"It's like an art ghost town," Stacy Scibelli says.

A moment before, the designer was explaining her modular fabric pieces during an open studio event, "Platform," at the Santa Fe Art Institute. Held three times a year, the series features the artists who come to SFAI for its themed residencies each year: Labor, in the case of 2020.

For Scibelli, also an art educator who has taught fashion design for the past decade, she intends her project "Garb" to highlight the fashion industry's less seemly aspects. She designs each piece as a simple geometric shape made from natural materials that can be worn in myriad ways.

"The idea is it would be a capsule wardrobe and you shouldn't need anything else," Scibelli says. "There's so much waste in the fashion industry. If we never made another piece of clothing, we wouldn't run out. Nobody would go naked."

As Scibelli describes "Garb," SFAI's rooms buzz with residents, staff and visitors peeking at works in progress and meeting the artists behind them. Occasionally, new entrants usher in gusts of cold air. Barely 6 pm, it might as well be midnight. Late winter Santa Fe: a cold, dark evening on a mostly abandoned campus. Back inside, Scibelli—who came from the East Coast for the residency—expresses enthusiasm about being in Santa Fe, but adds: "This campus is so bizarre. It's kind of abandoned but there's still a lot of activity. There's skunks and a coyote and I saw an owl."

At the time—Feb. 21, to be exact—SFAI staff and leadership knew well the challenges SFAI's location on a mostly abandoned campus presented for the institution. Addressing them and heightening its public presence and local identity through public events was one of the organization's top priorities, along with a host of other ambitious schemes to commemorate its 35th year.

Enter COVID-19.

By April, SFAI's residents had disbursed to homes around the globe as the pandemic sent New Mexico—and most of the world—into lockdown. Shortly thereafter, SFAI altered its plans for the foreseeable future: Annual artist residencies won't resume on site until next year. Two international alumni travel programs to Greece and Columbia were postponed indefinitely. Ditto for on-site public programs.

Yet while COVID-19 has created logistical and fundraising challenges, the concomitant emphasis it has placed on social and racial justice issues is providing SFAI the opportunity to spotlight and magnify the work the organization—and its artists—have been doing for years. This year's theme of labor has taken on heightened resonance as the entire nature of work drastically shifts. Past year's themes examining truth and reconciliation; food justice; equal justice; and immigration and emigration have also only increased in relevance.

"This moment, specifically the awakening around the racial issues and inequities and Black Lives Matter as a movement that's front and center, is not new work to our artists or to the art institute," SFAI Board member Edie Dillman says, pointing as just one example to the curated online collection of anti-racism talks by former residents through SFAI's 140 lecture series. But having a "captive activated audience," as Dillman describes it, has spurred new initiatives. SFAI has launched online programming for its labor residency artists, its alumni, Instagram takeovers and a podcast homed in on social justice issues.

At the same time, SFAI continues work through a National Endowment for the Arts grant to map cultural assets in the area as part of the Midtown Campus development in the hopes of shaping its future to also emphasize the importance of art and community.

As for that 35th anniversary: "It definitely feels a little bit thwarted," SFAI Executive Director Jamie Blosser says. "I mean, we were going to have a huge event; it certainly doesn't feel like a very celebratory year." On the other hand, the events of the last five months have created a moment "where we can actually be responsive and continue to deepen the conversations we're already having and spotlight and amplify as much as we can the artists we're already supporting."

Those conversations among artists working at the intersections of art and activism constitute the core to SFAI's mission, if not—perhaps—its original vision.

As my gender makes it inappropriate to refer to me as a 'master' artist, and my values make me recoil at the very term, I will not be giving a 'master class.' Rather, I will offer a one-month workshop where participants can explore their own personal subject matter through a collaborative project, which I will facilitate. At the end of the workshop, participants will share their work with the public in order to find out if their personal and esthetic interests relate to anything in the larger world. —Judy Chicago, Feb. 24, 1986

SFAI’s 17,000-square-foot building was designed by renowned Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta.
SFAI’s 17,000-square-foot building was designed by renowned Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta. | Courtesy SFAI

Originally named the Santa Fe Institute of Fine Arts, SFAI was founded in 1985 by arts patron Pony Ault along with architect and artist William Lumpkins, with the idea of bringing renowned artists to Santa Fe to teach in residence. Prior to its opening, a February 1985 Santa Fe New Mexican article described the as-yet-opened school as one that promised to be "Santa Fe's most substantial private art academy" and quoted Lumpkins saying "the thrust of the school is to bring in and recruit from the local group of artists at least 10 outstanding teachers to give master classes each year." He said organizers had "hosted a party for several noted artists on the East Coast who indicated they would be willing to come and teach classes: "They would love to come out for a month," he said. "Everybody loves Santa Fe."

While those early years leaned more toward fine arts and established practitioners, from the get-go some pushed against notions of hierarchy, such as Judy Chicago, whose criticism of the "master class" nomenclature SFAI quotes in its online history of the institute.

For more than a decade, SFAI hosted artists in changing locations around town, until the end of the 1990s when notable arts benefactors John and Anne Marion forged a connection between SFAI and the College of Santa Fe: CSF agreed to host SFAI on the school campus in exchange for help in building "world-class art facilities for the College." Renowned Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta was hired to design the Visual Arts Complex, including SFAI's building. An October 1997 story in this paper discussing the proposal noted "now that it will have its own home on the College of Santa Fe campus, the little-known Santa Fe Art Institute…has plans to raise its profile. It will be able to bring in more visiting artists, increase its collaboration with other schools and expand opportunities in its programs for emerging artists."

That particular story focused on the sudden expansion of arts education across the city, querying whether Santa Fe could actually support multiple art schools and, moreover, what role arts education might play in addressing the insularity of the art world.

"'It's about me, me, me,'" then SFAI Director Kerry Benson said. 'Who cares if there's an audience? There's no social responsibility any more. Society has become disengaged from the arts.' Benson said she hopes to change that through symposiums and lectures. 'I want people to start having a dialogue about why we have art and what happened in our society to alienate people from it,' she said."

Such dialogue would only intensify as the 1990s ended and the new millennium began.

Black lives and black art often exist in spaces of contradiction. Again, and again, we Black artists mine the themes of racism and racialism; pain and suffering; sorrow and joy; abjection and righteousness; invisibility and hyper surveillance; marginality and humanity; confinement and freedom; and justice of resistance; duality and singularity; erasure and representation; problem and possibility. The list goes on. And yet each of us does so in a novel and original way. —Elizabeth Burden, SFAI Truth and Reconciliation fellow, July 15, 2020

SFAI's residency program has evolved over the years, with an inflection point in 2001 when former Executive Director Diane Karp created an Emergency Relief Residency for artists impacted by 9/11 Thereafter, it offered residencies to creators displaced by hurricanes and other natural disasters. When Sanjit Sethi took over as executive director in 2013, he explicitly created the themed residencies and their connection to social justice issues. Seven years later, the artists—approximately 70 each year coming for one to three-month stints—are spread across the globe. The program has evolved to include not just visual artists, but people working in a multitude of areas, including writing, design, education, humanities and the social sciences.

Two weeks ago, SFAI launched the first of what will be ongoing online discussions and events for such past fellows. "Conversations: Unprecedented (Again)" on July 15 featured alumni artists Veronica Jackson and Christopher Kojzar in conversation with artist-moderator Elizabeth Burden regarding work of theirs that resonates in this moment.

“Language of Invisibility on Display,” 2017 by Veronica Jackson: Felt bulletin board, plastic letters, alum frame
“Language of Invisibility on Display,” 2017 by Veronica Jackson: Felt bulletin board, plastic letters, alum frame | Courtesy Veronica Jackson

Jackson, part of the 2017/2018 Equal Justice residency cohort, shared the backstory for "Language of Invisibility on Display,"—the time a white man navigated around her in line at Whole Foods as if she wasn't there, insisting, in fact, she hadn't been when Jackson confronted him. As she describes the piece in her artist's statement, four bulletin boards illustrate "various phrases that represent the invisibility enacted upon my being throughout the years. The black letters on the black felt evoke the concept of not being rendered legible while the signboards' format visually announces that a message exists and is ready to be communicated."

Before discussing her art making, Jackson acknowledged SFAI's role in her work.

"SFAI is the place where I first started making art, where I recognized that I was an artist," she said. "They gave me the jump start for my visual art-making practice. I will always be indebted to this institution. It is the reason why residencies should exist. They nurture artists and for me they birthed an artist."

SFAI's new monthly podcast "Tilt" also launched last month. For its first episode, "Calling In: How White People Can Join the Fight for Racial Justice," SFAI Residency Director Toni Gentilli moderated a conversation between Labor alumna Lori Waselchuk, Equal Justice alumna Ann Lewis and Truth and Reconciliation alumna Sara Konrath about their creative practices and relationships to social and racial justice.

“SILENCED for Breonna,” 2020 by Veronica Jackson – Face mask, silver and gold glitter alphabet stickers, black tape
“SILENCED for Breonna,” 2020 by Veronica Jackson – Face mask, silver and gold glitter alphabet stickers, black tape | Courtesy Veronica Jackson

Documentary photographer Waselchuk has an ongoing body of work she's collaborated on for the last seven years alongside block captains in Philadelphia who act as stewards for their neighborhoods. Multidisciplinary artist Lewis focuses on criminal justice reform. For example, her 2016 project "…and counting," documented every police-related death in the United States via toe tags on which Lewis wrote out each individual's story. Social psychologist Konrath directs the Interdisciplinary Program on Empathy and Altruism Research. "The topic of empathy matters when it comes to social justice because people who are able to have more empathy for others tend to actually have less prejudice," Konrath explained. All the podcast participants donated their $450 SFAI stipends to nonprofits working on various anti-racist endeavors.

Since May, SFAI has been turning over its Instagram feed to former alumni. Food and Justice alumnus Hakim Bellamy (Albuquerque's former poet laureate) took over the feed July 29 in a series of posts discussing his work and the moment at hand. "I don't believe art is ever really divorced from your real lived experience in your community," he said during one. "My particular constellation of blackness—because stars are generally set in a sea of black—has been very much aligned with these various different iterations of the Black Lives Movement."

Putting its artists front and center came about—as all decisions seem to at SFAI—through deep conversation. In the aftermath of the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd in late May and Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country and world, many organizations came forward in solidarity for the movement. SFAI wanted to do more.

"Being on the board at SFAI, one of the privileges is they often have so much to teach me and remind me about," Zane Fischer says. "When this movement really began this year, the response from SFAI's leadership and its staff wasn't, 'oh give us validation because we're already been doing this work.' They said, 'how can we make sure we're really truly supporting this work?' So their first action was to reach out into the broader national community and to double-down on anti-racist training for the staff and to figure out how they could work even harder to make themselves be explicitly an anti-racist organization."

Residency Director Gentilli, who normally would be working face-to-face with the residents as they arrive throughout the year, shifted all the resources online, setting up an online hub where fellows can communicate, and providing online discussions and programming. Gentilli, herself an artist, anthropologist and curator, says she's always held a curatorial role by organizing public programs and exhibitions at SFAI's facilities. Staff had often talked about launching more online programming in the past but lacked capacity to do so at scale. The pandemic, she notes, "provided us this beautiful moment to finally launch these explorations through these different media."

Artists, during their residencies, have living and studio space at SFAI.
Artists, during their residencies, have living and studio space at SFAI. | Courtesy Santa Fe Art Institute

And then there's the logistics: rescheduling all the Labor residents who would have come in 2020, who will now come in 2021, and providing support as people navigate the current situation.

"Everyone is experiencing this moment really differently," Gentilli says. "Some are finding the challenges and restraints to be extremely generative and are making work like crazy. Other people are overwhelmed with all of the social issues we're all juggling right now." Some, she says, are dealing with health issues, others with financial issues as exhibitions and other work opportunities are canceled. "Some are being asked to rethink how they teach and balancing at-home childcare if not homeschooling along with work." The upshot, she says, is the current climate has created "this period of reflection for asking: What is the role of creating art in this moment? What can I do as an artist that is meaningful in response to everything I'm personally experiencing, our family is experiencing, our larger society is experiencing?"

Executive Director Blosser says situating SFAI into the larger national and international dialogue happening around these issues dovetails well into the organization's identity. "We've always felt we are a little bit more known in the national and international community than we are locally," she says, "so it is fulfilling to have that as a larger dialogue and that is something that is easier to do virtually."

Yet while SFAI has taken the physical distancing requirements as an opportunity to beef up its virtual outreach, its focus also remains on what has emerged in the last few years as its greatest challenge and, of course, opportunity: the Midtown campus.

It's a good thing to call for investment in the people and organizations affected by COVID-19. Clearly, artists and arts organizations have been significantly affected, as almost every form of artistic creation is generated or completed by gathering in groups… But the argument, as usual, is being framed in the same old narrowly economistic terms, continuing the fiction that culture must be justified as a generator of capital in a society in which the only things that count are those that can be counted. — Arlene Goldbard, "Arts and Culture: If This Doesn't Wake Up Establishment Arts, What Will?"

When Blosser came on board as executive director at the start of 2016—after working on an interim basis during part of the prior year—the move was both a career change and a homecoming. A licensed architect, Blosser shifted to the nonprofit world after completing a Loeb Fellowship in 2015 at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she focused on equity, resilience and global urbanization's impact on rural communities. That year provided time for Blosser to ponder her next moves after more than 20 years of working as an architect in New Mexico with a primary focus on Native American communities and affordable housing. That work had included time as a project manager for the Ohkay Owingeh Housing Authority, where she remains a board member, and had led her to found the Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative (where she also remains a board member). By 2015, Blosser was an associate at Atkin Olshin Schade Architects and, she says, at a crossroads.

"The Loeb Fellowship was a great opportunity to take some time off and decide which pathway: Do I really want to do the sustainable Native collaborative work and really invest in it? Or do I really want to invest and deepen further with AOS? And then I decided I wanted a completely different thing."

Without knowing what direction that would take, she says, "I wanted to have the opportunity to look at issues in a completely different framework. I was focusing on equity and resilience in rural communities during the Loeb year and really thought my next path would be something in that and possibly even policy, but I'm not a policy person. I'm an architect and more of a creative."

Blosser had joined the SFAI board and her fellow board members and outgoing Executive Director Sethi approached her about taking it over. At first, she told them, "you're crazy." But after having conversations with her "national community…I ended up coming back to it because I realized it did parallel in a really significant way" the work she wanted to do: supporting creative "and artistic expression…in service of something larger."

And, it turned out, her work as an architect, project manager and lead in community engagement work would come in handy. Just a year and a half or so after she came on board, Santa Fe University of Art and Design, with which SFAI shared a campus, announced it was closing.

While Blosser was relatively new to SFAI at the time, her relationship with its Visual Arts complex—of which SFAI's 17,000-square-foot building is part—stretched back to its inception, when she was an intern with the architecture firm of record for the project: Lloyd and Tryk Architects.

SFAI Executive Director Jamie Blosser began her position full-time in January, 2016
SFAI Executive Director Jamie Blosser began her position full-time in January, 2016 | Courtesy SFAI

The original vision of collaborative work between first SFAI and the College of Santa Fe and then SFUAD had never truly materialized, Blosser says, and public confusion about SFAI—was it part of the college? was it a college itself?—had persisted over the years. SFUAD's announced closure in Spring, 2017 only increased the identity crisis.

"The morale at that time just plummeted," Blosser says. "People started walking into our building and saying, 'I thought you guys were closed.'" The disruptions on campus impacted SFAI on a daily basis. "We were fielding random things all the time, and it's really hard to push the awesome programming you're doing when you're fielding negative or confused queries constantly."

With the campus' future uncertain, Blosser jumped in. "I literally stuck my foot into every possible place I could step it," she says. The city contracted with SFAI to shepherd a selection committee reviewing the various architectural visions for the project (disclaimer: This writer served on that committee in her former capacity as a SFUAD faculty member, although she has little memory of it). By the summer of 2018, the City of Santa Fe had taken over the 64-acre initiative that would come to be known as Midtown Santa Fe.

As a former Harvard Loeb fellow, Blosser applied for and received a Loeb Alumni grant that year to bring other Loeb fellows from around the country with development, planning and real estate finance backgrounds that summer to tour the site, meet with Santa Fe city councilors and Mayor Alan Webber and present recommendations. One of those fellows, Daniel Hernandez, with whom Blosser had worked previously on an Ohkay Owingeh project, eventually became the city's project manager. SFAI was part of two of the three finalist teams for the project's development, and one of the organizations collaborating with the chosen developer: KDC Real Estate Development & Investments/Cienda Partners.

SFAI also is part of the Midtown Arts Alliance, a coalition proposing use of the existing visual arts facilities as a hub for multi-disciplinary, multi-genre arts and arts activism. Additionally, through a National Endowment for the Arts Our Town grant, SFAI and Midtown Arts Alliance partners at the University of New Mexico and Littleglobe are working on an extension of the city's Culture Connects project to map the cultural assets of the area "in order to better identify how investment in local artists and regional Indigenous and Hispanic/Chicano/Latinx cultures and communities can help to connecting regional arts, culture, and creative sectors with economic and leadership opportunities that do not rely primarily on the tourist market," according to a description of the project on SFAI's website. Two fellows from SFAI's Story Maps Fellowship program are working on that project. That program, which SFAI launched in 2018, pairs local artists who identify as Indigenous, Black or people of color on projects with government or other non-arts organizations.

"It's just been a really beautiful dialogue between these artists and culture bearers and historians and storytellers about ways we can engage the local community, ways that we celebrate neighborhoods around Midtown, ways that we can start to reach out to faculty and students and celebrate these stories and memories about belonging to really impact what the future of the district could be," Blossser says. The project, which she describes as "full steam ahead" feels like a way "to really spin the imagination out into what it could be, rather than continuing to feel like this isolated space in the middle of Midtown."

For now, though, SFAI's building remains quiet. In mid-March, when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued her first COVID-19 public health emergency order, Blosser, her staff and all the residents gathered together to start making decisions. Staff began working from home. The residents—some international—either hunkered down or made plans, some of them complicated, to go home.

SFAI 2020 Labor resident Stacy Scibelli remained on campus making masks when New Mexico shut down for COVID-19.
SFAI 2020 Labor resident Stacy Scibelli remained on campus making masks when New Mexico shut down for COVID-19. | Julia Goldberg

Designer Stacy Scibelli ended up the last to leave, staying on the now entirely deserted campus making masks, which were then donated to local organizations. "It was pretty surreal," she says, reached by phone, driving in Massachusetts. "It was kind of the perfect place to quarantine."

Since then, SFAI secured an $87,000 Paycheck Protection Loan, but Blossser acknowledges, "like every art organization, [the pandemic is] hugely impacting our ability to fundraise. I'm actually really worried about next year."

But, fittingly, the events have also prompted deep thinking about the nature of arts funding in general. Citing a recent essay by Arlene Goldbard that looks critically at the need to constantly economically justify funding the arts, Blosser says the current climate provides an opportunity to double-down on the importance of arts outside of those fiscal justifications.

"Artists are going to have to be the ones that tell the story about this time and help us reframe what the future is," she says. "Especially with the kind of work we do and we are so inspired by and the impact it really does have on the narratives within which we as a society place ourselves—and the necessary changes to those narratives. We have to rely on the work of artists for all of that to really understand our own humanity and understand new directions we can head in."

For the first time in many years, SFAI won't open applications for residencies this January. Instead, the rescheduled labor residents will return in 2021. The residents who would have come in 2021 have been pushed to 2022. The theme for that year?

Revolution.