Cover Stories

Double Vision

Seeing is believing for Turner Carroll Gallery’s founders

Last June, a long line formed out the door at Baca Street Railyard-area contemporary arts space Container, stretching out beyond the concrete stoop and drive, onto the sidewalk and nearly down the street. At a small card table out front on Flagman Way, a pair of Container officials handed out snow-white balaclavas and encouraged visitors to don them as they entered. A sign on the door cautioned attendees they might be filmed.

The event—the local opening of Pussy Riot founder Nadya Tolokonnikova’s exhibition Putin’s Ashes—marked the Russian protest artist’s first time showing her work in Santa Fe. It also underscored the key and unique position Container proprietors Tonya Turner Carroll and Michael Carroll—who also run Turner Carroll Gallery—play in Santa Fe’s gallery ecosystem.

The duo opened Container—the city’s first building made out of shipping containers—in 2022 with an exhibition from internationally recognized multimedia artist Swoon and a pronouncement that the new gallery represented “a radical change in well-worn approaches to exhibiting and collecting contemporary art.” To that end, a statement at the time declared, the gallery would serve as a home for versions of museum exhibitions and artist residencies, with an eye toward work in conversation with contemporary social issues.

That mission dovetailed with Turner Carroll and Carroll’s longer mission of championing artists, which began when they founded Turner Carroll Gallery almost 25 years ago with a few works Juan Kelly, today an internationally recognized painter, and went on to show work by the late renowned sculptor Luis Jiménez; multidisciplinary queer/feminist artist Angela Ellsworth; celebrated feminist artist and author Judy Chicago and many more. The couple’s story, dating to Santa Fe circa 1989, also helps understand the narrative of Santa Fe’s contemporary art scene, with all its ups and downs.

How it Went

Santa Fe’s art world is lousy with anecdotal evidence about the coming-together and rise of the city’s international reputation as an arts mecca; about how this or that painter, sculptor, gallery owner, etc. came through town—either on purpose, because their car broke down or on a whim—and never left. Some cite the quality of light or their sense of cultural connection. The tourism market also can’t get enough of the city’s art scene, described earlier this year by one international magazine as “an art-lovers paradise.”

Yet, much of what the outside world perceives in that arena is based upon concepts of blue chip galleries and art as investment, whereas the good stuff has almost always happened in out-of-the-way places among bohemian types before making it to Canyon Road.

In 1989, Turner Carroll and Carroll happened through Santa Fe for the first time while headed to San Francisco and decided to stay for the summer.

They never made it to the Bay. Turner Carroll and Carroll were fresh out of college at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and Duke, respectively. They’d met through the performance art world, and each discovered the other was an art and art history buff. They fell in love. Prior to arriving in Santa Fe, Turner Carroll had completed her thesis on William Blake; she had received the prestigious Morehead scholarship (now known as the Morehead-Cain scholarship), through which she attained positions with Sotheby’s and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Carroll, meanwhile, picked up a degree in history with an emphasis on the arts. When they arrived, Canyon Road held particular appeal for the couple.

“Let’s just say we were interested in contemporary art,” Carroll says with a laugh.

“So we decided it was a place where we belonged,” Turner Carroll adds of Santa Fe.

The pair wasted no time engaging with the local arts community, taking on sales positions at local galleries and participating in performance events at the Center for Contemporary Arts. The next two years, Carroll says, were glorious.

“And then we realized that if we wanted to have the kind of arts community we really wanted—because we were artists as well as historians—and if we wanted something that we wanted to be a part of, we needed to help create it,” Turner Carroll says. “We knew we had to give it a try.”

The hunt for a space was on. Even Canyon Road wasn’t quite as Canyon Road-y as it is today, Turner Carroll and Carroll say, and they saw only massive potential for growth. In 1991 they discovered the three-room space at 725 Canyon Road where they have been ever since.

“It was attached to this boot store, and that guy owned the building—well, he was notorious at the time; this guy Marcel Fitzner,” Turner Carroll says. “And we were competing [for the space] against his drinking buddy, who was in his 60s. We were, like, 22; this was before the internet; you couldn’t get advice; we didn’t know what to do. But we knew the space was for rent and we had to have it.”

“We called Marcel ‘the New York Cowboy,” Carroll adds. “He was one of those people who wound up in Santa Fe from the Isle of Misfit Toys, like…if you don’t quite fit in someplace, you come to Santa Fe.”

According to Turner Carroll and Carroll, Fitzner was a regular patron of Borrego House, a Canyon Road watering hole that is today the location of fine dining restaurant Geronimo.

“He took all his meetings at the bar,” Turner Carroll continues, “so we went over there and said, ‘Look, we know your buddy wants it, but we know you have partners, so don’t you think you should allow your partners to make the best choice rather than just choosing your drinking buddy?’ And he said, ‘OK, show me a business plan.’”

With literally zero experience in business plans, the couple retreated to the library and slapped a plan together in a few days.

“We took that back to Marcel and he said he’d consider it and get back to us within a week,” Turner Carroll says. “Two days later, that drinking buddy of his contacts me and says he wants us to come over to his house, so we go over and he says he’s opening a gallery in that space and he wants me to be the director. Michael and I put our drinks down and left. We went right to the New York Cowboy at Borrego’s and told him, ‘In our world, this is not how you treat people—you said you’d consider our business plan!’ He shook hands on the deal right then. ‘He’s lying,’ he said, ‘so you get the space.’”

This was in April of 1991.

“And from that moment on, that kind of set the tone for everything we’ve ever done as a gallery,” Carroll says. “If you do your best and tell the truth, everything will probably work out. You’re going to have to do all the heavy lifting yourself, and you’re going to have to call people on it when they don’t tell the truth, but that was sort of our shot in the arm that we could do this if we stuck to our principles.”

The following weeks blurred together with sanded floors, roof repairs and mini-crash-courses in business. Turner Carroll’s parents gave them $10,000 to help pay rent and start up.

“I’d been on a full scholarship to school, and my parents said they would kick in some money for grad school if I did that, but I said, ‘Hey, don’t worry about it, just give me $10,000 to secure this lease,’” Turner Carroll recalls. “My mom sent a fax machine then faxed a contract that said I’d never ask for any more money.”

When Turner Carroll Gallery opened to the public in May of 1991, it had one artist on its roster: Costa Rican ex-pat and oil painter Juan Kelly. New to the game, the gallery’s owners burned through their $10,000 before the end of that first month and very nearly closed.

“We had two weeks before we owed the New York Cowboy $1,700 and I think we had $50 left, so we were feeling like that was rock bottom,” Carroll recounts. “Then this guy came into the gallery in a T-shirt and jeans, took a look around and said, ‘I want to buy all your paintings.’ We only had two Juan Kelly paintings at the moment to sell the guy, but it was $11,000, it was enough; and you know who it turned out to be?”

He turned out to be biochemist and genetic engineer Herb Boyer, co-founder of pioneering biotech company Genentech.

“And he came back every couple years during that first 10-year period,” Carroll says.

As Boyer aged (he’s 87 now), he stopped visiting, Turner Carroll says, “but when the gallery turned 10, we wrote this heartfelt letter that was like, ‘The only reason we’re still here is you.’”

The next two years heralded steady growth and opportunity as Turner Carroll continued to develop its reputation. By 1993, Carroll says, Fitzner had died and from his deathbed sold the couple his building for under market value. The Desert Son boot store remains attached to Turner Carroll Gallery to this day.

Carroll and Turner Carroll value their gallery’s connection to local history. These days, they live in Albuquerque where their daughter attends high school and commute daily to work. Both keenly remain aware of their newcomer status in the grand scheme of Santa Fe. As a higher-end gallery, Turner Carroll Gallery’s very presence on Canyon Road, though it dates to 1991, could be perceived by some as another tile in the mosaic of gentrification. Today, anyone who has spent $10 to park in the street’s one lot or bowed out at the last second from the Christmas Eve farolito walk to avoid the throngs of outsiders will say the same: Santa Fe has changed.

“In 1991, Canyon had studios and some galleries, but it hadn’t quite filled up like where we are now,” Turner Carroll says. “Even then, we felt judged by the New York Cowboy and his partners and his drinking buddy.”

Carroll, meanwhile, cites naked commercial ambition as problematic.

“Today, I think, there are obviously a handful of galleries on Canyon where the sale is the thing,” he says. “You also have to think about what type of people own these galleries—I was surprised when we moved here that they weren’t all art historians, they were former realtors who wanted to retire to Santa Fe and open a business for a second or third act.”

Which is not to say that Turner Carroll and Carroll don’t see their work as a business. They do. They just don’t see it solely as a business.

“I remember when I was in school in North Carolina, and I would get up and drive for five hours at, like, 5 am—either to Atlanta or to Washington, DC, and this was just to see exhibits,” Turner Carroll says. “I couldn’t afford a hotel, either, so I’d have to drive right back the same day. That’s almost exactly what I like to do to this day, except somehow, money has come from that. So I don’t feel guilt, I just feel incredibly lucky. And I hope that love never goes away.”

And the money, of course, also helps the artists whom the couple champions.

“Here’s my big thing,” Carroll says. “I think about the trade and the artwork, and beyond all the cultural benefits, money from out of town comes to us, and it goes from us to the artist and it stays here. And we’ve just successfully moved money from outside to inside. It’s a very low barrier to moving money inside the economy here, and I am extremely comfortable with that equation.”

That commitment to artists has earned Turner Carroll and Carroll loyalty from a veritable murderers’ row of contemporary artists.

How It’s Going

“They’re very honest, they mean what they say, they’re not playing games, and I appreciate it,” Pussy Riot’s Tolokonnikova tells SFR. “Tonya is very attentive, and I would recommend her to other artists—I do recommend to my friends who meet her to consider working with her, because it feels like she becomes a part of your family.”

Turner Carroll and Carroll met Tolokonnikova through Judy Chicago, who has shown at their spaces numerous times. They were, in fact, some of Tolokonnikova’s earliest collectors and cheerleaders, which, the Russian artist says, helped make her feel more comfortable bringing Putin’s Ashes to Container last year.

“The closest example would be that my friend Alexei Navalny was killed—no, he was murdered—on Feb. 16, and I wanted to organize an event in his memory; and I reached out to a bunch of galleries and museums, but everyone was busy and even though some people were very supportive of my efforts, not everybody puts everything aside and jumps into organizing an activist thing that isn’t going to bring people any money. Tonya was the one who did it. She jumped; organized the whole thing in a week.”

Painter Mokha Laget, who currently has work in Container and who has known Turner Carroll for roughly 20 years (and who wrote for SFR years ago), expresses similar sentiments about working with the couple.

“I mean, Turner Carroll is a very multi-faceted gallery and they embody this intersection of artistic practices,” Laget says. “At the same time, they also support artists like me working in a more historical vein—that pushes the boundary of that aesthetic. It’s also important for me that they bridge the gap between past, present and activist aesthetics and they have an equitable and inclusive vision.”

Laget, a relative newcomer to Container, has previously shown at galleries like Peyton Wright. At Container, Laget notes, Turner Carroll and Carroll are 100% supportive, which has led to various other opportunities including tours of Laget’s exhibits. That cache only seems to grow of late, too—to wit, this summer Laget will tackle a residency at the new Vladem Contemporary satellite wing of the New Mexico Museum of Art, amongst other forthcoming projects.

Through April 7, Container will host the exhibit Landfall Press: Iconic Prints, an absolutely massive collection of works from publisher and printer Jack Lemon, who began Landfall Press in Chicago in 1970. Today, Lemon calls Santa Fe home and says while his printing days are behind him, he’s proud to show at Container—something about it just feels right.

“When Landfall was Landfall, Tonya bought a lot of things from me,” he says. “When Landfall was not Landfall, she asked me if I would come and see her. I’d never been in her gallery, but we sat down and for hours we went over a lot of stuff.”

Iconic Prints encompasses dozens of artists, including Christo, Diego Romero, Jiha Moon, Robert Cottingham and more.

“Of course, I kept telling her that nobody in this town ever bought a print in their life,” Lemon says with a chuckle. “But people have really liked it. I think Tonya and Michael are kind of like what I was like—they select people who are maybe a little off the wall, but it’s them. They’re trying to teach people that there is more than just certain kinds of art.”

Part of that informal lesson plan includes sharing how art makes Turner Carroll and Carroll feel—not that they want to tell anyone else precisely how to feel, but rather that audiences can and should listen to their intuition.

Adopting a heart-forward practice has served them well since 1989, Turner Carroll says.

After all, Carroll adds: “Art is how civilization gets better.”

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