The first Indian Market (er, the first Southwest Indian Fair and Industrial Arts and Crafts Exhibition) was held in 1922, an effort of the Museum of New Mexico to promote tourism. Over time, it grew, and became independent of the museum—even developing its own nonprofit managing body, the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA), which now works year-round to produce Indian Market. The event takes place over only a handful of days in August, but features around 1,000 artists in booths which fan out for 14 blocks' worth of downtown streets around the Market's longtime-nexus, the historic Santa Fe Plaza. It's the biggest fair of its kind in the world, and arguably the most prestigious; as one artist described it, Indian Market is the World Series of Native art shows.
But deciding who gets to participate has long been troublesome, and this year's change to the process is still smarting for both artists who made the cut for the Aug. 18 and 19 event, and those who didn't.
In the '90s, SWAIA decided to make Indian Market a juried show, but due to fears that longtime artists wouldn't be able to get in, organizers instated a temporary tenure program which was supposed to only last a couple years. Twenty-five Indian Markets later, though, it was still around. A few weeks after the 2016 market concluded, SWAIA's then-chief of operations Dallin Maybee (Arapahoe/Seneca) announced an end to tenure. SWAIA had ignored the strictures of a juried show for far too long, he argued, and the board unanimously agreed.
Maybee, who tendered his resignation in December after serving as SWAIA's head for four years, now lives in Phoenix, but remains deeply supportive of the organization.
"There were two ways to get tenure taken away," Maybee tells SFR. "You either miss a show or pass away." Maybee says tenure stuck around for so long because of good-ol'-boy networks, fear of lawsuits, high turnover and general institutional turmoil. "So, here we are, years later," he says, referring to when he entered the position in 2014, "knowing tenure is a problem." Getting rid of it, he insists, "was always about fundamental fairness. We realized, 'Oh my gosh, there are all these people who get a pass to the market as long as they submit their paperwork on time?' Next question was, do we leave it in place knowing it's inherently unfair?"
Fairness is tricky to gauge, but when it comes to a juried art show, where top winners stand to receive thousands of dollars, the idea of not carefully scrutinizing their work seems categorically, well, not fair—even deceptive, as it undermines the very premise of a juried show.
Several weeks ago, a front-page story in the Santa Fe New Mexican inaccurately stated that SWAIA only accepts digital applications. It might seem like a minor detail, but in a tense climate, confusion remains.
For most of the show's history, images were submitted on slides, then projected onscreen during the jurying process. Now artists must send digital images, but they don't have to be professional—cell phone pictures are fine. In an effort to help smooth the transition, SWAIA staff, including Marketing Director Amanda Crocker, traveled to remote communities like Acoma and Santo Domingo, offering to take pictures.
"Many artists were pleased to have it as a resource," Crocker explains in an email to SFR. "Unfortunately, some others assumed that if SWAIA took the picture, it would mean automatic acceptance into Market; and, on the flip side, that if they did not jury in, it was because of SWAIA's photography."
SWAIA still does outreach, she says, but no longer takes images after trying it last year; artists or their relatives are now responsible for that. Photo foibles aside, a whopping 80 percent of artists who apply are accepted—out of 1,154 applicants, an estimated 920 are scheduled to show in 2018's Market.
This upcoming Indian Market will be Taos Pueblo glass artist Ira Lujan's 11th, and though he's thankful and excited for the opportunity, when asked about what's happening to tenured artists, Lujan says without hesitation, "I think it's wrong." Speaking to SFR over the phone, Lujan says, "Some of those artists depend all year on sales from that one weekend. In Pueblo culture, you take care of your elders."
Another glass artist, Tony Jojola of Isleta Pueblo, has shown at Indian Market for around 40 years, and though he was accepted into 2018's Market, he tells SFR, "It seems like SWAIA wants to get rid of us older artists, the ones who have been here forever."
Jojola also questioned why SWAIA's regional roots don't translate into a show of regional artists. "Indian Market," says Jojola, "is predominantly about our people in this area, but we've accepted more and more Natives from other parts of the country lately, and they're replacing people from here."
Is SWAIA supposed to be geared toward regional artists? For SWAIA Executive Dirctor Ira Wilson (Navajo), who has been at the helm since February, the short answer is no—applicants only need to be members of one of North America's 562 federally recognized tribes. "It was never just for Southwestern Native artists," says Wilson, and though around 70 percent of Indian Market artists are regional, "we want to see the beauty of all tribes."
No matter who you talk to, the single most damning suggestion is that elders are being disrespected. Wilson argues that the process of determining who gets in has nothing to do with age.
"I don't want SWAIA to be in a position where we're justifying why we're throwing our elders away," he says with a grimace, "because we don't do that."
It's a sentiment echoed by Maybee. "From when we're little, it's ingrained in us to respect our elders, so when people say we don't …" his voice trails off. "It's just so hard for me to fathom that argument." Moreover, SWAIA argues that in abolishing tenure, it's also combating favoritism and backdoor handshake agreements, thereby leveling the playing field. "We honestly believed that doing away with tenure was in fact the best way to respect our elders," Maybee says.
Weaver Barbara Teller Ornelas (Navajo) tells SFR from her home in Tucson that she's had a booth at the market for 34 years. "Going there every year to market, it's like going home to family," she says. With two Best of Show awards under her belt and a booth in this year's market, Teller Ornelas remains humble and philosophical. Though she says she isn't sure how tenure originally was instituted, "the fact that it's no longer a given keeps me doing my best." She pauses before adding: "But don't get me wrong, I miss my tenure. I worry that maybe next year it could be me, you know?"
Jewelry designer Jolene Eustace has Cochiti and Zuni ancestry. "Both my parents were artists," she tells SFR. "I was raised making jewelry in a traditional way." Eustace won awards, served as a market judge, and gained tenure, she says, by receiving a fellowship in the late 1990s. This year will be the first time she hasn't shown in the market in more than 20 years. "I'm still shocked," she continues. "There was no warning about it."
Eustace thinks new rules of getting into Indian Market are a concern for older artists; especially, she says, "those on the reservation, who are rural, and don't have as much access to other markets and clients." She also takes issue with what she sees as increasingly lax attitude towards non-traditional methods of jewelry-making. "If it's computer-generated or machine-produced, it shouldn't be allowed," Eustace posits.
Mostly, she seems genuinely concerned about honoring—and preserving—the past. "When you eliminate artists, you eliminate elders," she says. "And you erase history."
In a twist, Eustace's son Eric Othole, also a traditional jewelry maker, will have a booth at Market this year. Through a Facebook message, Othole defended his mom, telling SFR, "She's been part of SWAIA for so long and has contributed so much. It's just wrong they didn't accept her. SWAIA needs to really listen to those who helped build Indian Market into what it is today."
Indian Market hits 100 years in 2022, but for now, "There's the sting of the band-aid coming off," says Wilson. "It might seem tumultuous, but I'm hoping something good will come out of it."