Thoma Foundation’s Railyard-based Art Vault expands on Art House promise

With countless cultural institutions struggling to maintain relevance and engagement during the great COVID-19 lockdowns of 2020, the Carl & Marilyn Thoma Foundation did the seemingly impossible—in late April, it expanded its public presence in Santa Fe from a small house just off Canyon Road (the aptly dubbed Art House) to a sprawling 3,500-square-foot exhibition space in the Railyard named Art Vault (540 S Guadalupe St., 428-0681).

Already a longtime supporter of arts, artists and those who consume the arts, the foundation’s move couldn’t have come at a better time. With NFTs dominating current arts conversations and museums shifting more toward virtual offerings, Art Vault’s marriage of traditional fine arts, digital works, film, sculpture and all points in between feels both relevant and progressive while maintaining a grip on actual physical works. At this point, one can’t underestimate how badly we need to get out into the world and find little bits of beauty, either, and Art Vault’s inaugural dual opening delivers.

Yes, you could see many of the works from Art Vault on a screen in your home, but unlike workshops, lectures or even just classic static images shared virtually, simply stepping inside the space feels adventurous. Formerly Gallery Fritz, the two-story space fits snugly beside hotshot Santa Fe galleries like Blue Rain and Evoke Contemporary. But under the watchful curatorial eye of Jason Foumberg, the foundation’s Chicago-based curator of digital art, Art Vault is currently spanning centuries and mediums in a way that ought to attract anyone from fine art purists to the SITE Santa Fe faithful, digital lovers and internet-savvy nerds. In a word, it’s excellent, but even more exciting than the concurrently running Networked Nature and Saint Somebody is the idea that an outfit like Thoma—which offers up free exhibits, collaborates with schools and awards grant and scholarship opportunities for artists, among other things—now has the room to properly spread out.

“It was our pandemic project,” Foumberg tells SFR of the new space’s creation. “We really began thinking about it while we were all working at home, and the space became available, so we curated it and installed it slowly.”

Granted, the scope of the Thoma Foundation’s collection is shrouded in some mystery, but is reportedly massive. Still, to conceive, plan and execute a cutting-edge space within a single year is frankly impressive. Still, Foumberg says, the process felt almost tedious to Thoma staff thanks in part to Carl Thoma’s business roots.

“When I’ve worked at museums, it’s like trying to steer a very large ship,” Foumberg explains. “Carl thinks more like an entrepreneur—he wants results and he wants them quickly. [Art Vault] has that startup energy.”

Startup does feel an appropriate line to draw. Intriguing pieces and audio abound right from the start. Encompassing an an entire wall a few steps from the door, Los Angeles-based digital installation artist Jennifer Steinkamp’s “Blind Eye 1” projects a looming, evolving birch forest. Nearby, Austrian team Sommerer & Mignonneau’s “Eau de Jardin” features an algorithm that responds to touch via hanging plants. COVID restrictions bar visitors from touching said plants just yet, but that’s hopefully coming soon. Elsewhere on the first floor, computer-generated drawing meets hand-painted precision with Harold Cohen’s 1986 piece “Garden People,” while Ethiopian textile artist and sculptor Elias Sime’s “FORTHCOMING 6” melds found objects like bottle caps with discarded tech and computing innards for a Klimtian image worth exploring in its intricacies.

Within the second story’s Saint Somebody exhibit, Foumberg has all but dissected hundreds of years worth of religious iconography with neo-classical takes on the likes of Bosch, bizarre video loops, contemporary santeros and even an 18th-century painting of Saint Augustine that feels creepy in the best way. Hidden within “Saint Augustine in His Study” by an unknown painter are any number of esoteric secrets, and assuming one ends their visit at this particular painting, its anachronistic presence feels like a full circle punctuation to the show—or at least a reminder that devotional art need not be steeped in absurd levels of faith anymore.

New York City’s R. Luke DuBois stuns with “[Pop] Icon Britney,” a constantly changing portrait that somehow both canonizes and humanizes the fraught pop icon, while his fellow New Yorker Carla Gannis upends “The Garden of Earthly Delights” with “The Garden of Emoji Delights,” a recognizable but equally terrifying surrealist triptych packed with the weirdest bits of modern day’s hieroglyphic-like form of communication.

There is, in fact, so much going on with Art Vault’s opening that a singular column couldn’t possibly expound its hidden and not-so-hidden treasures. I cannot wait to see where it goes from here.

“It’s not just the love of art; it’s making sure people benefit from seeing it,” Foumberg adds. “[We want it to be] new to them, we don’t have artspeak, we come together in a thematic way; art can be as much a part of our lives as tech can. [Carl and Marilyn] Thoma want to do good, they want to do service; we know it’s great art. My big question is, how do I get people to go see Art Vault?”

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