In March, SITE Santa Fe’s Phillips Executive Director Irene Hofman left the museum after seven years running the show. Enter Louis Grachos, who previously served as SITE’s director from 1996 to 2003. And the hits keep coming with the organization announcing this week that it has received an IMLS Museums Empowered: Professional Development Opportunities for Museum Staff Grant to the tune of $131,800. We caught up with Grachos to talk about what’s up at SITE.
You re-took the reins of SITE at a particularly challenging point in human history. How has the transition been and have you been able to accomplish anything of which you’re particularly proud since March?
We haven’t announced the program publicly yet, but…thinking about how you restart an art program for a community that I hoped would happen post-pandemic, we’re going to start with Helen Pashgian, a light and space artist doing remarkable work in terms of understanding light and how we perceive light. It’ll be a very meditative and very experiential exhibition.
For next season, we’ve confirmed two artists I’m extraordinarily committed to—there’s Jeffrey Gibson, who has had some presence at SITE in a group show, and this is an opportunity to present someone who has incredible history and interest in his Indigenous culture. His family are Cherokee from Mississippi, and he is, at this moment in his career, doing outstanding work. It’s three-dimensional, it’s film and video; performance textile work—it’s all synthesized beautifully.
Then a year from this fall, we’re presenting a project with the artist Shirin Neshat, who was featured in the 1999 [SITE] biennial with an incredible two-channel video project called Rapture. She’s an artist from Iran, and what’s so exciting about her new project Land of Dreams is that it was conceived here in New Mexico. She and her partner were based in Corrales for about a year, and they developed a series of around 100 photographs and a video work and feature-length film
The biennial has been so much a part of how people identify us, and I think that commitment is really important to the continuation and evolution. I have this remarkable facility to work with that I didn’t have when I was here before. SITE Santa Fe was a really modest space, and now we have a lot more opportunity to develop multi-disciplinary programing and the flexibility within our spaces.
Do you think we’re at a point where we’ve realized how badly we need art as a society?
This is one of the things when, knowing we had to organize for the fall…making a show that’s so much about spirit and perception and experience—art that can transport you in the subtle but elegant ways. It’s that nourishment we need as humans and artists, whether it’s performance or a physical experience or sound. These are things that really give us hope and create a richness for our lives. The need to isolate hit us hard. The interaction—not just with art, but artists and people—is something we know we missed and needed to bring back.
SITE Santa Fe is at its best as a cultural gathering place. I just wish we could get through this vaccination stuff so we can all feel comfortable about public gathering again. I got COVID when it first hit, and the self-isolation and Zoom calls just don’t cut it. People need to experience one another experiencing art, and you need that kind of relationship with the world to really have a vibrant and enriched existence.
The words “equity and diversity” come up in the press materials about the new grant. What do these things mean to SITE and how are you hoping to implement?
What’s so great about this grant is that it empowers us to move forward, first internally and then in evolution of a core value for SITE Santa Fe. SITE needs to come out of that process of going through the kind of workshops we’ll be able to implement and the mentoring we can get through an HR specialist and consultant. We’re able to now advance that kind of thing and start doing the work.
In terms of diversity and equity, you have to do it throughout the institution—that means governance and board of directors, frontline staff, our staff as a whole. The kind of awareness and training needs to cut through the entire organization. The challenge is making ourselves and our programs accessible to the community, and there are many strategies underway.
One that’s being tested right now, and we’re hoping it’ll be a year-long program, is that we’re working hard to make SITE free admission to everyone, year-round—24/7. But it’s not only how we work together as a team, it’s how we understand our community, how we program, and those discussions need to be ongoing, and that’s where I think the grant is really going to help us get to that place. The good news is that we have an incredibly committed board of directors and staff who are all-in for going through all the training and are willing to evolve as we go through training, select programs and work with our community. The biggest challenge is how we communicate accessibility to the community. This should be a place for everyone.