Twelve hundred people, give or take, bustled along the Santa Fe streets, braced against the coming winter chill, then filed into the magnificent hall at the corner of Lincoln and West Palace avenues.

The Saturday evening crowd was getting a first look at the newly constructed St. Francis Auditorium, a wonder in the new Art Gallery of the Museum of New Mexico that echoed the structural achievement of the mission church at Acoma Pueblo, and even tossed an elbow at the nearby St. Francis Cathedral for early-20th century Santa Fe grandeur.

The museum had just begun allowing artists to show their work unencumbered by the sensibilities of curators and juries, adding a populist beauty to the new auditorium.

With New Mexico not yet six years a state and the nation mired in World War I, the assembled sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

It was Nov. 25, 1917.

And now, a century later, nearly to the day, the New Mexico Museum of Art is on the verge of a growth spurt. Not only has it refreshed the historic space after a months-long closure, but it's also taking on a satellite facility a few blocks away.

Mary Kershaw has recounted many times to friends and colleagues the story of "discovering" the Halpin Building. In September, the public finally heard it, too.

The structure stands on the corner of Montezuma and Guadalupe streets, a mere stone's throw from the Jean Cocteau Cinema and the future home of the New Mexico School for the Arts. Emblazoned with the work of muralist Gilbert Guzman on one side, the building is an ode to two of Santa Fe's many eras; the marriage of the old and the modern.

Jon Soliday

"This space said to me, 'Mary, you might think I'm collective storage, but I'm a contemporary art space,'" Kershaw told a roomful of Santa Feans during a recent presentation in the run-up to the museum's centennial celebrations on Saturday. "I did not disagree."

As director of the New Mexico Museum of Art, Kershaw said the museum's new undertaking aims to add a 34,000-square-foot satellite space in the Railyard to house contemporary art and serve as storage for its 23,000-piece collection. The overhaul is expected to be completed in 2020.

"One museum in two locations," she said of the new role of the Halpin Building, which formerly housed state archives.

Weeks later, in her office, Kershaw elaborates. "When founded, the museum was contemporary—we were the only game in town," she says. "As we've gone through the past century, part of our mission has been to turn Santa Fe into a cultural destination, and now we are seeking to become both contemporary and historic."

All of this leading up to day-long centennial celebrations taking place Saturday inside the newly renovated space on West Palace Avenue, and spilling out into the streets surrounding the Plaza.

In his 2012 book, New Mexico Art Through Time, Joseph Traugott, former curator of 20th-century art for the museum, writes that becoming the 47th state in 1912 "initiated efforts to promote economic development through cultural tourism." The state began concerted efforts to draw visitors interested in Indigenous and Spanish art and significant historical events. The main crew responsible for this push included attorney Frank Springer, Harvard-educated archaeologist Sylvanus Griswold Morley, journalist and lawyer Paul AF Walter, archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewett and his assistant Kenneth Chapman, a commercial artist.

In 1915, the New Mexico Legislature appropriated $30,000 to construct the building that would become the New Mexico Museum of Art. Springer scraped up the other half of the $60,000 total cost.

It would take two years to complete construction, culminating in that Saturday night in the St. Francis Auditorium. Despite its obvious beauty, there were mixed reactions in town to its quasi-Pueblo facade that would ultimately become the blueprint for building codes in the downtown area that persist today.

"It is an architectural curiosity," Oliver LaFarge, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who penned regular columns for the Santa Fe New Mexican, wrote in his 1959 book, Santa Fe: The Autobiography of a Southwestern Town. "Made of cement, hollow tile and plaster, it attempts unsuccessfully to imitate true adobe. The total effect is staged and not particularly interesting. Nonetheless, this building was beneficially important in leading to the development of the Santa Fe style."

The historic nod of the structure aside, what went inside at the start was progressive. Robert Henri, a New York artist who worked at the Palace of the Governors, convinced Hewett to allow artists to show their work at the museum at their own discretion, without curators and jurors.

"This open-door policy appealed to other modernist and academic artists in New York and Chicago who had been systematically excluded from established institutions," Traugott wrote.

The model, though abandoned for more traditional curation by the 1950s, attracted local artists, too.

"Looking back on our origins, we started as a very special place for all artists living and working in New Mexico," Kershaw says. "We brought premier American and European artists out to the Southwest as well."

The New Mexico Museum of Art stands just northwest of the Plaza. In October, SFR met Kershaw and Head of Registration and Collections Michelle Gallagher-Roberts to see ongoing renovations. Over the past five years, the museum has restored the courtyard garden visible from the entrance, repaired the museum foundation and west wall, re-roofed the interior space to prevent water damage and improved security and fire detection systems.

"It's not sexy," Kershaw says, "but it's seriously important."

The evidence is everywhere.

In the lobby, we stand on hand-poured concrete comprising the 13,200 square feet of floors and 360 square feet of stair treads and risers. Kershaw directs my attention to various points around the room and we visualize how a new desk, once repositioned, will create extra visitor space; how removing the track lighting and adding new, dimmable LED fixtures to conform with the slanted latillas will improve the quality and spread of light; how replacing scratched Plexiglas on doors with a quarter-inch of clear tempered glass will improve visibility into the courtyard.

Roberts espouses the importance of preserving history while addressing sustainability by cleaning and waxing wooden furniture, window jambs and pillars; replacing stationary window covers with roller-screen shades and replacing deteriorating UV window film.

"The light and weather in New Mexico is intense, and the sun burns even in January," Roberts explains. "Artists love the quality and intensity of the light, but it poses a challenge to us in the museum, because it's damaging to the art and the building."

Kershaw adds: "In many ways, the building itself is our most precious artifact."

The New Wing Gallery upstairs now features newly crafted tin wall sconces from local lighting company Alchemy Lights, the mention of which is important for Kershaw, who prides the museum on sourcing materials from Santa Fe.

"We live in a state of artists, and we have commissioned makers to replace our gates and loading docks, just as they did when the museum originally opened," she says.

A worker installs 
pieces for an upcoming exhibit.
A worker installs 
pieces for an upcoming exhibit. | Jessie Woods

New coats of paint cover ceilings and walls, track lighting is relocated for better wall coverage and new exhibits and resource areas have opened up. Workers have also replaced skylights as well as reestablished historic doors between the Clarke and Goodwin galleries downstairs.

Back in the lobby, Roberts takes a deep breath. "We're not even close," she says with a laugh, "but we'll make it and be on time and on budget."

Kershaw has faith in funding. Just as half the money for the original musuem came from private hands, a fundraising campaign for the new capital drive has been underway since late 2015 when members of the Museum of New Mexico Foundation approved a $10 million Centennial Campaign, the majority of which ($8.7 million) would be used to convert the Halpin Building. This July, Kershaw announced that Albuquerque-based architecture firms dnca (which also designed Second Street Brewery's Rufina Taproom) and StudioGP would lead the Halpin's transformation.

The New Mexico Museum of Art receives $1.6 million in annual state operating funds, which pays the salaries of 26 employees, including 10 cashiers and guards. As the Halpin building becomes the contemporary space, according to Kershaw, the museum plans to request another $1 million from the state for additional building operations and wages beginning in 2020.

There is comfort in finding a working artist like Santa Fe sculptor Susan York in the original museum's New Wing Gallery. As she helps install the late Sol LeWitt's 1971 "Wall Drawing #73" for the upcoming exhibit Contact: Local to Global, York's dressed in a loose-fitting black shirt and pants with charcoal-colored running shoes—a very mellow vibe. She recalls visiting the museum in her 20s while studying art at the University of New Mexico, and has since shown her work here on numerous occasions, eventually joining several committees involved in renovating the Halpin Building. She'll also show part of one of her sculptures, "Floating Column," a 14-foot graphite column that hangs at eye level, in addition to a related 46-by-46-inch graphite pencil drawing.

More than 125 artists are involved in three separate exhibitions that are part of the centennial reopening, and York says they're markers of the future: "I'm grateful that we have an inspiring museum here, with great potential in showing cutting-edge new paintings and drawings and media."

Albuquerque conceptual artist Jami Porter Lara, whose clay pottery also appears in the Contact exhibit, says by phone that she has savored museum shows in recent years. In 2016, Porter Lara introduced her pit-fired clay pottery in the exhibition 108 Repetitions at the museum.

"The New Mexico Museum of Art, in particular, is where my work has dialogue with the work of other artists like Maria Martinez and Rick Billingham," she says. "I don't think my work would be legible without that historical context."

Work from wood sculptor Luis Tapia from curator Christian Waguespack’s exhibit, Horizons: People and Place in New Mexican Art.
Work from wood sculptor Luis Tapia from curator Christian Waguespack’s exhibit, Horizons: People and Place in New Mexican Art. | Jessie Woods

For Stuart Arends, another artist in the Contact show, who lives in a rural area south of Albuquerque and creates found sculpture, lithographs and three-dimensional paintings among other works, this is "a great museum to have my work in, but I'm on the far reach of what they normally do, since it seems like more of a historical museum."

Asked about Kershaw's goal of showing historical and contemporary works in upcoming exhibitions at the Halpin Building, he replies: "There seems to be a place between the Museum of Art and SITE Santa Fe, in terms of forging a contemporary path in the art world."

When author and historian Carmella Padilla was a student at Santa Fe High School in the 1980s, she took field trips to the museum and sang in the choir for annual Christmas events at the St. Francis Auditorium. "This was a place where community came first," Padilla tells SFR. "I appreciate that Mary Kershaw and her staff are taking it back to an inviting, informal feeling of a common gathering place."

Padilla reflects on her childhood and adult experiences at the museum, which she dubs the "historical flagship of our community."

"It can't just rely on the past and stay static," she says. "The anniversary is causing people to refocus on its strengths and look to how it can stay relevant. I think they're in a great position to find relevancy."

At the museum, Rebecca Aubin, the head of education and visitor experience, reviews the centennial celebration schedule. Promptly at 10 am, the cathedral will ring its bell to kick off events that include lowriders and classic cars on the Plaza, as well as mobile art spaces Axle Contemporary and Wonders on Wheels showing off their works on West Palace Avenue.

Aubin says the museum and auditorium were originally built as "secular meeting grounds," with concerts, lectures, and memorials on a regular basis. The centennial activities are an indicator of the community coming first.

"Museums can't just put art on the wall and expect people to come," Aubin says. "You have to give them reasons to come visit, and I'd like us to be a community-driven museum, a dynamic place."

As a state institution, the museum belongs to the people. The land here has always produced artists, rich in culture and traditions. For the new two-site museum to become and remain worthy of the people, its staff must look to the talents of the old artists and embrace the bravery of the new.

"We will be a museum that celebrates both its history and new-mindedness," Mary Kershaw says. "That's who we will be. World-class, community-focused."

An early look at curator Kate Ware’s upcoming exhibit, Shifting Light: Photographic Perspectives.
An early look at curator Kate Ware’s upcoming exhibit, Shifting Light: Photographic Perspectives. | Jessie Woods

The Celebration

From 10 am to 5 pm on Saturday Nov. 25, the New
Mexico Museum of Art celebrates its 100th birthday in style with numerous events in and around the museum. Some overlap, but we've distilled a number of the highlights here for your easy perusal. Note that parking at the PERA Building (1120 Paseo de Peralta) is free all day, with shuttles leaving every 15 minutes.

Things kick off at 10 am, when the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi bell rings in celebration of the centennial. Curator talks are scheduled for 11:30 am, 12:30 pm and 1:30 pm. The museum lobby hosts a photo booth with historical props as well. At 11 am, dance students from the New Mexico School for the Arts perform in the St. Francis Auditorium while the Shiners Club Jazz Band performs in the courtyard. At 3:30 pm there will be cake.

The Curators

The curators at the New Mexico Museum of Art have encyclopedic knowledge of the state's art and history and, as they lead up to the big day, preparations are
underway for three exciting exhibits that are part of the centennial celebration.

Merry Scully
Head of Curatorial Affairs and Contemporary Art
Contact: Local to Global
On Display: Through April 29, 2018
She says: "The exhibition focuses on the contact of artists with New Mexico and its contact with national artists. Artists came here to foster a creative environment, and that's still the case."

Christian Waguespack
Curator of 20th-Century Art
Horizons: People & Place in New Mexican Art
On Display: Through Nov. 25, 2018
He says: "The challenge of historical art is suggesting why they're still relevant today. I want to honor cultures and styles of New Mexico's history by including Native art and work voted on by visitors."

Kate Ware
Curator of Photography
Shifting Light: Photographic Perspectives
On Display: Through Oct. 7, 2018
She says: "For this exhibition, I'm thinking about the importance of landscape, identity and creative practices in the 21st century."

A brief timeline of the museum

  • 1910s: The Art Gallery of the Museum of New Mexico opens to the public in 1917.
  • 1920s: Artists Will Shuster (the father of Zozobra), Willard Nash, Walter Mruk, Fremont Ellis, and Jozef Bakos begin calling themselves Los Cinco Pintores and hold group exhibits at the museum.
  • 1930s: Shuster completes murals for the courtyard and Santa Fean James McNary donates a pipe organ for music classes and classical concerts.
  • 1940s: Edgar Lee Hewett dies and his ashes are interred in the courtyard, where they remain.
  • 1950s: The number of artists coming to New Mexico increases tremendously, forcing the museum to abandon its open-door policy.
  • 1960s: Then-director James Taylor Forrest changes the official name to the Museum of Fine Arts.
  • 1970s: Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival debuts at the museum in 1973.
  • 1980s: The museum completes construction of the New Wing galleries and sculpture gardens; renovates storage and office spaces.
  • 1990s: Collaborations begin with other local institutions such as SITE Santa Fe and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum; the museum commissions fresco artist Frederico Vigil to paint “Exodus: Influencias Positivas Y Compadrazgo” for its courtyard.
  • 2000s: State Senate Bill 276 passes and legally changes the name to the New Mexico Museum of Art “to better reflect the diversity of art in the state” in 2007.
  • Today: New Mexico Museum of Art turns 100.