A local arts movement has been gaining momentum in Santa Fe with a simple theme: Art is for everyone.
Artists who follow in the grand footsteps of creative types who grew sick of having minimal choices and set about designing their own destinies are percolating in the DIY art space scene, which seems to be growing with speed and regularity.
As Drew Lenihan, one of the founders of the space Etiquette, says, "I don't think more [spaces] means better. But I think the more opportunities there are for younger artists to take risks, that can only bring more cultural wealth."
That ethos of universal accessibility lies at the heart of Santa Fe's rising and evolving art spaces. They're run by collectives or individuals and staffed by true believers. Increasingly, they reside in areas of town not traditionally known for exhibiting visual arts. They support and build up scenes around the idea that it's OK to fail just as long as you try. In eschewing the concept of famous and valuable in favor of the democratization of art, inspiration spreads.
To excavate the roots of this movement, let's hit the rewind button.
In the fall of 2014, Kyle Farrell, Erikka James and Jordan Eddy began hosting pop-up openings and salons in James' home. All were relatively new transplants to Santa Fe, but as artists and writers themselves, they hadn't quite found what they were looking for, exhibition-wise. Besides, they had embarked on a mission to provide opportunities for artists who might otherwise have a difficult time being shown. Canyon Road, after all, is not known as wildly accessible to a broad spectrum of arts.
Strangers Collective was born.
They'd show elsewhere, too, at places such as Art.i.fact and Wheelhouse Art, but by early summer of 2016, with bigger and better exhibitions under their belts, Strangers was ready to step it up a notch. That first big show—"big" insofar as the opening was heavily attended—was titled Narrows.It ran for three weeks at The Community Gallery inside the Santa Fe Community Convention Center and comprised multiple media, etchings, zines and more—it was a smashing success.
By this time, James had left Santa Fe for New York City. Farrell and Eddy (who occassionally contributes to SFR and was not interviewed for this story) had taken over full time. Strangers' membership exploded, and artist Alex Gill came into the curatorial fold as co-director, setting aside the emphasis on his own artistic practice.
"They were doing really incredible things, just the two of them," Gill tells SFR. "The mission at that point was very much helping people we knew who wanted to work with us but didn't have anywhere—that is still the ethos, and me coming onboard didn't change the mission."
The collective's leadership took on The Long Echo at the Center for Contemporary Arts that fall, another sprawling event featuring visual and performing arts. But once that show concluded, the writing was on the wall and the artists of Strangers realized they'd need a more permanent space to accomplish everything they'd set out to do.
NO LAND (54 1/2 E San Francisco St., Ste. 7; strangersartcollective.com), a small yet powerful second-story Plaza-adjacent brick-and-mortar space became the collective's home and remains so today. It is comprised of three small rooms, and has seen everything from openings for the outstanding local puppet crafters of Flying Wall Studio to music and dance performances and exhibits for local heavy-hitters such as Niomi Fawn and Marcus Zuiñga. NO LAND even housed early pop-ups for Dandelion Guild, Santa Fe's preeminent maker's boutique, before Dandelion had a space of its own.
The space's location was a conscious choice, a way to hide in plain sight with a ragtag brand of intrusion.
"It was really important that we were downtown," Farrell says. "It was so much about the spirit of being disruptors when it comes to what's down there."
Hints of revolution aside, why would a space dedicated to lesser-known but no-less-talented artists need to employ subterfuge? Partly because old fears ring true—the marketing aspects of visual arts remain one of the strangest and most complex economic microcosms looming over today's creators; the old guard of galleries and art sales is not easy to work around.
"I think it's kind of a tricky situation," says artist Cyrus McCray. "The gallery infrastructure as it exists has a very provincial and relatively conservative aesthetic that's driven by work that has never been seen before and has no market value. In no uncertain terms, it's kind of just a lie they feed to people that the work has value. What they say it's worth is what people believe it's worth."
We're sitting on the porch of his soon-to-open space on Agua Fría near Siler Road, The Lighthouse, which he aims to bring to the public in February. It also serves as his own studio, where he shows me pieces he's working on: Hand-carved geometric shapes in wood that are meticulously mathematic, emblazoned with a subtle array of colors that invite a close examination. In a side room, he shows me his next idea: Aluminum sheets with a honeycomb pattern inside. McCray isn't sure exactly what he'll do with them, but he's zeroing in on processes. In certain corners he has built makeshift storage closets, but other than the materials he's currently working with, The Lighthouse is incredibly clean and organized.
McCray says the space is aimed to help him delve into concepts he's long pondered—works as artifact (which has intrinsic cultural value outside of commerce) and artifice (which he says comes from manufactured false scarcity and monied interest.) Keeping work affordable is paramount for him and for the collective sensibility.
"I don't expect to see sales from this space that are going to generate enough to pay my rent," McCray says. "It's more in the capacity that teaching is something that's a responsibility of people who are practitioners of different art forms; after a certain level of proficiency, I feel it's the responsibility of people to give back to the community."
For his first show, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 7, McCray plans to exhibit his own work and that of locals like Timothy Reed (sometimes known as Deer Mit), Matthew N Gwin and Samantha Dapkewicz. He doesn't have all the particulars nailed down yet, but he says he plans to include special one-off screens for things like bags and clothing. This will not only mean that products such as T-shirts will carry unique designs and artistry, but they will also be affordable.
"The value of artwork doesn't function the way most people think it does," McCray says. "It's not about acquiring valuable paintings and insulating capital and protecting it and watching it develop momentum. Art has a cultural value that is priceless—it's worth far more money than anybody could ever give you for it."
Look even farther south in Santa Fe to find more examples of art that's more about showing than buying. It's there, on Fox Road, with 5. Gallery (2351 Fox Road, Ste. 700; 5pointgallery.com) and East of West, two neighboring spaces that occupy differing echelons of the burgeoning DIY gallery world but that have adopted similar mindsets; namely, if you want to see something done, do it yourself.
For 5.'s Max Baseman, it's as simple as showing work that he likes.
"Otherwise, what's the point?" he says with a laugh.
We sit at a newly built table in his space. The walls and floor are spotless. Pieces from John Connell and Michael Diaz dot the room. By the time you read this, his next show, Wilkes / Couisenau will have opened with paintings and photography from two Santa Fe artists. After two years, Baseman says that 5. is holding steady despite some months being tighter than others. Still, it represents massive progress.
In the early days, Baseman showed at his home on Galisteo Street. But when his landlord put the kibosh on his plan, he ended his lease and went looking for a suitable art space. Since then, Midtown and the Southside have both enjoyed a major renaissance with businesses like Second Street Brewery and Meow Wolf providing reasons to explore the city past Siler Road, but Baseman hadn't prioritized the area, nor did he realize what it might become. It just sort of worked out that way.
"And it's still small, it's still a locals' gallery," he says.
Baseman has no formal training. His father is Taos-based artist Marc Baseman, but other than growing up in galleries and museums, running his own space was a bit of risk.
"On paper, I could have never landed this job in any gallery," Baseman points out. "The only thing I have on paper is an art history 101 class."
He's also the first to admit that he's lucked out—from generous benefactors who believe in his mission to shows featuring famed New Mexico minimalist Agnes Martin. He's also shown his father's work and that of Ilona Pachler and others—always the work that strikes him. Still, Baseman is in it alone, and a normal day includes poring over submissions, administrative tasks and even cleaning the gallery.
"You do whatever you can do to make it happen, and that's very much a part of the DIY aesthetic," Baseman tells SFR. "But I try not to get caught up in terms. I've seen people go longer distances to make it look like DIY but, at the end of the day, it's showing work I think is important, and there is a lot of amazing, important work in Santa Fe—there's nothing like being in front of it."
A little later and right next door, LE Brown emerges from East of West Gallery (2351 Fox Road, Ste. 600) in dramatic fashion, a massive grin on her face. "Sorry. I'm late," she says lightly. "Would you like some water?"
In less than a year, Brown has transformed her space from an empty warehouse to a custom gallery focused on celebrating works from the Middle East. She runs a lending library, has future plans for a film series and is hopeful about transitioning into a nonprofit. She's the digital media coordinator for Currents New Media Festival and also works for the Emerging Media Alliance, another new citywide collaboration.
But Brown came up in the Santa Fe art scene trenches while working for galleries like Nedra Matteucci and GF Contemporary. Still, since her days in college at the University of California at Santa Cruz, she's leaned more toward showcasing work from the Middle East.
"This past month and a half has been revelatory and with exactly the communities I wanted to highlight," Brown says of Before We Were Banned, the most recent exhibit at East of West, curated by Brooklyn-based Iranian team Kiana Pirouz and Mahya Soltani. The show featured works by artists from Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere and was created in the wake of Trump's 2017 travel ban. It originally showed in New York City and is scheduled to travel elsewhere, but the caliber and scope of the work speaks to what Brown has accomplished. To step outside of her own curation efforts, she says, felt exciting.
"Me not having to interject my voice was my favorite part. I wanted to create a platform, but I didn't want to be curating," she says. "It's letting these artists tell their own stories. I've worked with some folks who are like, 'This isn't political enough!' or 'This is toopolitical!', but in Before We Were Banned … celebrating these folks who are coming from communities that are negatively affected by the travel ban, they could do whatever they wanted—happy or sad. To be able to have these vibrant communities is really humanizing."
But East of West as we know it is coming to an end following BORDERLAND: Photograph Exhibition by Alia Ali, Brown's last show in the physical space which opens Saturday Oct. 20 and runs through Wednesday Nov. 7. Afterwards, East of West becomes more ethereal, with Brown moving overseas to pursue arts and job opportunities. She'll still host pop-ups abroad and plans to return to Santa Fe each June to continue her work with Currents.
"There are three things I've found I'm interested in," says Brown. "Basically, contemporary Middle Eastern women artists are artists who are in diaspora; increasing accessibility in the arts; and, since I've gotten involved with Currents, photography and video artists. But I can't do my job without input from artists, and that level of collaboration is something I've gravitated toward. I, too, am emerging."
The idea of accessibility came up organically during every interview conducted for this story.
It's important as well to Etiquette, a fledgling gallery in the same neighborhood (2889 Trades West Road, Ste. E), adjacent to DIY music space Ghost. Etiquette opened in January 2017 under the care of artist/curators Drew Lenihan, Sarah Bradley and Angelo Harmsworth. The trio had the experience, with Lenihan having attended Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and working for institutions such as SITE Santa Fe. Harmsworth is a former Santa Fe University of Art and Design student and experimental musician who has since moved to Germany, and Bradley works in the narrative audio department at Meow Wolf.
Musician Theodore Cale Schafer, who works in the same Meow Wolf department as Bradley, joined the collective later, having formed a bond with Harmsworth online and subsequently moving to Santa Fe from Michigan.
"To be perfectly honest, it all came out of frustration with another art space that we met and bonded and did various amounts of work," Lenihan says. When we speak, it's the closing night of Bear Trap, a show featuring video works of his own as well as paintings by Jared Weiss and ceramics by artist Owen Marc Laurion.
"We didn't have the creative freedom to do what we wanted," Lenihan continues. "Basically, we discussed our frustration and then one of us found this place on Craigslist and we just did it."
According to Lenihan, Santa Fe's art scenes are relatively open minded (or at least like to act as if they are). They can, however, feel downright resistant to the unknown or to change. The notion of accessibility comes up again, but this time as it applies to curation, music promotion and spaces dedicated to supporting their members' ideas and visions.
"At the core of it all—art, music, Santa Fe—it has its own elitism and a very bizarre breed of conservatism," he says. "I'd say it's open to new ideas, but actually has no core avant-garde or collective acceptance of new things or ideas. I just wanted to have my own communal space where things could be messy, things didn't have to be perfect; a place to fail."
Bradley and Schafer say these tenets have been paying off and attendance is up at Etiquette, though it's hardly their main focus.
"A lot of people who really love New Mexico, they've been out here on a road trip and we're getting people from other communities brought to this place," Bradley says.
"But if we have a show and welike it, there's no way for us to fail," Schafer adds. "I really identify with DIY, and even if one person shows up and likes it, that's cool. I've never felt a sense of failure."
Bradley and Schafer will stay on when Lenihan heads overseas for grad school in the coming weeks. It's become important to the Etiquette team that the space remains alive, on the edge of what seemed untenable in Santa Fe even a few short years ago.
"I think art is honestly a game where you as the artist set the parameters and the rules of the game," Lenihan says. "And if you play that game well—well, that might be good art."
The Other Outisders
Of course, as with anything, there are bound to be more spaces and exciting curators, artists and contributors that we didn't have the space to address—though we're aware of them and hope to touch on their work in the future if we haven't already. Discover other DIY arts and music venues throughout Santa Fe (presented in no particular order) here:
Alas de Agua
The Alas de Agua collective had their very own SFR cover back in May. The group is still going strong with mural painting, book releases and any number of exciting upcoming plans. Visit them at alasdeagua.com/.
From photography and puppets to live music, paintings, fine art and beyond, Radical Abacus embraces DIY, punk-rock and fine arts all in one. Hit radicalabacus.com for more information.
Zephyr Community Art Studio
Primarily a music venue that's hosted everyone from local champs like ppoacher ppoacher and Snaggletooth to touring titans like Xanthe Alexis and Diane Cluck, Zephyr also works in visual arts, collaborates with Alas de Agua and others and remains an adorably intimate yet prolific space. You'll find scheduling and photos and such on Facebook at facebook.com/zephyrmusicandart.
The long-running DIY music space feels like the spiritual successor to Warehouse 21's music program and is now the HQ for local imprint Matron Records. We've seen bands like The Velvet Teen, Future Scars, Chicharra and far too many more to count here. Did we mention we LOVE them? Visit matronrecords.com for more.
Second Street Arts Collective
The new kids on the block, this collective (which is also known as 2AC) shirks Canyon Road convention to showcase the efforts of well over a dozen artist and curator types. Find more info at 2acsf.com.