The Space Race

Nonprofit Vital Spaces loses studio space but gains community performance venue in Midtown

Local nonprofit Vital Spaces will once again find itself leaving a building behind in the coming weeks, this time moving out of a large retail space in the Fashion Outlets of Santa Fe, which was purchased by local developer Carlos Garcia last year.

All told, nine artists will lose their studio space at the outlets, which have hosted Vital Spaces since the fall of 2020. The news, however, should fall not so much as a death knell but more of a blip on the timeline, according to Executive Director Raashan Ahmad.

That’s because he recently closed a deal to take over the old Cinemacafé in Midtown, which was kind of like a precursor to now common movie-theaters-with-dining-options, and has sat empty for more years than not. It’s a huge boon, Ahmad tells SFR, but it will only work if the community gets on board.

The Vital Spaces mission has always been to offer cheap studio space for artists in buildings that are otherwise vacant. Based on a similar nonprofit from New York City dubbed Chashama, woodworker and philanthropist Jonathan Boyd in 2019 kicked off the local iteration. Boyd stepped down from his executive director role in 2021, making way for Ahmad to take over. Ahmad oversees numerous projects, including the ongoing Artist Closet giveaways through which the organization distributes free art supplies; a citywide initiative that found participating artists showing their work in public spaces and solo and group shows.

By its very nature, however, the Vital Spaces ethos has been rooted in impermanence. Before the outlets, it occupied an old office building on Otero Street, which was taken over by hotel developers in 2021.

At this particular moment, too, flux feels particularly heavy. Obviously the pandemic didn’t do nonprofits any favors, and in addition to Vital Spaces’ exodus from the outlets, Ahmad says the org will lose a 50%-ish chunk of its so-called annex on the Midtown Campus at some point in the future when part of the building that has housed micro-studios for artists reverts to office space as part of the ongoing development of the campus. The gallery-esque section of the building remains under the Vital Spaces purview for now but, according to Ahmad, this brings the total up to 14 artists who will lose space—and there are hundreds more on the waiting list looking for studios.

“It’s a reconfiguration,” he explains. “But of course I’m always thinking about buildings, where people can go.”

And he means that in more ways than just studio space for visual artists. Vital Spaces dropped its independent 501c3 status early last year in favor of fiscal sponsorship from the New Mexico Foundation, which Ahmad says allows for a wider set of parameters in which to work. Now, the new project in the Cinemacafé at the St. Michael’s Village West shopping center, 1622 St. Michael’s Drive (right next to Santa Fe Bite), offers the chance to build a community space for performances of all kinds—film included—and it signals a broadening mission.

“This is for performance art. It’s not for the same function as other things we’ve done. It won’t be studio space,” Ahmad notes. “This is about shows, concerts, film…theater groups. We’re keeping the screen up and we’re [installing] removable seating; we’re thinking about traditional lectures, yeah, but if DJs Sol and Dmonic want to throw a dance party, that can also happen.”

In this particular section of Midtown, no such venue exists. Shoutout to Agua Fría Street’s Tumbleroot Brewery & Distillery on the outskirts of the Southside and all, but another venue for a couple hundred people—250 max, Ahmad says—seems like something Santa Fe desperately needs.

Ahmad thinks so, too, citing the old days of Warehouse 21 in the Railyard as a bit of inspiration. Ideally, he says, community members can eke out out some feeling of ownership through ongoing involvement with the new Vital Spaces; they can build it into something of which they can be proud. And though there are early talks underway with other organizations like the Lensic Performing Arts Center (whose newly formed Lensic360 promotions arm has been putting on shows all over the city) and other bigger promoters, Ahmad envisions opportunities for mid-tier promoters, youths who want to learn and people just looking for something to do.

“The priority is an actual balance where the punk-rock people can meld with the hip-hop folks and the artists, the painters, the gallery owners—where all the art mediums can go and where the folks who maybe don’t have the resources won’t feel so spread apart,” he says. “If you’re that kid from Santa Fe High with your band, I’m gonna try to figure out a way where you don’t pay anything, too. That’s where the fundraising comes in.”

During his tenure, Ahmad explains, he’s met numerous generous locals who eschew the traditional yet hifalutin idea of galas and self-congratulation for actual grassroots assistance. With their help, he says he meets potential donors all the time. Perhaps most notable in this instance, however, is Forrest Thomas, the developer who owns the St. Michael’s West shopping center. He’s giving Vital Spaces the building rent-free for six years—a nigh unheard-of kindness.

“The theater has always been on my mind to keep as a theater,” Thomas tells SFR. “Most people in my position would have converted it to a retail space a long time ago, but…I don’t know, I love Santa Fe, and we’ve worked with Vital Spaces before; and they’ve been fantastic and have a really good mission, so by working with them and having them activate the theater, I suppose the benefit to me is that it brings more people into the shopping center and that benefits our tenants. This is just something I want to see in the community.”

Renovations are already underway. Ahmad says it took a minute to get the city permits lined up, but now it’s full speed ahead, including updating bathrooms to ADA compliance, reworking the auditorium and even potentially a build-out for a green room for performers on the backside of the building.

“I’m not that far disconnected from the population I’m quote-unquote serving,” explains Ahmad, who built a name for himself as an MC and DJ. “There needs to be a change in the relationships between institutions and culture. I feel both optimistic and, as the person who is looking at how we’re going to make this happen, because of Forrest Thomas, we’ve…got room to get things started. We’ll figure it out. Of course, all of this is walking on faith, but I also know there’s a tremendous need for this in our city. I hope we can all bring it to life.”

With six years of runway, that doesn’t seem an impossible task, but it will take Santa Feans who buy into the concept to fully make it sing.

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