pueblo man, dressed in gleaming white. His weathered face stands out in contrast to his dress, along with the sand-hued pueblo and pale-blue mountains in the background. Cassidy avoided romanticized depictions of Indigenous lifeways. The figure’s piercing gaze is a challenge to the viewer. His eyes don’t leave you, regardless of where you stand in relation to the painting. He looks straight into your soul, passing an unspoken, unknown judgment.
A guard in a room with Cui Bono? is never alone.
I used the masterworks surrounding me to make connections between my studies. (I earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of New Mexico in 2010.) The history of New Mexico’s Indigenous artists, its colonial past, and its thriving contemporary moment swirled into a blaze that sustained my interest and kindled new passions. Every nod to the past I read into a contemporary piece of art was an affirmation that the past was also prelude—a key bit of information for any casual viewer of New Mexico art.
One such connection between the ages seems explicit in the work of Albuquerque-based photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. I saw it in his homage to Diego Velázquez’s 1656 masterpiece of the Spanish Baroque, Las Meninas. Witkin restaged the composition using live models for his 1987 version, which is also in the collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art.
Velázquez depicted himself in the work in his role as court painter, creating the portrait of King Philip IV and Queen Mariana of Spain, whose reflections can be seen in a mirror on a back wall in the composition. That would place them in the same position as the viewer, giving one pause to consider whether Velázquez assumed anyone standing before his masterwork was royal or noble, too.
Witkin’s photograph retains this feature of the original, since the portrait is a reflection. Witkin also follows a long tradition in creating studio photographs using lifeless objects that recall the Italian Renaissance genre of natura morta and still-life painting. The inclusion in Witkin’s works of memento mori (reminders of death) is a recognition that life is ephemeral. Often enough, it’s the beauty of a Witkin image that grabs us before the grotesque reality of what we’re looking at—severed genitals, a disembodied head—sets in. By then, it’s too late to look away. He’s already shown us another side of humanity.
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“I don’t photograph nice things, timid things,” Witkin once told me. “I photograph things that are challenging and promote thought and individual reckoning.” But he shows these things in a “nice” way—meaning in an artistic way. This seminal New Mexico artist invites the viewer to reflect on mortality using the classical lexicon of art history. His work sets up a confrontation between past and present, life and death.
When a former curator at the museum presented an exhibition of New Mexico modernists that struck me as Eurocentric, and downplayed the significance of the region’s influence, artists, and styles, I complained to another curator. She suggested I write a sample review and run it by the publisher of a local arts magazine. My freelance career was off and running. Museum security leaves little room for advancement, and the pay is low. Writing was a way out.
Using my rapidly developing powers of observation, I found ways to expand on the universality I saw in local and regional art forms, and to express what I saw to a larger audience.
For example, Santa Fe sculptor and santero Arthur López creates works rooted in tradition while using the past to reflect on the contemporary moment. López, a graphic designer and self-taught artist, studied masterpieces of the Spanish Colonial santero tradition at local museums. His take on the early Christian martyr San Sebastian shows up in the form of a tattoo on the back of a handcuffed norteño, carved in wood, establishing a striking image that speaks to the lasting power of religion. He’s doing the same thing that Witkin is doing, only using a language that is intrinsic to Hispanic New Mexico.
But López isn’t just an innovator. His work challenges the status quo. His saints walk among us: Joseph drives a lowrider across the heavens, the Holy Family in tow; St. Benedict the Moor is depicted as a vaccine-administering doctor in the era of Covid-19; San Miguel crushes the devil beneath his wheels at a monster-truck rally. López works in an idiom that all people understand.
The public tends to view galleries and museums as a playground—and often a showcase—for the elite. Santa Fe has its share of boutique galleries. But within that local system, there’s also opportunity for a talent like López to make a name for himself regionally, nationally, and internationally, which he has. An oft-repeated sentiment by artists I’ve interviewed over the years goes something like this: “In New Mexico, the pressure is off. I can make the work I want to make.”
Remembering those words on that winter day, I felt a pressure of my own begin to dissipate. Like Wile E. Coyote, I was suspended in that moment before a fall, somehow defying gravity. I looked around at the winter day: the pastel sky, its clouds seemingly painted by a brush swirling above me in smoky tendrils, the world gleaming bright and clean.
I hauled out Moneypenny, my trusty old Pentax K1000, then stopped. I wanted to appreciate the moment. In that instant, I didn’t have to be anything—not a painter, an actor, a writer, or even an amateur photographer. I could just look, like I did when I was a guard.
In New Mexico, the pressure’s off.
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TIPS FROM MUSEUM SECURITY
Engage them about the art. You may be surprised by what guards know. They absorb a lot from museum walls and from tours with curatorial staff and guides, which guards are often required to attend. Senior security staff work more closely with curatorial, collections, and administrative staff than most people realize. If they don’t know something, they’ll likely refer you to someone who does.
Ask before doing. They’ll be the first to tell you not to touch the art or to turn off the flash on your camera, but if you’re not sure, ask. State museums in Santa Fe allow photography, but using a flash is typically not allowed: the light can damage works of art, particularly works on paper.
Rely on their training. Museum guards are a point of contact in the event of an emergency, often trained as first responders, and may be certified to administer aid while medical technicians are en route. They can also direct foot traffic during an evacuation. Potential security issues are addressed during the planning and execution of any exhibition.