One afternoon late last summer, Elaine Ritchel wandered into the courtyard of the Historic Santa Fe Foundation on Canyon Road and pressed her palm against a wall. It was made of crumbling mud and rough straw—so different from the recently re-stuccoed outer exterior of the 1850s structure. Ritchel had been exploring different corners of the famous art street since moving to Santa Fe the previous winter, and this tactile moment instantly transported her into a bohemian history. “It feels so different from the exterior, like a living, breathing wall,” says Ritchel. “It gave me a glimpse into the past, when Canyon Road was mostly artists selling work out of their studios.”
In the last six months, Ritchel has recreated this moment many times with visitors from across the world as founder of Santa Fe Art Tours, a company that takes a decidedly experiential approach to its expeditions. Ritchel is an avid student of local art history, but many of the stops on her tours reveal an edgier, more contemporary side of the art scene. The young entrepreneur viscerally bridges Santa Fe's radical past with its rapidly changing present.
"When I was living in Albuquerque, I thought, 'Oh, Santa Fe is such a tourist town,'" says Ritchel. Her family moved from Bloomington, Indiana to Albuquerque when she was 14 years old. They would occasionally visit Santa Fe to attend art shows. "I think I read an article once that described Santa Fe as 'precious,' and that seemed perfect to me, especially compared to raw, gritty Albuquerque, which is so stark and expansive," she says. "Santa Fe seemed like this toy village of adobe."
When she arrived in Santa Fe, Ritchel had recently returned to New Mexico from a three-year stay in Croatia. She had earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in art history from the University of New Mexico and the University of Texas at Austin, respectively, and also completed some Croatian language courses. An internship at the UNM Art Museum sparked her interest in museum education. "Art history was the foundation and gave me the research skills, but then museum education was how I could transfer that love of art and what I was learning to a wider audience in a very personal way," she says.
In her time overseas, Ritchel fought bouts of homesickness by reading Mabel Dodge Luhan's memoirs. European modernism was her primary focus in college, but New Mexico modernism—and the expansive terrain that electrified the movement—became a new obsession. Struggles to obtain a work visa and start an independent museum education business in Croatia eventually propelled Ritchel back to the Land of Enchantment.
"A real pull for me back to New Mexico was the land," says Ritchel. "I can never really explain it, but I just feel really grounded here." After a few months in Albuquerque, she made the move to Santa Fe and worked her way into the art community. The "toy village" that Ritchel remembered quickly revealed itself to be a city packed with rich histories and invigorating contemporary art. "I was just pounding the pavement. There were so many galleries to see, and I realized that no one was really facilitating that," she says. "There were a lot of tour guides doing historic walks, but nobody focusing specifically on art. I thought, 'Well, I'm here, why not start?'"
Ritchel conducted her first tours on Canyon Road last December, guiding participants on a two-hour jaunt through three or four art spaces on what she calls "The Canyon Road Quickie." These tours often begin at Art House, the Thoma Art Foundation's noncommercial art space on Delgado Street that exhibits historic and contemporary new media work. The gallery's glowing, often interactive art pieces immediately shatter Canyon Road's reigning paradigm of crumbling adobe and stodgy landscape paintings.
"When I look for work to engage with on a tour, it can't just be a pretty picture," Ritchel tells SFR. "There has to be a conversation point, a point of entry. I look for things that spark compelling interpretations." She'll often pass out cards that prompt tour participants to interact with objects in unexpected ways and verbalize their gut reactions. Ritchel mashes up different art interpretation tools like the Feldman method (describe, analyze, interpret and evaluate) and museum-ed based techniques to create these activities.
These tactics reverse the roles of the tour guide and her participants. At Chiaroscuro Contemporary, Ritchel prompts her clients to examine at the work of sculptor and aerialist Jamie Hamilton from acrobatic angles and discuss what they see. At the Vivo Contemporary artist collaborative, she drums up a Q&A with an artist who's working in the space. "I always liken it to keeping things in my back pocket," says Ritchel. "I'll do a bunch of research on an artist and spend time with the work, but then I hold all that information close until we get to interpretation and I can link it to something that someone else has said."
Ritchel says Santa Fe's changing art scene has been an inspiration to her professional pursuits. Her unconventional approach to art exploration fits right into a new wave of creative energy here. "I definitely think something is happening in Santa Fe," she says. "There are all of these younger people, younger artists, and artists doing more contemporary work that you wouldn't expect to find in Santa Fe. It's kind of this undercurrent right now, which is all the more reason to have someone here helping visitors tap into it. It's very cool, and very unique."
Ritchel's tours are reservation-only, and can be arranged at santafearttours.com. In addition to her Canyon Road tours, she guides clients through galleries and museums in different art districts around town. She plans to launch a series of artist studio tours in the near future.