Seismic Change in Santa Fe
THE Magazine, April 2016
Kathryn M Davis
In the 1960s, New York City’s SoHo district began to recast itself in a new image. The outmoded manufacturing district emptied of industry and was drastically recreated by an incoming population of artists with their eternal quest for— what else—cheap live-work spaces. As the once- affordable neighborhood in downtown Manhattan slowly evolved into a ridiculously chichi part of town (by the ’90s), Chelsea became the new SoHo. Now, of course, the borough of Brooklyn has been gentrified to its own mortification, and Queens and the Bronx have increasingly become default locations for the great percentage of New Yorkers who can’t afford to live in Manhattan or Brooklyn.
The old days of SoHo’s rise from ignominy represented a seismic shift in the Western world’s art capital, economically and generationally, a shift that meant that a whole new neighborhood was flooded with new residents of the “creative” sort. Watch out for them—they’ll transform your once-funky neighborhood into a bastion of hipsterism! And you just might find yourself priced out of a home.
Here in Santa Fe, we’ve known that kind of gentrification for at least 100 years, or as long as painters have been committing Modernist concepts to canvas. Bohemians from the East Coast started moving into Canyon Road in the early twentieth century. These “Nuts in Mud Huts” were frowned upon by the more upwardly mobile Hispanos and Anglos who chose to live downtown in their Victorian homes. Like any other arty types, the nuts had other priorities. In the 1900s, the road into the foothills was more than unpretentious. It was—and this is unfathomable now—affordable. Maybe the house you lived and worked in had broken windows and your fireplace didn’t work, but if you drank enough, you could keep those inconveniences at bay. Bars were plentiful, and artists and other outsiders thrived on Canyon Road.
Until, that is, it no longer served artists to live and work there, as a neighborhood popular for its affordability was overtaken by the commercial side of art—that is, galleries. Today, the old road is relegated to tourist-attraction status. You’ll see visitors staggering down the road of an afternoon, exhausted from a day devoted to oohing and aahing at the whirly- gig sculptures and sofa-coordinated paintings. Canyon Road is no longer an artists’ colony. It still lays claim to some great galleries, but its days as a bastion for eccentrics are over. It seems fair to say that the last nail was pounded into Canyon Road’s coffin when the art- supply store, Artisan, moved away in the late 1990s.
Meanwhile, artists and other broke types continue to move farther and farther away from the historic districts of Santa Fe as the pinch on Middle America plays out in New Mexico, one of the nation’s poorest states. Since 2008, the situation has become dire. But forward-thinking artists and students have always lived on the fringes, where space is cheaper. This means they gravitate toward previously undesirable areas, full of warehouses, garages, and abandoned bowling alleys.
If you’re not from here, you may be unfamiliar with the buzz being generated by the Santa Fe–based arts collective Meow Wolf. If you’re from here and are really, really hip, you’re already tired of hearing about Meow Wolf. The rest of us excitedly await the opening of the arts complex in the previously unconsidered area roughly bordered by Agua Fria and Cerrillos on the north and south, with Siler Road cutting a swath right down the middle. Siler has long been the main road of a mixed-use neighborhood that includes low-income housing, the back ends of big-box chain stores, mechanics’ and auto-body shops, gas stations and empty lots. The Siler-Rufina District is in the process of rapidly transforming into the new “it” neighborhood. Whether you call it Mid- Town, SiRuDi, LSD (Lower Siler District), or simply SiDi, it is happening now, as the essence of Santa Fe shifts from an adobe Disneyland to a place its sons and daughters can come home to.
GAME OF THRONES MEETS MEOW WOLF: A SONG OF MUD AND SKY?
Television’s ratings-grabber fantasy series, Game of Thrones, has an odd but powerful connection to Santa Fe in the person of co-producer and author George R.R. Martin, a long-time resident of the Fe. He has partnered with Meow Wolf members (many of whom grew up here) to turn an empty bowling alley in the SiDi into an art and entertainment complex set to open as this issue goes to press. Already covered by The New York and Los Angeles Times, and numerous art and pop-culture magazines, it’s definitely not your usual Santa Fe tourist fare. Not only will Meow Wolf change the way the general public experiences “art,” the new complex promises to transform a previously undervalued part of the country’s oldest capital city into a southwestern Bushwick of sorts. The psychological impact of this shift cannot be underestimated. If Meow Wolf succeeds in their vision, it will mean that a whole new generation of Santa Feans can look well beyond the Plaza, Canyon Road and other “quaint” neighborhoods to a viable part of town that isn’t miles from its cultural center, or priced out of reality.
The art collective, formed in Santa Fe in 2008, has been hard at work building their House of Eternal Return for just over a year, having negotiated a ten-year lease with landlord Martin. Their website describes Meow Wolf as “an arts production company” whose “immersive” “fusion of art and entertainment” is part “jungle gym, haunted house, children’s museum,” and part permanent art installation for “audiences of all ages.” When Meow Wolf co-founder and CEO Vince Kadlubek initially proposed buying the old bowling alley, Martin was immediately intrigued with the idea of a house whose tragic backstory caused it to fracture into new dimensions.
BRIEFLY, WHAT THE HOUSE OF ETERNAL RETURN IS AND IS NOT:
The Meow Wolf that’s garnering all the media’s attention right now is a 20,000 square-foot, permanent follow-up to the group’s wildly successful The Due Return, exhibited in 2011 at Santa Fe’s Center for Contemporary Arts. The art complex on the old Silva Lanes’ two and a half acres will also offer artists’ studios to rent, a gift shop, and a more traditional gallery space for resident artists. The David Loughridge Maker Space, 3000 square feet of workshop available to the public, will include a laser cutter, a CNC router, high-end sewing machines, kilns, soldering tables—all programmed by Meow Wolf’s Arts Education Program, CHIMERA, a non-profit organization. MAKE Santa Fe will be a valuable addition to the local arts community, offering classes in new media that our colleges do not.
The House of Eternal Return exhibition and the gift shop are for-profit ventures. As such, visitors will pay an admission fee of $15 per person to tour 20,000 square feet of what could be described as steampunk Disney meets interactive art. An annual family pass costs $150 for up to five people; an individual annual pass is available, and a lifetime membership costs $2000. You pay to play, folks, because . . .
Meow Wolf believes in paying artists and other creatives for their work. This is a concept that Santa Fe would do well to take to heart. This means that you’ll be paying to look at art. But you’ll also be paying for a purely fun experience that you’ll want to share with loved ones. (For context, see the Disney reference above.) The complex has employed up to 150 artists and technical experts so far, and reflects what Meow Wolfers call a “new art market model” that consciously transcends the rubrics of art versus entertainment. As an arts collective, they are interested in how to expand an art audience without alienating the viewer or diluting artistic vision. No small feat.
The collective’s aesthetic might best be described as a found-object, Maximalist Rococo style in which anything goes, including psychedelia. Burning Man is an influence, as is the City Museum in St. Louis. Throw in a sense of world-creating that aligns with Martin’s storyteller sensibilities, and you’re getting there. Discussing style is, however, misleading, as each artist works individually and in small teams to manifest their own visions. Call it radical collaboration; Meow Wolf is hardly manifesto driven.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
These days we’re all focused on the opening of Meow Wolf’s exhibition after a year of hype and hope. But the SiDi and other points south of downtown have presented viable alternatives to pricey Santa Fe for several years now. Major players there include artist Michael Freed, whose Offroad Productions at 2891-B Trades West converts his working studio into a gallery space, complete with guest curators (Linda Durham is currently on deck), as it has done on a quarterly basis for years now; Gregory Waits and Carolyn Parrs are FreSH Santa Fe at 2855 Cooks Road, where they show “art without a résumé” and host performances of all kinds. Then there’s Radical Abacus, at 1226D Calle de Comercio. Co-producer John McKissick summed up the Rad Ab’s history in an email:
The space has gone through a multitude of habitations and identities. Back when Kiki Smith and others were using Dwight Hackett’s bronze foundry and project space [on All Trades Road, now occupied by MAKE Santa Fe], the fabricators crashed here. I’ve been told that the space went through a grim black-metal nocturne. When I first visited Radical Abacus, there were aerial fabrics hanging from the ceiling for circus practice. Although I’ve lived here with four or five people (in an unheated loft with very thin walls), there are only two of us in residence now. My housemate Angelo Harmsworth and I decided to enhance the austerity of the main space by painting it white and eschewing the permanent presence of furniture, murals, and designated work spaces for the temporary allocation of performance actions, exhibitions and object assemblages, and social gatherings.
McKissick’s focus remains on organizing small group shows by younger practitioners from Santa Fe and beyond; he and Harmsworth have shown work by Martha Tuttle, Krista Peters, and (Meow Wolf co-founder) Sean Di Ianni, among others.
Then, because this is life and life doesn’t obey geographic bounds, there is the gallery and project space known as David Richard Gallery. Co-owners David Eichholtz and Richard Barger committed to moving out of the overpriced Railyard Arts District; their grand re-opening took place at the beginning of this year. During their time in RAD, they were known for specializing in Post-War American Abstraction, but their recent, and excellent, programming brings in a younger, alternative crowd that most other Santa Fe gallerists often ignore. Visit them on the outskirts of the fashionable districts, at 1570 Pacheco Street—another neighborhood of warehouses, car mechanics, featureless little houses and striking contemporary lofts, an upscale design center with the lovely restaurant Sweetwater Harvest Kitchen, and the Pink Church Art Center.
Most Santa Feans haven’t lived in its historic districts for decades. Change may not be easy, but inevitably it offers the opportunity to remake what we hold dear to this place. Matt King, another founding Meow Wolf member, mused to LA Times reporter David Wharton in a front-page article filed on February 23rd, “How do we do this and remain true to ourselves?” That is the question, Santa Fe. If anyone has a vision for the century to come, it’s our artists.
Kathryn M. Davis