When judging a contest of aesthetics or serving as a jurist for a juried exhibition, one is stuck with the submissions that have been proffered. If very few works are of sufficient caliber, it's usually not possible to simply scrap the contest or cancel the show.

More often than not, frankly, choosing winners is a balancing act of compromises instead of a celebration of excellence. Still, the compromises routinely made by the City of Santa Fe Arts Commission, both in the selection and placement of public art and in terms of the annual poster contest—presumably in the name of democracy and diversity—are judgments that wear against integrity like the sea against the shore.

The poster contest is intended as "a marketing tool for the city" and entrants are allegedly judged "on artistic quality and their ability to effectively represent, market and promote Santa Fe as a creative city," according to the city's website.

Now, with the caveat that the judges are stuck with the submissions they get, I'm not slagging too hard the "artistic quality" of this year's recently announced winner. Certainly I would never be able to do such a thing with a fistful of pastels, but Lori Aguirre Snable's poster, "Santa Fe Mariachi" does little to suggest "creative city." The same has been true for a long succession of city posters (with perhaps one exception in memory). The quality of each piece might be debated endlessly, but the effectiveness of such a thing as a promotional tool is less subjective altogether.

Most recent posters might represent Española or El Paso or San Miguel de Allende just as effectively as they genuinely portray Santa Fe. Rather than suggesting a city ripe with creativity, they suggest a city with barely an original thought available, even among its supposedly rampant artist population. A photograph of an old adobe or a pastel of a group of mariachi musicians—even if it is captured through a canonized creative form like photography or drawing—is the predictable antithesis of creativity.

Predictability, of course, is what many residents and marketers of Santa Fe believe to be its strength. But the reasoning behind this—that it has worked for the past 100 years—is shaky at best. Fossil fuels also have worked for the last 100 years, but that doesn't mean we should use coal and oil as symbols of the future. And those who believe that to promote Santa Fe is to promote the past are going to wind up living in a dead city if they get their way.

If posters that are chosen by the Arts Commission to represent Santa Fe continue to have a feeling of reassuring blandness (musicians, adobe, a great big sky, oh my!), we should realize it is the same campaign that has been used for the Big Mac: You can count on it because it always tastes exactly the same.

It is a certainty that the Arts Commission believes itself to be representing a diverse population and a complicated cultural history, but the result is somehow a generalized, gauzy impression of an unremarkable place. Not surprisingly, this is the reaction I generally get from visitors who passed through Santa Fe for a few days and saw only the tourist sites and never scratched beneath the surface. "Santa Fe? Uh, it was OK I guess," is the reaction, especially among younger travelers.

But what makes Santa Fe an engaging community for those of us invested in it, what makes Santa Fe a city that can and should fund its Arts Commission, is everything that lies beneath that surface. For far too long we have believed it is the texture of the walls and the theater of cultural stereotypes that butter our bread. The soul of the city—and its enduring attractiveness—lies in the real activities of its people, not in the facades perpetuated by posters.

The Arts Commission is a significant spender of public monies. It's about time that money started being spent in the service of the real Santa Fe.