Santa Fe Galleries Forge Ahead Despite Lack of Tourism, Indian Market
By Chadd Scott
Interstate travel during the COVID-19 pandemic has become an indecipherable mosaic of state-issued mandates, suggestions, advisories, exceptions, penalties, and data sets related to incoming visitors’ need to quarantine, the guidelines often changing daily. In New Mexico, the rules are strict and clear: all persons visiting the state for any reason must self-isolate or self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.
One reason for the severity, New Mexico has both the fourth-highest number of Indigenous people living within its borders and the fourth-highest percentage of Indigenous people counted among its total population. The largest American Indian territory, the Navajo Nation, partially lies in northwestern New Mexico and has been particularly hard-hit by the coronavirus, at one point in May surpassing New York for the highest per capita infection rate in the country.
The devastating legacies of introduced diseases on Native peoples throughout the course of U.S. history should never be far from mind in New Mexico.
The tourism restrictions have been especially difficult for Santa Fe which has built a summer economy around art festivals, most notably, the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts Indian Market, the 99th anniversary of which was to take place August 15 and 16 with a galaxy of satellite events occurring throughout the week. Like much of the rest of the art world, Indian Market for 2020 has gone virtual.
That does nothing to help the local galleries who rely on Indian Market’s 100,000-plus visitors to spill into their businesses.
“The two-week quarantine mandated by Governor (Michelle Lujan) Grisham is working, COVID-19 numbers in New Mexico have been trending downward for several weeks, and while the impact on tourism is real and difficult for us, we can't lose patience at this point or we will lose the battle,” Laura Widmar, Director, The Owings Gallery in Santa Fe, said. “The arts don't exist without people, and in order for our business to survive and thrive long term, we need to do whatever we can to save as many lives as possible.”
While that is undoubtedly the case, it doesn’t ease the financial crunch being experienced.
“I believe the quarantine is well-intentioned and is designed to keep our community safe, which is of the highest priority, however, we feel the impact in our business, and I know that nearly all businesses, including many of our gallery neighbors, feel it,” Denise Phetteplace, Executive Director, Blue Rain Gallery in Santa Fe, said. “What makes this most challenging is that we rely solely on travel and tourism to support the local economy of Santa Fe, we are extremely grateful to our out-of-state visitors for choosing to come to New Mexico, and Santa Fe in particular, they make it possible for us to all do what we love.”
Both The Owings Gallery and Blue Rain Gallery, along with many of the other roughly 300 art galleries Santa Fe boasts, have persevered through the halt COVID-19 has put on tourism by utilizing a combination of beefed up on-line exhibits and programming with a carefully considered reintroduction of in-person experiences.
Starr Hardridge - "Hope in the Wasteland" (2020) | 36" x 24" | Courtesy of the artist and Blue Rain Gallery
“We continue to move forward with all of our shows and events as planned,” Phetteplace said. “We realize that we run the risk of people not showing up to our shows, but we feel strongly that it’s important for us to give people reasons to consider coming to the gallery–if we cancel everything, then their decision is already made–and we do this while adhering to all of the protocols that will help keep visitors to our gallery safe.”
While every gallery’s model is different, they all place customer safety as the top priority.
“For our current exhibitions, we shifted from large Friday evening openings to private appointments with the artists over a three to four day period and have found that many clients preferred the appointment format to the usual crowded opening,” Widmar said.
Widmar’s gallery currently exhibits the work of Diné (Navajo) artist Tony Abeyta through September 15. Abeyta is among the most successful contemporary Native artists.
Tony Abeyta - "Pueblo Canyon" (2020)| Oil on Canvas | 14 1/2" x 18" | Courtesy of the artist and The Owings Gallery
“I’ve always had this dream that I didn’t have to hustle, I didn’t have to show up, that I could take one year off (from Indian Market),” Abeyta said only half-jokingly. “There’s months of planning ahead for Indian Market, this year, there was months of not planning and being able to do what I wanted to do, so it was somewhat of a blessing because I didn’t have any pressure and I could just do the work at my leisure.”
That attitude is easier to take for an artist like Abeyta with a well-established collector base than for the vastly more numerous artists who rely on Indian Market for a sizeable percentage of their annual sales.
The results of Abeyta’s open schedule shine at The Owings Gallery. The work on view and for sale, paintings and jewelry, were completed this spring and summer, a period he found restorative despite its limitations.
“It was really about being in quarantine” Abeyta said of his current work’s inspiration. “I ended up nestling in and staying indoors and giving a lot of thought to the concept of sanctuary and what that means to everybody, a lot of the paintings were about what that felt like–to have a place to feel safe.”
Once Abeyta felt comfortable venturing outdoors again, he was reminded how important nature had been to him before the demands of a successful career kept him increasingly inside.
“I had really disconnected from that (which) had inspired so much of the work so I wanted to bring that back in and I saw it as an opportunity rather than a detriment, that I could actually get back to my roots of culture and nature,” Abeyta said. “I started fishing a lot and while I would sit there and fish, I would look at the river and see everything was really beautiful and tranquil and everything seemed to be ok with nature, nature was at peace with the woes of the world.”
Along with his iconic, jagged, New Mexico landscapes, Abeyta has painted a series of skyline images for The Owings Gallery show inspired by New York during the height of its pandemic lockdown, “lonely, all of the life of the city of New York…isolated and almost like a ghost town…similar to many locales in New Mexico which were off limits to tourism.”
Tony Abeyta - "Santa Fe Skyline" (2020) | Oil on Canvas | 18" x 52" | Courtesy of the artist and The Owings Gallery
Abeyta comes from a tradition of Navajo silversmiths, but only completes a jewelry series every two to four years. He’s especially proud of what he produced here.
“I just killed it, for lack of a better word,” Abeyta said. “I just went nuts and was really excited, I worked every day for about two months, I gave up painting and just did jewelry (at the beginning of COVID shutdowns).”
How long Santa Fe’s galleries will be forced to operate under COVID-19 restrictions remain anyone’s guess. Getting back to normal, however, doesn’t appear imminent.
As for Abeyta, he has a different perspective on “back to normal.”
“As opposed to thinking, ‘when is this going to be over,’ and wanting things to go back to normal, I started thinking I didn’t want them to be normal, I wanted them to change and to be different and for people to come out of this COVID-19 period with new information and a deeper connection to their community, their families and to their respective work,” Abeyta said.
If you find yourself in Santa Fe, call each gallery ahead of time to make sure they are receiving guests, with advance notice, chances are, they’ll be happy to see you in-person.
Tony Abeyta "March 2020" (2020) | Oil on Canvas | 24" x 18" | Courtesy of the artist and The Owings Gallery