Heart to Karp

Exiting SFAI executive director talks future plans, feet and carrots

Diane Karp is a woman of contrasts. At moments relaxed, at others semi-erratic, she has both the presence of a sage and the delivery of a stand-up comedian.

"Come into my parlor," she says, leading the way to her office. "My apologies," she continues as she takes a seat, raises her swollen right foot and places it on her glass-topped desk as Bea, her trusted beagle, roams about.

Twelve years into her stint as executive director at the Santa Fe Art Institute, it's clear to see Karp is at the top of her game. Her decision, last winter, to end her run with the cultural institution sent ripples through the local community. 

"I was sitting with a three-year contract from my board, and I realized that the real excitement and the real energy for me was building the Art Institute into this internationally recognized, community-adored institution," Karp says, talking with her hands and not hiding a distinct passion in her voice. "I stopped, and I thought about the fact that I'm about to turn 65. I have worked my entire life, and each time I've taken on a new task, I've built something new."

Karp could have cruised through another term, but she says an ever-present need to move on was brewing.

"[The job] was stable and well-situated. We had great programming, good funding for the year and great relationships, [and] it was really time to let some new energy and new ideas to take the Art Institute to its next place in life," she says.

She hopes that next place includes "deeper community engagement and a continued effort to expand the residencies."

Perhaps the greatest coup for Karp is SFAI's now-established artist residency program: an initiative that has seen the institute host a battery of local, national and international artists, while addressing issues like decolonizing creativity.

"We looked around Santa Fe and we realized that there is the Native American silo, and there's the Hispanic silo, and there's the contemporary art that's from outside Santa Fe silo, and there's no real interconnection," she explains. "Everybody feels territorial and possessive about their particular domain."

What followed was a watershed moment for Karp and her associates.

"We began to come up with the idea that the sovereignty of the making of the work had to be grounded within the context of its making, but not be bound to this silo of presentation, valuation and restriction."

Asked to pinpoint a professional highlight, Karp's response is swift: "The emergency residency program for the artists and writers of lower Manhattan."

Karp, a New Yorker, was driving cross-country to take the SFAI helm when 9/11 happened. She arrived in Santa Fe "to a building that was dark, empty, had no programming and had no funding."

"I said to the board at that point, 'I have a proposal to make: I want to bring those artists and writers from lower Manhattan, because their lives turned upside down and inside out.'"

The move, Karp says, was dual-purpose. "I also wanted to be able to counter that anti-Islamic move across the country, because people saw that as terrorism," she says. The result was a residency, over 130 strong, that culminated with an exhibition called Daily Terrors meant to "address the fact that we live in a country where ordinary people suffer terrorism of all sorts."

Some examples: domestic violence, social restrictions, immigration and labor issues "that terrorize people," she says. 

Karp's commitment to "shake it up a bit" fuels her next move.

"I'm working on a whole bunch of projects," she says. They include cementing her existing relationship with other institutions. Karp also hints at a possible project in Tacoma, Wash., that broaches "community building and social justice in the arts."

Other endeavors will see her trying to harvest and retain talent in Santa Fe.

"Luring innovative, creative people to Santa Fe is easy. Santa Fe is a carrot," she says. "But helping to develop programs and support systems to keep them here is the real challenge."

Karp elaborates on the root vegetable analogy.

"You say 'Santa Fe' to people, and they go 'Ooh, I've always wanted to go there!' The idea of Santa Fe is attractive to people—they move here in droves—and for the longest time, couldn't make it work, so they would leave," she says. "Leave a little disgruntled, a little dissatisfied and maybe a little angry, and that's really bad for Santa Fe. If they leave neutral, it's OK. But for us not to feel responsible for the people who want to come to live here and see serving tourists as the primary activity was dangerous."

She tips her hat to the city and its economic development department's Velocity Project—designed to boost startups. She hopes to pick up where they leave off and propel local talent across several platforms.  

Initially, Karp decided to move to Portland, Ore., to be near her two children and grandkids, but she quickly reconsidered. "I've got both feet firmly planted in Santa Fe—even the swollen one," she jokes. "Maybe that one was too firmly planted." 

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