In mid-October, Creative Santa Fe announced it would "move into an inactive state effective Nov. 1."
What this means precisely is a little murky, but the logistical and economic reality of COVID-19 has affected the nonprofit as it has so many others, and though there's at least one last initiative in the pipeline for now, the future remains uncertain: The organization's executive director, Cyndi Conn, is stepping down. But as we learn to navigate a world wherein congregation—the core of Creative Santa Fe's work—remains tricky at best, it's worth it to look at some of the positive impacts the organization has made over the last 15 years.
Describing exactly what Creative Santa Fe does is honestly kind of hard. The nonprofit has certainly been a fixture of the Santa Fe arts world for nearly two decades, and in that time accomplished some pretty major things (recent developments like the Siler Yard affordable housing project and the Virtual Lemonaid concert for COVID-19 in May, for example) under its mission, namely to leverage the creative community in the interest of collaborative community impact. Still, chances are if you ask someone about 'em, that person won't know much other than they maybe have been to a talk, a networking event or heard the name bandied about.
"We help broker," says Conn, who has spent the last decade helming the organization as its public face. "We bring together collaborators and partners who typically wouldn't be in a room together. The thing we do is build trust. And we use the arts and the artistic process to reframe how we think about issues."
Nine-and-a-half years ago, Conn was working in the gallery game as a curator, and as she moves on to an exciting mystery project in Park City, Utah (seriously, she can't tell us what it is), she's been in reflection mode.
"I didn't know anything about city policies, economic development—I didn't have any goals," she says of her early days with the nonprofit. "Bill Miller, our board chair, was the one who tapped me, and he said he felt like we could do something to really reignite the creative community and economy in Santa Fe."
"I think we just started talking about the possibilities," Miller tells SFR of his first meeting with Conn in 2011. "The notion was that we didn't know exactly what we wanted to do, but we wanted to do something; Cyndi was attracted to the notion that we could have an impact in Santa Fe. One of the great things about Cyndi is her growth from that point to today. It's been astounding."
This included projects like the Disruptive Futures Dialogue Series, a number of talkback sessions wherein creative leaders and others looked to identify and address community issues, and the Creative Mingle arts-based networking events.
Looking to perhaps the most concrete, or at least lastingly and tangibly meaningful, example of Creative Santa Fe's efforts, however, the Siler Yards Arts+Creativity housing project is set to open for applications soon. Its very existence, in part, is thanks to Conn's efforts. Through Creative Santa Fe, she not only managed to get the city to donate 5 acres of land in Midtown, she raised funds, swayed politicians and made sure any development dollars stayed in the community.
"There's just such a need for affordable housing in Santa Fe, and obviously there still is," Conn says. "We worked with [artist's live/workspace developer] ArtSpace in Minneapolis at first, just finding out if it was a project that was really worth our time—but when everything came back saying that this was something we absolutely needed to do, we made a requirement that the lead developer had to be local."
Creative Santa Fe put out an RFP for just that, and the winning group was New Mexico Interfaith Housing.
"They did a bunch of ground work [on the project], and at that point in 2014, we started leading the functional part of the development—they helped in raising that money that's hard to raise," says Daniel Werwath, executive director of New Mexico Interfaith Housing. "Creative Santa Fe gave us the ability to pursue a project that's untested and unconventional. They really helped get the project through hurdles, both internal and external."
In other words, Conn and Creative Santa Fe not only brokered the land deal, they managed to raise charitable contributions for a housing space that will only be available to people making under a certain amount of money—no easy task. There will be other unannounced criteria for applicants as well.
"[Conn and Creative Santa Fe] did some really critical things I wasn't able to do, which were to get city councilors onboard and get some conceptual commitments from the city," Werwath explains. "I don't think we would be where we are if they hadn't catalyzed that work."
Looking to more recent affairs, Conn spearheaded Virtual Lemonaid, an early pandemic online concert featuring Buffy Saint-Marie and David Byrne, as well as New Mexico artists like Luke Bern Carr, A Hawk and a Hacksaw and Nacha Mendez. Through that event, Creative Santa Fe raised over $61,000 for the All Together New Mexico Fund and the Santa Fe County Connect Fund.
As for the future, Creative Santa Fe has at least one last trick up its sleeve for now—the Santa Fe Data Platform. A collaboration with the Thornburg Foundation, the Santa Fe Community Foundation, Meow Wolf, Southwest Care and Con Alma, the goal is to look at how data might be used to run a better city.
"There are so many cities using predictive data to make more informed policy decisions [and address things like] hospitals, hotels and tourism departments," Conn says. "They have a much clearer sense of the health of the community."
Exactly how that will all shake out remains unknown. There's the pandemic to consider, of course, and that pesky inactive status. Conn will continue overseeing the project as an independent contractor, though she's not sure when we'll start to see results. In the end, though, she believes it will all be more than worth it.
For now, however, it appears it's time for Conn to take a bow and head out into the sunset.
"I know better than to have any sort of prediction about where my life is going to go, but Santa Fe will always be one of my home bases," she tells SFR. "It's stating the obvious, but right now we need new ways of communicating…creative problem solvers. The arts are such a good vehicle for that."