At 88, Los Angeles-born artist Gilberto Guzman can't recall the name of the Santa Fe arts collective he joined when he first came to town in the 1970s, but he does remember that it was because he followed a woman here. His lady love worked as a nurse by day and wrote by night; Guzman painted and fell in with a collective of like-minded artists. With the help of those artists, he put up murals across town, some of which still stand on Canyon Road and Guadalupe Street—for now.
Indeed, as the much-ballyhooed Vladem Contemporary satellite branch of the New Mexico Museum of Art closes in on groundbreaking, Guzman's mural on the corner of Guadalupe Street and Montezuma Avenue, Multi-Cultural—painted in collaboration with artists Frederico Vigil, Zara Kriegstein and others in the '80s and '90s on the side of the Halpin Building and meant to portray Santa Fe's wide swath of inhabitants—has become an oft-discussed point of derision for Santa Feans. A cursory glance on Facebook, the SFR archives and national arts website Hyperallergic provides varying viewpoints on ancillary topics such as gentrification, respect of art and the realities of an aging mural on an aging building.
After several rounds of public comment and a recent redesign, the city's Historic Districts Review Board on Jan. 2 approved the most recent iteration by architect Devendra Contractor, and it appears Guzman's mural and its crumbling stucco will come down.
Until now, Guzman has remained silent, but in a two-page statement provided to SFR, he's finally airing some of his concerns.
"It is evident the Department of Cultural Affairs has not honorably disclosed the recent communications or the financial and community support to keep the mural…most importantly, they have not disclosed that the muralist has an existing state contract to redo the mural," the statement reads.
According to that contract obtained by SFR, on May 12, 1980, the New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration's Property Control Division (the state entity that owned the building before DCA) and Guzman entered into an agreement with the understanding that both parties would have certain rights and responsibilities, including that the property owner would own the mural while Guzman would have access to it for the entirety of "its natural life." Guzman says he conducted some upkeep over the years, even repainting the mural in the early '90s, but experts who weighed in at the recent H-board hearing, including Mark MacKenzie, the museum's chief conservator, have said that at this point, it's simply not feasible to save the mural for the long term.
"The New Mexico light and environment is really beautiful and has drawn artists here for centuries, and it's also really hard on outdoor artwork," says Michelle Gallagher Roberts, the acting executive director of the New Mexico Museum of Art. "The museum has really attempted in good faith to reach a meaningful engagement with Gilberto and the community on this mural."
The question remains whether Multi-Cultural has reached the end of its "natural life."
The H-board thinks so, as does the DCA, which has offered to compromise with Guzman in a variety of ways, including digitally printing the mural on panels or a digital projection, both of which would be shown inside the museum and, according to Gallagher Roberts, would be more readily preservable. Any new mural painted on the outside of the building, she says, would also be temporary.
"Ultimately, the issue is that all it would be doing is creating another problem down the road," she explains. "Even in 1980, it was understood that there's a finite lifetime for murals. Murals reach a point where there is no upkeep that can be done to prolong their life."
What many Santa Feans might not know is that in 2018, the Legislature approved an earmark from Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, for roughly $50,000 in capital outlay funds to address the future of the mural.
"We met with [the Department of Cultural Affairs], and they very patiently explained that their solution was to digitize it and…that it wouldn't work on the building as designed," Ortiz y Pino tells SFR. "What I was told was that to preserve it as it is, paint on a plaster surface, would be prohibitively expensive. The idea is, how do we preserve it in some fashion? They could do that for the $50,000 using digitized images."
Ortiz y Pino and Gallagher Roberts both say the allocation is still available—it's just a matter of coming to an agreement on how to use it. For its part, Gallagher Roberts says, the museum is still willing to discuss potential outcomes with Guzman who, by the way, says he'll take whatever happens next in stride. In a perfect world, he notes, some version of the mural could be preserved, but should Multi-Cultural come down, he'll stay pretty Zen about it.
"I came to the conclusion not too long ago: I'm retired, that's it," he says. "I am retired, whatever happens to it, I don't care. I did it once and twice, and I enjoyed the hell out of it."