Above: From left, Claude Smith, Suzanne Sbarge, and Josie Lopez at 516 Arts.

SUZANNE SBARGE FLEW out the back door of her family’s Connecticut home and into the woods. There, among New England’s maple and birch trees, the young girl set up galleries of twigs, rocks, errant feathers, and tufts of moss. She care-fully arranged her picks on pedestals and boulders for a makeshift exhibition of her treasures. “I’ve always been into the presenting thing,” she says, pinpointing the roots of her current work as executive director of 516 Arts, in downtown Albuquerque. Ever since that pint-size curatorial spin, Sbarge has pursued her own nature-inspired art, nurtured 516 into a welcoming upstart, and served as a major force in amping up downtown’s appeal.

Under her leadership, 516 pursues big names and hot topics—like 2018’s first exhibition, The U.S.-Mexico Border: Place, Imagination, and Possibility—and pulls them off with ambitious multifaceted showings that draw 12,000 visitors a year. When opening nights roll around, the 500 block of Central Avenue bursts into color, light, and music. Artists from all over the globe, local tastemakers, intellectuals, business bigwigs, and art lovers spill out of the gallery and onto the sidewalk. Passersby pause at the spectacle before they, too, dive in. Sbarge flits between conversations in her signature cat-eye glasses, her easy manner belying the amount of work that goes into each exhibition and its corresponding program of artist talks, gallery tours, readings, and workshops.

“The arts lead the way,” she says from across the table at Humble Coffee’s new downtown location, a jog across the street from 516.

As we speak, she pushes up the sleeves of her sweater; the trailing vines of a floral tattoo twist up her left arm. “Being around art that’s thoughtfully presented makes people more engaged. It’s contagious.”

The organization recently adopted a slogan, “Contemporary art for everyone,” and the impact of presenting high-quality, socially relevant work for free is spreading. The gallery doesn’t just transform Central Avenue on the occasional First Friday, but in concrete, long-lasting ways. In its 11 years, more galleries have opened nearby, and new businesses have cropped up. Joe Cardillo, director of the Downtown Arts and Culture District, credits 516’s emphasis on collaboration for attracting other entities—like CFA Gallery, the downtown arm of UNM’s art department—to a corridor that was once home to bars and little else. “One of the toughest challenges is simply to be consistent, and 516 has done a great job of that,” Cardillo says.

In a two-story building that over the years has housed the UNM Art Museum and multiple commercial galleries, 516 has filled the narrow corridors with exhibits of contemporary art from more than 1,000 local, national, and international artists. Upstairs, 516’s six staffers compress their offices into a single corner, so as not to detract from display space. Their desks look out on a rotating selection of pieces, like a deconstructed Mexican serape by El Paso’s Adrian Esparza. Stretched across pins on the west gallery wall, the threads are reimagined as brilliant bands of color pulled taut into geometric shapes. Colombia’s Jessica Angel once painted the floors and ceiling of a first-floor corner into an intergalactic landscape with neon-orange orbital lines bisecting a black background—a painting that visitors could step inside. Or they could enter a passage with thousands of paper moths rising across the walls and arcing overhead, such as New York City artist Hilary Lorenz created in a 2017 installation. In the large atrium and its street-facing windows, an ever-changing series of mural-size photographs, wood and clay sculptures, paintings, and mixed media look upon the downtown bustle. And that’s just a sliver of 516’s show-stopping work.

Sbarge, who says she’s “been a spokesperson for downtown since 1999,” can unpack a host of ups and downs she’s seen in the neighborhood over that span of time. These days, she charts an upward trend, citing the thoughtful architecture dreamed up and constructed by Humble Coffee’s owner, Mark Baker, the pioneering work of the Downtown Arts and Culture District, and new neighbors like the CFA and Central Features Contemporary Gallery.

She still possesses the c’mon-and-join-me verve she must have had back when she charged her parents a nickel to see her exhibits in their backyard. With the 516 staff, she builds connections among artists and galleries, businesses, the local community, and the broader world. Last year, as part of the expansive Cross Pollination exhibition, 516 worked with city government, realtors, developers, and another downtown gallery, the Sanitary Tortilla Factory. Together they brought to town Argentinean artist Pastel, whose murals bedeck walls in more than a dozen countries. On the heavily trafficked intersection of Tijeras Avenue and Second Street, he painted the drab and largely vacant Tower Plaza Building with colorful native plants thrown into colossal relief. Across two full city blocks, the building now bursts with flora that pollinators love. Narrow-leaved madrone trees with crimson berries clustered in their centers bend toward the sidewalk. The bell-shaped white blooms of aloysia turn skyward to soak in the high-desert sun. Together, the images transform an unremarkable urban stretch into a place where tourists pause to snap photos. Inside the building? Local artists snap up studio space.

“Right now, downtown is an exciting place to be, because there’s still this sense of possibility and freedom,” Sbarge says. “There’s a lot of people with ideas, and there’s lots of people that are excited about the role of arts in our city. Art changes the environment in a way that excites people.”

The city has also made its impact on Sbarge. After studying in Massachusetts, New York, France, and Italy, she came to the University of New Mexico for graduate school. First she fell in love with the natural environment. Then she met the artists and went head over heels. “There is a great sense of camaraderie here, so I felt like I fit in,” she says. Twenty-eight years later, those things still sustain her work. From her house on the banks of the Río Grande in Albuquer-que’s South Valley, she draws inspiration from the bosque, pouring it into 516 and her own mixed-media artwork.

In Sbarge’s collages, surreal landscapes spread across canvases that put human heads on bird figures and vice versa. In Haystack, a woman wearing the brilliant head of a cardinal stands on the reedy banks of a river. Plants that Sbarge might have collected as a child twist around the edges of a canvas or shoot from a subject’s head, reaching toward skies of otherworldly hues.

Despite the very full career she has forged as a visual artist, her greatest creative work, Sbarge says, could be what she engineers at 516—“social sculpture,” she calls it, rallying people around art to forge new ideas.

“Suzanne is a walking one-woman hub—a catalyst,” says Hakim Bellamy, Albuquerque’s first poet laureate and vice president of 516’s board of directors. Bellamy performed his slam poetry at 516 as part of a literary series during a 2012 exhibition on artificial intelligence. He went on to publish books, have his poems anthologized, and conquer a national poetry slam. He credits Sbarge with helping his career take flight. “Despite her status in this town,” he says, “she continues to keep her toes on the ground, connected to the pulse, to the street.”

For a girl who used to create exhibitions out of nature, it all comes back to feeling rooted. “Technically, I’m a transplant,” she says, “but this is home. It’s really inspiring to see how it all interconnects.”

The U.S.-Mexico Border: Place, Imagination, and Possibility opens at 516 ARTS on January 27, featuring works by more than 40 local, national, and international artists. Using design, architecture, sculpture, painting, and photography, they offer insights on geographical and artistic borders. Don’t miss the music and mingling at the opening reception, 6–8 p.m. Curator Lowery Stokes Sims is an alumna of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem. 516 Arts hosts special programs throughout the exhibit’s run, which ends April 24. 516 Central Ave. SW, Albuquerque; (505) 242-1445; 516arts.org