Santa Fe: When the Old Meets the New

Santa Fe: When the Old Meets the New

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Luis Tapia, Northern New Mexico Woody (Penasco Truck), 2007
Photo/Courtesy of Owings-Dewey Fine Art.

Jack Kotz

For much of the 20th century, the art scene in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was synonymous with cowboys and Indians. Tourists expected- and found- Western genre paintings of wranglers on horseback, oil portraits of Pueblo Indians in native dress and traditional Native American pottery and textiles. While visitors can still find all those things in the "City Different," over the last two decades Santa Fe's artscape has changed dramatically- including a sharper focus on contemporary craft by non-native makers.

Craft has always played a key role in Santa Fe's art market-which is the nation's second largest, after New York City's, in sales. This town of less than 75,000 is home to some 250 galleries and six major museums, four of which emphasize craft-related artworks. The city's largest annual juried visual art events, all held in the summer, also celebrate craft: Indian Market, the world's preeminent sales venue for artwork by indigenous people; Spanish Market, where artists working in the 400-year-old Spanish Colonial traditions of New Mexico show their work; and the International Folk Art Market, which features artists of all kinds from across the globe.

The market for fine native craft in Santa Fe continues to grow. While many contemporary Indian ceramic artists make pottery using traditional designs, others are forging new territory. Virgil Ortiz's kinky figurative works combine the visual patterns of his native Cochiti Pueblo with that of tattoo art. Young artists such as Ira Lujan and Robert "Spooner" Marcus, have left behind ceramics for glass, but incorporate the imagery and forms of Pueblo ceramics into their work. Figurative ceramist Roxanne Swentzell's works are in such high demand they're now sold by her gallery, Hahn-Ross, through a lottery system. Similarly, artists who work in the Spanish Colonial tradition, like Luis Tapia and Arthur Lopez, now address political and social issues in their work as well as religious themes.

But since the mid-1990s, non-native contemporary craft has come to play a much larger role, and several new craft galleries are flourishing. Part of that is due to the increasing market for contemporary art of all kinds, acknowledges Ivan Barnett, who with his wife, Allison, started Patina Gallery in 1999. "The organic nature of Santa Fe as a place fits craft; we are a place of textures,'' he says. "Craft makes sense here; it's about the surface."

Jane Sauer, an internationally known fiber artist who since 2005 has operated Jane Sauer Gallery, believes the craft market in Santa Fe has grown because the categories separating art forms have become blurred. Craft and fine art are intermingling-even in her gallery. Though it focuses on fine craft-especially ceramics and textiles-in May she'll exhibit paintings alongside glass works, both by Noel Hart, an Australian artist. Another example Sauer cites is the work of ceramist Jun Kaneko (who shows at Chiaroscuro Gallery in Santa Fe). Once considered "craft," it now fits firmly into the "fine art" realm, she points out. "I think Santa Fe, appropriately, is a bit ahead of the game in terms of not being restrictive."

This is illustrated by the many longstanding fine art galleries that have always shown craft. Ken Marvel, co-owner with Robert Gardner of LewAllen Contem­porary, one of the city's largest fine art galleries, says their craft department is one of its fastest growing. "We see a sophisticated collector base that views a diversity of materials as enriching, and craft as yet another variety of fine art," he says. "Our passion for art does not end with canvas and paint.''

Nor does it end with New Mexico's borders. While some of the city's craft galleries focus on local artists, many show the work of artists from elsewhere in the nation and from other lands.Though Santa Fe is home to many talented and recognized craftsmen and women, the art market here-as everywhere-has become globalized, attracting artists and collectors from throughout the world.