Debra Garcia y Griego is already a huge fan of the state museum system. She remembers going to the Palace of the Governors where, as a young girl, she made a little newspaper hat at the Palace Press. She and her two sons, 12 and 14, visited the International Folk Art Museum over Thanksgiving break, and just before she found out that she had been appointed secretary of the state Department of Cultural Affairs, she spent a Saturday at the New Mexico History Museum with her visiting mother-in-law.
But now, she'll embark on a statewide tour with a whole new eye.
After 18 years at the City of Santa Fe Arts Commission, and as its director since 2012, Garcia y Griego finds herself settling in to a leading role in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's Cabinet. The department is most known for management of state museums, but its 400-plus employees also run New Mexico's historic sites and libraries, as well as archaeology, historic preservation and public arts programs on an annual budget of about $45 million.
"Museums are fabulous and I think there is room for raising visibility and access to them," she tells SFR in an interview from her new bare-walled office at the Bataan Building. "The fact that they are large buildings that are in one place, people seem to identify with those more—but it is a department full of incredible resources. It's full of uniquely and highly qualified professionals."
SFR asked Garcia y Griego to discuss the work ahead. This interview has been edited for space.
How hard did the department get hit during New Mexico's recession?
I'm still getting up to speed on the full set of impacts, but since 2008 we have taken a number of cuts. Those have included some pretty significant personnel cuts. They have also included budget cuts and reductions to museum hours and reductions in free admission days, as well as increases in admission. But what I am finding on the ground is that the department is stable and we have excellent growth potential.
What are the issues that need your attention the most quickly?
First of all, it's just meeting with all of my department, all the division directors and all the boards and advisory and foundation groups and introducing myself to them and understanding what their needs are and what their vision is so that this department as a whole can move forward. Obviously, finalizing the design and the construction of the Vladim Contemporary is a big, visible initiative right now. Long-term, I want to increase our collaboration with other state departments, our partners in tourism and public education and economic development and make sure that I am communicating with those Cabinet secretaries and making sure that we are working on joint initiatives.
The divisions in DCA seem to have a lot of parallels with the City of Santa Fe and the areas you worked in. Do you see that overlap?
I'm very familiar with Santa Fe's cultural landscape including the museums here, but also have become very familiar with the state landscape in working with colleagues from other local arts agencies around the state and from working with public art. So I feel very comfortable in that, and obviously during my time at the city I worked very closely with our historic preservations staff as well as with our library staff. So there are parallels, and I feel like my experience and knowledge is definitely translating here in a really positive way.
How will Santa Fe benefit from having you in this position?
I have a great deal of respect for the economic impact that the four [state] museums have on the citizens of Santa Fe. I understand the vitally important role that they play in the economy of Santa Fe. But that same understanding extends to all of the museums—the two in Albuquerque and the one in Alamogordo and the one in Las Cruces—as well as our historic sites. And my experience with seeing the impact and being involved in increasing that benefit will benefit the state as a whole. … I'm interested to understand how those other museums are interacting with their local communities.
So have you been to all of them?
Yes! But where I am lacking is in historic sites, I will admit. And I think [division Director] Patrick Moore is going to make sure that I get out there and see those pretty quickly.
What do you think people in New Mexico could also learn about the historic sites and the rest of the DCA?
They are open now. It's often easy to get confused about what is federal and what is state and what is local. But our historic sites are open and ready for business and ready for visitors. … They are a great asset for visitors because they combine culture, history and, in many cases, outdoor recreation. I think they are a rising gem in our portfolio. … I think this department is full of amazing resources that people are unaware of or are maybe not aware are part of the Department of Cultural Affairs. I enjoyed my work at the city because I was able to see the impact of my work on my community. I was able to see people enjoying an exhibit opening or at a Southside Summer watching a free movie in a park. And the opportunity to be a part of leading that at a statewide level is incredible.