By Andrew Lovato
Art has always played a profound role in Santa Fe’s cultural character. From the city’s founding in 1609 to the present, art has sustained and been integrally entwined with “The City Different” throughout its storied history.
The current impact of art on the local economy cannot be overestimated. Revenue that the local art market generates is a major engine in Santa Fe’s contemporary economy. Indeed, in addition to northern New Mexico’s landscapes, the main factors that have made Santa Fe a major tourist destination for over one million visitors a year are its cultural heritage, history and the art that reflects this legacy.
Indian Market alone, which is held annually during a weekend in August, brings thousands of visitors. Spanish Market also brings the city far-reaching distinction. The galleries and shops that line Canyon Road and the Plaza are a virtual wonderland of art and creative expression. Venues such as the annual International Folk Art Market and Meow Wolf are more recent additions to the Santa Fe arts scene.
Music literally fills the air, ranging from the renowned Santa Fe Opera, the Lensic Performing Arts Center, Santa Fe Bandstand’s free performances on the Santa Fe Plaza, to many street musicians that play on street corners downtown.
Art museums, the Institute for American Indian Arts, the Santa Fe Art Institute, book readings, live theater, clubs and concerts, film festivals and the abundant weekly art happenings make the city a true cultural Mecca.
Santa Fe’s history attests to the fact that art has always been central to the culture and identity of its people. This symbiotic relationship can be traced throughout the centuries.
The earliest Santa Feans occupied an area around the Santa Fe River sometime about 1050 A.D. These ancestors of Pueblo people wove blankets, baskets and sandals, using yucca and other fibers. They utilized pottery, basketry and textile weaving as part of their everyday living and incorporated distinct artistic applications into these items. Contact with the Spanish led Pueblo artists in new directions. They combined the turquoise that they considered sacred with silver to create their unique jewelry after the Spanish introduced silver mining to the Southwest.
When the railroad arrived in Santa Fe in the 1880s, Pueblo artists responded to the new demand for their art by creating items intended for the tourist market. Throughout the 20th century, interest and demand continued to grow in the U.S. and internationally for Pueblo art. Well known Pueblo artists include Helen Cordero of Cochiti Pueblo, who produced the popular storyteller clay figures, and San Ildefonso potter Maria Martinez, who created the now–famous black-on-black pottery in the early 1920s.
The first Spanish colonists who accompanied Juan de Oñate to northern New Mexico in 1598 encountered difficult living conditions. Few of the amenities they were accustomed to in Mexico and/or Spain were available. Their lot did not improve during much of the 17th and 18th centuries. The isolation of the Spanish colonists led to the development of a unique folk culture in Santa Fe and northern New Mexico. The artwork produced in this environment has been called “the most important manifestation of folk art in this country, and is in fact the only non-Indian religious art native to it.”
Spanish colonial art was primarily religious in content. It reflected the importance of the Catholic faith in the identity of the culture. These works of art were more than just pleasant luxuries for the colonists. These objects were “cultural necessities,” which carried great symbolic weight. Spanish colonial art maintained the colonists’ connection with their roots, their community of origin. The importance of these works was magnified, given the remoteness of their environment and the need to maintain a link to faith and cultural identity.
The nature of the art scene in Santa Fe was dramatically influenced by new immigrants, Anglo artists primarily from the eastern United States. They were among the first Anglo-Americans to settle in the Santa Fe and Taos areas. By the early 1900s, Santa Fe was gaining a reputation among American artists from the east as an interesting place in which to work, and many of the artists who visited the area decided to stay.
The Anglo artists were drawn to Santa Fe and Taos by the natural scenery, the unique, luminous light and the area’s isolation. Fed by a generation of dime-store novels, the painters’ imaginations in turn produced a visual component for what would become the Taos-Santa Fe “mystique.” Stylized, transcendent images were an extremely effective form of unintentional tourist promotion and fueled the beginnings of Santa Fe’s tourist industry.
During the 1920s and 1930s, the Santa Fe art colony became established and a number of small galleries were established. Although it was not easy for the Anglo artists to support themselves financially, and many had to supplement their incomes by relying on other skills, they established a foothold in the community and helped shape the character of Santa Fe.
The roster of artists who came to paint in the region was impressive. Among the most famous were Andrew Dasburg, Randall Davey, Gustave Baumann, Will Shuster and Marsden Hartley.
The artist who is most closely associated with Santa Fe and northern New Mexico for the American public is Georgia O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe first visited Taos in 1929. She soon began to paint in northern New Mexico during the summer months and finally became a resident of Abiquiú in 1949. O’Keeffe’s paintings of skulls, hills, flowers and crosses have become synonymous with New Mexico to many people. One of the most popular current attractions in Santa Fe is the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, which features her work.
The Santa Fe that we know today owes its character to artistic traditions that span the centuries and to the diverse cultural groups that have called the city home. It is impossible to give credit to the myriad of artists and influences that have touched the community over time. However, it seems clear that the continuing spirit of creativity will endure into the foreseeable future and make Santa Fe a unique place to visit and live.
Andrew Lovato is Santa Fe City Historian and Associate Professor at Santa Fe Community College. He is author of several books about Santa Fe history and culture.