A Creative Life

Santa Fe loses Linda Durham Contemporary Art–but not Linda Durham

Stumbling into an exhibition at Linda Durham's former gallery space on Canyon Road sealed my love of Santa Fe.

Artist Erika Wanenmacher had painstakingly created a kind of entomologist's fantasy—hand-carved giant insects were pinned to the wall with equally oversized pins.

Amid these sci-fi specimens, an elegant, confident woman—Linda Durham—was calmly fielding the confused reactions of tourists who wandered in expecting to find landscapes and blankets. It was my first step through the door to a different Santa Fe, a community beneath the veneer and a diverse assortment of serious artists.

Durham and her gallery have been a force in Santa Fe's creative community since she first happened on her career and developed a habit of representing New Mexico and its artists locally and internationally. Now, after 33 years in business, Durham will close her gallery on March 11.

That Durham's enterprise has survived for so long, but is coming to an end now, is a testament both to her talent and commitment, as well as the reach of the nation's shifting economic sands.

"I never made a great deal of money, but I made enough to keep the gallery going and growing," Durham says. "I invested all the profits into advertising, art fairs, PR, design—because the gallery was my passion."

Artist Erika Wanenmacher pinned her specimens to the wall of Linda Durham’s Canyon Road Gallery in 1993.
Credits: all images courtesy Linda Durham

Durham suggests, in a comparison to the food movement Slow Food, that she is interested in Slow Art. But that's not where the art trends are moving at the moment.

"I have no interest in changing just to capture a temporarily fickle art economy," Durham says.

The exhibitions she has arranged over the past year or two are a source of pride to Durham, even if they failed to be a source of income. And that's not something she wishes were different.

“I would do them all over again. I would make the same careful mistakes—with pride.”—Zane Fischer

This “tag cloud” was generated by asking artists and gallery owners which four words best describe Linda Durham. To watch a video of the process, see below.

Continue to next page for SFR's interview with Linda Durham.

The text of this interview has been edited for length and fluidity. For the full, unedited interview, watch the video on on the last page of this article.

In 1966, Durham swapped a life as a Playboy bunny in New York for living off the grid in New Mexico.

SFR: We’re here to talk about you closing your landmark gallery and moving on to other endeavors. It’s a big moment but, before we talk about that, how did you get here? Talk about arriving in Santa Fe.
LD: I moved to Santa Fe in 1966. I was, at that time, married to my second husband, and I left a glamorous New York life to move to New Mexico. We were the first wave of the hippie movement and we bought land near Cerrillos on Highway 14, but back when it was called Highway 10. We built our own house; we lived completely off the grid before the term was popular. I went from glamour to chopping wood and carrying water. I wasn’t really involved in the visual arts at that time—my background was more theatrical.

Is that what you were doing in New York?
I was doing theater, but I’m well-known in this little community for having been one of the original New York Playboy bunnies.

So you were a Playboy bunny? In the mansion in LA?
No, there was no mansion in LA. I’m talking 1962. There was a mansion in Chicago, but I was in New York and I only saw Hugh Hefner twice.

How did you get the gig?
I moved to New York when I was 19 and I was naive, believe it or not—I still am—and I wanted a job in theater. It was during the newspaper strike, so there were no want ads. I went to an employment agency and said, ‘Yes, I’d like to get a job as an actor.’ They said, ‘Well, we don’t have any of those jobs but what about a bunny?’ I said, ‘What’s a bunny?’ You had to show up for the interview in a bathing suit or a leotard. Not too long before that I was in the Miss Camden County Pageant, so I had a black leotard and it had three white buttons on the front and I got that job. I also worked as a cigarette girl and a hat-check girl in some seedy and not-so-seedy nightclubs.

Durham began her gallery career by riding a Luis Jiménez sculpture all the way to Canada.

How did you end up opening a gallery in Santa Fe?
I didn’t open the gallery until the late ’70s. By then, we were living in Santa Fe and I would drive on the Paseo and pass the Fenn Gallery and think, ‘How did that go so quickly from this little trinket shop to this big business?’ I decided the only way to really know would be to work there. I conspired to get a job at the gallery and I became Forrest Fenn’s director of research. I met a lot of people and I saw a lot of art. I had always dreamed of traveling, and I decided that I would like to mount traveling art shows. I spoke to Forrest and…he didn’t like the idea. This was 1977 and there were no art fairs yet. But one of the people I met during my time at Forrest’s had a big gallery in New York and we had become friends, and he said, ‘Why don’t you start your own gallery?’ I thought, ‘How would I do that? I don’t have any money and I don’t have any art.’ 

But I knew a lot of people who made art, just my friends, and I thought maybe I’d put together a traveling show. I decided it would be in Toronto, which made it exciting for me because it would be international and I was all about, in my mind, maybe being international. So I bought a ticket to Toronto. I assembled a notebook of snapshots of work by my friends. I had a contact with one person who was a designer there. I said, ‘I’m going to be producing an exhibition in Toronto and I’m looking for a venue…’ And, see, this is beginner’s luck, because that person introduced me to William Louis-Dreyfus, a big collector, an international man of money who was later famous for being the father of Julia Louis-Dreyfus. But back then, he was building a big, upscale shopping center in a primo area of Toronto, and he told me I could have this 5,000-square-foot unfinished space for my show. I flew back to New Mexico and began assembling art. I went to the bank and borrowed $25,000.

What work did you show?
In that show was Larry Bell, Luis Jiménez, Carol Mothner, Paul Pletka, Paul Sarkisian, Allan Graham, John Fincher, Forrest Moses, Ken Price—lots of people. I also had a couple of O’Keeffes to try and sell. We put all the work in a truck, I rented an apartment near the venue, and I got a mailing list from a few different people and I designed an invitation. I said I was the Linda Durham Gallery, but I didn’t have a gallery. We addressed about 2,000 invitations to unknown people in Toronto, and the day I put them in the mail was the day of the great Canadian postal strike. So these invitations languished and weren’t sent in time. We installed the show and, of course, no one came. Nobody knew about it. I was in that big space alone with all the art.
I managed to sell a couple pieces to Dreyfus but I lost $15,000. But I had some instant credibility. A little later, Larry Bell introduced me to some real collectors from the Bay Area, and they wanted to come to Santa Fe with a group and look at work. I

A stately brick building at the head of Canyon Road was Durham’s flagship gallery.

arranged a gallery in my living room and gave a very nice cocktail party. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I was charming. One of the women asked if I would consider doing a show in the Bay Area. So I did my second show, called New Mexico in the Bay Area. Right after that, some people from the Scottish Arts Council came through town and they thought it’d be great to have some art at the Edinburgh Festival. And so we put together a show in Scotland and, by then, I was kind of the expert of the contemporary art scene here, after coming from what was almost complete ignorance about art.

And that led, finally, to having a gallery?
I bought a building on Canyon Road and called it Linda Durham Gallery and started showing things. Suddenly, there were artists and people interested in looking at art and talking about art and showing art to one another. The first gallery really was in my house, and then Canyon Road and then two locations in Galisteo and then New York and then on Paseo de Peralta and finally on Second Street.

In between art fairs and exhibitions, Durham relaxed by, for example, climbing the highest free-standing mountain in the world.

Now that you’re closing the gallery, is there heartbreak?
Well, I have done this for 33 years and I have loved it. My father worked for one company for 35 years and retired, and they gave him a watch. So 33 years is almost as long, although no one is giving me a watch. Do I want to do it forever? If I had a whole lot of money and could have a giant staff and I could travel and be gone a lot of the time, I’d do it forever but, absent the fortune and the staff and the ability to also do other things that are interesting to me, I know it’s time.

Are you worried about your artists?
I’m worried about the world. Not just the artists or myself or our community, I’m worried about what’s going on in the world. I don’t represent that many artists on a full-time basis, and the ones I do have a few things in common: They’re brilliant, they’re resourceful and, of course, they’re really good artists, I think. So good things will happen for them. But I think the art world has changed a lot in the last few years, so it’s not what it used to be. The gallery used to be a vehicle for communication, and I love what I’ve learned from artists, what I’ve learned about art, what I’ve learned from people who love art and artists, and the conversation about the importance of art in culture and in life has been central to the gallery. But that’s changed a little bit.

Describe the change you see in the art world.
I feel that art is a really, really important component of a good life and important to society. I think real artists are at the vanguard of society and that we learn about ourselves as a culture through art. How do we know cultures of the past? From the architecture and the sculpture and the music and poetry and paintings that remain. What is art teaching us now, and what will the future know about us and our culture and our time from the art that we’re producing? What I’ve noticed is that it’s gotten to be really chic to be involved in the arts. It’s attracting a wider and wider array of people, some whose passion for what they do is deep and profound, and some for whom it’s a whim and a game. And that goes for the art that’s being made, the people who are displaying or showing the art, and the people who are collecting it. It’s different than it was even 20 years ago. It used to be that one became an artist because one had passion for it. And people opened galleries out of love and respect for the work. And people collected for the same reasons. 

When Durham tired of the scene on Canyon Road, she relocated to Galisteo.

We’ve lost, as a general group, lost the interest, willingness, ability to slow down and look at something and let it talk. There’s celebrity art, there’s expensive art that makes people salivate—some people—because of its price, because of its fame. Now, anyone can become an artist and anyone can open a gallery and anyone can be a collector. When I started, I didn’t know much, but I spent a lot of time asking, learning, looking, making mistakes and honing a point of view. I don’t think you can have a point of view about art without looking at a lot of art. And I don’t think you can look at a lot of art with a few visits to The Met or the Guggenheim or by taking one class in college.

How do you see those changes playing out in Santa Fe?
I think this is a remarkable part of the world, and I believe that northern New Mexico is a magnet for the creative person or creative personality. We have more than our fair share of everything. I think the problem is that it’s hard to differentiate between a great collection and a collection built on money, between a great gallery and a vanity gallery. In Santa Fe, right now, let’s say there are 300 galleries. In my opinion, there might be 20 great galleries among them. In terms of all the galleries in Santa Fe, which gallery do I like the most? Mine. My idea was never, ‘How can I put work that will sell in the gallery?’ but, ‘How can I create a market for what I want to put in the gallery?’ I picked people and showed work that I felt answered my criteria. I limited the gallery to New Mexico-based artists and they had to be really smart in my opinion because I just like really smart, interesting people. Unlike some galleries, I know all my artists really well. 

Durham’s criticism of the art world was evident early on. This interview ran in THE magazine around the time of her mayoral campaign.

From an outside perspective, it seems like your concern with larger issues and the world outside the gallery may have begun when you ran for mayor of Santa Fe in 1994.
At the particular time when that mayoral race was coming together, there were two candidates and, from my perspective and I think many other people, one person was pretty much in the pocket of the developers and another person was pretty much a west side ‘tourists go home’ kind of person. And people were talking all over town about how somebody should do something. I remember waking up one morning and thinking, ‘Who are the somebodies that everybody says should do something?’ Because it’s a common expression. So I thought, ‘I’m somebody.’ So I went down and put my name in the hat, right at the deadline. There ended up being 13 candidates in the end, and one of them was channeling a dead person. I came in third out of 13, so not bad. People would stop me in grocery stores for years and tell me they had voted for me.

And did that launch your engagement in politics and your own writing projects, which have ranged quite far afield of the gallery?
That’s on my mind a lot these days. I’ve been writing my entire life, and I have the journals I wrote in 1960 and I have the whole manuscript I wrote about my three years as a Playboy bunny and I have several other rough projects. Travel and culture have always been important to me. Santa Fe is a special place—if we only stay here, we have an unusual idea of how it is for people and what’s going on.

You also have gone to some harrowing parts of the world to engage artists and to engage women. What’s compelled you to go to Gaza and Baghdad and the other places you’ve been?
That it was possible. What I have found is that people everywhere are basically kind, and they need and want more or less the same things. They want to be heard; they want safety and respect and to have access to information and to have the right to celebrate.

Linda Durham and renowned New Mexico minimalist Agnes Martin pose in one of the Galisteo galleries.

People will tell you not to go to a place when there's a war going on…but when you're there, the people are living and having birthdays or struggling or making art. When I went to Baghdad, it was right after the Saddam statue had been felled, and there was danger and I saw things that were tough but, in the middle of that, the people were living their lives. One of the things that became of great interest to me was that maybe I have an ability to go somewhere, to be received warmly, to have experiences and to come back and be able to talk about it—not in terms of facts and figures…but from the heart because that's what is most interesting to me: the heart of a situation. To go to Gaza and celebrate with the women on International Women's Day, to make bread with them, still makes me cry. When I was in sixth grade, we learned about propaganda, and what we learned was that the enemies have propaganda and we have the truth. And you kind of believe that for a while.

What are you going to do now?
I already have some opportunities to consider curating some exhibitions at other galleries. I can do some private consulting. I’m creating a workshop for women with a good friend of mine and I’m writing my second monologue. I teach at [Santa Fe] Community College. And I’m going to have an opportunity to work with artists in a different way. What I won’t have and what I don’t want to have any more is the obligation to be in the gallery every day and mount shows and do press releases and create invitations. But exactly how this is all going to work out…until I actually close the gallery, it’s hard to see the other side because I’m still coming in every day and I’m still dealing with closing down 33 years. I want to do it honorably and elegantly and artistically.  SFR

Gallery Grit

The great recession had no Black Tuesday. Its start date is as inexact as the fractured economic architectures that caused it, as well as the multifarious repercussions that defined it. For Santa Fe, which claims approximately 225 art galleries and 39 percent of its annual economic inflow from arts industries, those repercussions clearly resounded in the art world.

But while most gallery owners admit to experiencing a difficult time since the recession struck, its impact on the art scene may be neither obvious nor permanent.

For example, while some galleries, such as Gallery Chartreuse and Finale Fine Art, succumbed to the economic brown tide, others, such as Nedra Matteucci Fine Art on Canyon Road and The Brookover Gallery, have had their vacancies bloom with new galleries, SR Brennen and Vivo Contemporary, respectively.

"When there's a space available, a gallery usually fills it in, certainly on Canyon Road," Santa Fe Gallery Association Board President Karla Winterowd says.

And stalwart galleries, such as Eggman & Walrus and David Richard Contemporary, have even thrust new ventures into downtown and Palace Avenue grottoes (or, in the case of Axle Contemporary, into a mobile gallery that tours Santa Fe).

Santa Fe Conventions and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Keith Toler doesn't believe there has been a net loss of galleries.

"If there has, it's incidental because so many new galleries have opened," he says.

Perhaps the gallery scene has avoided decrepitude by never overtly acknowledging its open wounds.

"They're not putting sale signs that you'd find at rug merchants. You rarely see a big sign that says, 'Closing, 50 percent off,'" Winterowd says. "They have respect for their neighbors, for those still in business."

That's not to say gallerists haven't felt the recession deeply nor reacted accordingly.

"We're doing what we can to make our businesses thrive rather than waiting for someone to walk in," Winterowd says. "We're reaching out to other communities across the country, across the world."

Ken Marvel, co-owner of LewAllen Galleries, whose Railyard location opened in 2009, holds a similar sentiment. LewAllen has extended its sights beyond adobe doorways and into international arenas. To do so, LewAllen has updated its media platforms.

"The process by which we communicated with the market needed to change," Marvel says.

If there's an upside to the economic malaise, it's a galvanization of the art scene as a community, rather than a series of competing businesses. Indeed, these days, galleries hold coordinated gallery walks—wherein galleries in a certain "district," such as Palace Avenue, Canyon Road or the Railyard, hold simultaneous openings—which they jointly advertise. Such ventures require communication and a candid dialogue about Santa Fe's art scene.

"Gallery owners are starting to work together a little more than in the past," Winterowd says.

As for the future, she says, "We think it will pass; it may not be the same after as it was before."

Maybe that’s best.—Rani Molla

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