With Indian Market just four months away, a movement is afoot to perhaps give it some competition. A petition launched this month on change.org “to let the SWAIA/BOD, artists, supporters, and general public know we declare our support of a New Market led by John Torres Nez.”
It came as a reaction to Torres Nez abruptly stepping down from the Southwestern Association of Indian Arts—the organization that stages the yearly event, where he had held the title of chief operating officer since October 2012.
Many artists rallied around Torres Nez, some even changing their social network profile images to the Star Wars “Rebel Alliance” insignia—just like Torres Nez had. All the while, the former COO has remained silent on the issue citing “legal reasons,” and many have speculated as to his motives.
On April 12, SFR posted an online article to alert readers about the petition and its alternate motive of creating a “for the People, by the People” Indian Market-style spin-off.
“The petition itself is very interesting because basically, in our view, [it] is very confusing as to what they really want,” says Stockton Colt, chairman of SWAIA’s 14-member board. “It appears that the goal is to set up some sort of a new market, but they talk about a lot of things in the process of doing that.”
Phoenix-based artist Nanibaa Beck (Diné/Navajo), who put together the petition, says its intention is straightforward.
“The mission of the petition was to start a conversation,” she says. “The conversation needs to start somewhere, and I feel that it allows us to figure out what direction this new market can take.”
In an interview with SFR, Colt avoided questions about the board’s (or his own) current relationship with Torres Nez, though he was swift to point out that he believed SFR’s online article regarding the petition was “filled with misinformation and some interesting innuendos.” Including, he says, “an allusion to financial irregularities.” For the record, no such statement was ever made. Though the article did mention the term “cash flow difficulties”—a direct quote from a press release sent by SWAIA on April 4 and posted on the organization’s official Facebook page.
“The actual petition, we feel, has no validity,” Colt elaborates. “She, Nanibaa Beck, uses the word ‘challenge’—that SWAIA is challenged—however, the reality of the petition signing of over 200 people is that less than 10 percent of those are artists.”
Colt says that proves the petition “has little value from that perspective.” He also states, “It’s certainly not reflective of the actual artists that are in Indian Market, because they are in very much deep support of SWAIA and feel that there are maybe only five, maybe 10 people, that are rabble-rousing.”
“I’m glad that he’s taken the time to look through the list…that says something,” Beck retorts.
As of press time, 387 people signed the petition, including former Indian Market artists, Torres Nez supporters and Tailinh Agoyo, SWAIA’s former director of public relations and marketing.
Agoyo made her departure public (also on Facebook) last weekend citing “a hostile environment where staff is demeaned, insulted and bullied on a consistent basis.”
She further went on to explain that on Feb. 14 she filed a letter of complaint against current chief development officer Charlene Porsild that was not acted upon.
“Until serious issues are addressed with the board, and not just put through the spin machine by SWAIA’s expensive new PR firm, I am so sorry to say, the situation will only get worse,” she continued.
That new PR firm is Albuquerque-based The Garrity Group, which per its website, “provides media relations, issue management, crisis communications, digital media training, marketing and event awareness.”
Tom Garrity tells SFR that SWAIA hired a third party to look into Agoyo’s claims and they were “found to be baseless.”
Colt says the SWAIA board has been shaking up the organization for the last two years, noting that Torres Nez was “an integral part” of that shake-up, which included instating him as leader as well as tweaks to the organization’s business model. (Torres Nez replaced Bruce Bernstein, who was ousted immediately following the 2012 market when the board refused to renew his contract.)
Another change, Colt says, was seasonal staffing. “Our sole goal is to support the families of the Native American artists—if we can do that in a less intensive way in terms of costs, we’re willing to do that.”
Colt vehemently says Torres Nez was not asked to take a pay cut. “He was also not asked to step down,” he says. The chairman clarifies that hours were reduced, which was “far better than laying off the staff.”
Torres Nez’ resignation remains a shock to SWAIA board members.
“We were surprised—and that’s not bullshit—when he resigned,” Colt says. “There was no indication he was going to resign from the organization.”
Torres Nez declined to comment for either the earlier web story or for this one, though he did say he’d be ready to speak out on the issue “very soon.”
The 93rd Indian Market is planned for the weekend of August 18. Colt says Porsild and the SWAIA executive committee will be at its helm.
He further brushes off any indication that the association is under financial duress.
“We’re gonna keep on doing our thing; we have a significant number of artists behind us, despite this silly petition,” Colt says. “The bottom line is that we’re staying on course.”
As far as any artists who chose to forgo market this year because of Torres Nez’ absence, Colt’s message is succinct: “Well, good luck to them.”