Under Kristina Melcher’s watch at Pasatiempo, Santa Feans learned how much money arts executives earned in the city.
She introduced readers to museums statewide in a series called "The M Files," and she revealed both the behind-the-scenes and onstage artistry of the Santa Fe Opera.
Melcher, the editor of The New Mexican’s weekly arts magazine for 17 years, also sent writers out to review casino food buffets and arranged an interview with Santa Claus.
She filled the pages with stories about the likes of Mozart, Jane Fonda, Joe Hayes, John Waters, Meow Wolf and Theater Grottesco — anything cool or weird or unreal or bizarre that suited her.
“The point of it all was to look at the arts scene seriously but still have a sense of humor about it,” said Melcher, 66, who has announced her resignation from the position earlier this fall and will step down next week. In the near future, she plans to work on some independent projects both locally and in Indonesia, she said.
Longtime journalist Tracy Mobley-Martinez, who has worked as a writer and editor for the Albuquerque Tribune, The State in Columbia, S.C., the Naples (Fla.) Daily News and the Colorado Springs Gazette, will come on board as Pasatiempo editor Dec. 21.
“The kind of thing I liked to do,” Melcher said, “was to show people not only what was out there, but look into what made it work. Was it money? The directors? The artists? I just wanted to expand our idea of looking at what the arts are.”
Rob Dean, the former editor of The New Mexican who hired Melcher in 2001, put it this way: “Kristina just has a sense of authority in the arts. More than that, she had a really good understanding of the arts scene in Santa Fe and how a publication like Pasatiempo needed to represent it.”
Melcher began her career at Pasatiempo in 2000 as a freelance music and features writer after the late Craig Smith — the magazine’s classical music writer for years — asked her to help him cover a busy summer of music events.
“It was really Craig who was responsible for bringing me on,” Melcher said.
Within a year, she was a copy editor and then an associate editor, an interim editor and finally chief editor of the magazine, which debuted in 1983.
“She earned the promotion,” Dean said of Melcher’s fast-moving rise. “Even then, she was a good champion of the people who made up the staff and a guardian of the brand Pasatiempo.”
Her pre-Pasatiempo years were filled with an array of arts and culture jobs, including as a music programmer for the San Francisco public school system and in a somewhat secret undertaking as a U.S. State Department representative and consular agent in Bali. Melcher doesn’t talk much about that role, simply summing it up with, “Just say I worked in Bali.”
In the late 1980s, she found herself in Santa Fe, where she initially worked as director for the Music of the Americas program with the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. Then she co-owned and ran the former Santa Fe World Music Agency, which represented musicians, for about five years before going to work as an editor for Schwann Publications, a publishing house specializing in tomes about music.
Her childhood dream, she said, was to be a musician. She learned to play piano, as well as string and percussion instruments. She earned a bachelor’s degree in music at Antioch College and also studied at the California Institute of the Arts, the Center for World Music and the Indonesia Academy of Arts. She coordinated and performed in shadow play theater programs in San Francisco and, along the way, developed a quirky and dark sense of humor, one that pervaded the pages of Pasatiempo.
She once paired a serious piece about a museum exhibit on the Russian Romanov family with a humorous story titled “There’s No Disputin’ Rasputin,” which focused on Grigori Rasputin, the Russian mystic and adviser to the crown.
When a thief stole a Georgia O’Keeffe painting from a local museum, Melcher devoted almost an entire edition not just to that crime, but to the broader issue of art thefts, and even convinced the newspaper’s crime reporter to write a story about how police were baffled by the Santa Fe heist.
The Santa Fe Opera was a prime love for Melcher; every summer, readers could expect an array of stories surrounding each production.
“She has a keen artistic insight and a very advanced appreciation of all forms of music, including classical music and opera,” said Charles MacKay, former general director of the Santa Fe Opera. “She has consistently displayed a thorough understanding of Santa Fe’s unique cultural identify.”
Melcher’s staff members were expected to become experts on local arts organizations — from bare-bones theater ensembles working in a warehouse to richly funded and internationally known classical music groups. They also were expected to deeply explore the organizations’ administrative operations, including finances. Under her direction, Smith provided an annual feature called “What They Make,” detailing the pay and benefits of the top leaders of each arts group in the city.
Her love of the offbeat prompted her to send reporters to investigate UFO sightings, haunted houses and supernatural goings-on in surrounding communities — usually for a Halloween-themed issue. If one Pasatiempo issue included a Q-and-A with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee, the next might feature a Q-and-A with an alien abductee.
Melcher’s job wasn’t an easy one to juggle, MacKay said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to sift through all the requests of so many individuals and organizations — each deserving of coverage and each wanting the most in terms of coverage and always favorable coverage at that. That’s a nearly impossible task that she handled with great finesse.”
Pasatiempo writer Paul Weideman said Melcher brought a “topical breadth” to the magazine.
“Kristina organized us,” he said, “organized our abilities and strengths but also challenged us to research and interview and write in unfamiliar territories, always with the goal of producing an awesome magazine.”
New Mexican owner Robin Martin called Melcher “a class act.”
Under Melcher, Pasatiempo earned a Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 2009 as a contributor to the arts.
Nearly a decade later, Melcher said she is ready to move on.
“Never in a million years did I think I’d be here 17 years,” she said. “It’s time.”
MacKay thinks her departure is the end of an era.
“I really think you would be hard-pressed to find a better, more comprehensive news magazine devoted to the arts in the country,” he said. “Perhaps even anywhere in the world.”