Muralist and painter Gilberto Guzman is consumed by art.
In his small midtown home, he maneuvers through canvases stacked 10 deep against a wall. His clothes hang in a tiny linen closet in the hall, allowing more room to store paintings in his bedroom.
“I can’t help but paint,” he said.
But the future of one of the 88-year-old’s most visible works — a nearly 40-year old mural titled Multi-Cultural on the Guadalupe Street side of the former Halpin State Archives building — remains in dispute.
About 45 protesters on Saturday added their voices, gathering near the Railyard to ask the state to save the mural.
Christina Castro, a founder of Three Sisters Collective, which help organized the rally, said it was about more than the mural.
“If they take this mural away from us, it’s just another symbol they’ve erased. It’s like throwing salt in a wound,” Castro said.
The rally was the most recent flashpoint in what has been a long-running battle between people who believe the planned destruction of Multi-Cultural is part of the Railyard area’s gentrification and Department of Cultural Affairs officials who say the work is decaying and will have to go as the building is transformed into the Vladem Contemporary art museum.
Guzman designed the mural with Zara Kriegstein in the 1980s to portray New Mexico’s interplay of different cultures across time. Noted artists Frederico Vigil, David Bradley, Cassandra Mains, John Sandford, Rosemary Stearns and Linda Lomahaftewa assisted with the 110-foot by 18-foot mural.
Construction fencing currently encircles the site and will be covered in new, temporary murals under a plan announced last week by the city and a division of the state Department of Cultural Affairs.
Local artist Hernán Gomez Chavez posted a sign last week in front of the mural that reads, “Do not erase our history. A nation that forgets its past has no future.” He asked artists to boycott painting the temporary murals for the fencing.
“I’m saying this now because I don’t want artists to fall for their tactics; because in order to move forward and save this mural, we can’t just give into them giving us a couple of bucks,” Gomez Chavez said.
Alicia Inez Guzmán, a writer and artist from Truchas who is related to the muralist, said the battle over the mural is a bigger fight over an attempt to erase people of color from a historic area of Santa Fe.
“We acknowledge public art has a lifespan. We acknowledge it doesn’t
live forever and there can be an ephemeral quality to it,” she said. “But what we do not acknowledge is the erasure
of our voice in this very particular space.”
Protester Doug Belknap, 69, said the Department of Cultural Affairs owes the public an explanation, adding it makes sense to have contemporary art outside a contemporary art museum and calling the idea to put it inside “retrograde.”
“The whole art world, around the world, recognizes that art needs to get out of museums and out of the galleries and into the world to have some impact,” Belknap said.
State officials say the mural, which was completed in the 1980s and restored in the 1990s, is in poor condition, pointing to an assessment by an independent paintings conservator from Denver who found extensive cracking of stucco layers, fading from the sun and water damage.
Cultural Affairs Secretary Debra Garcia y Griego said the report showed the mural has reached the end of its life span, which public art programs consider to be a period of five to 10 years.
“I feel the department has made the difficult, yet correct decision that the mural cannot be saved,” Garcia y Griego said.
Gilberto Guzman said he agrees the mural has deteriorated, but he insists the art needs to be redone and must remain on the building visible from the street.
“Not everybody can afford to go to the museum, let’s face it,” Guzman said.
It’s temporary, he said, but that’s the point.
“It will deteriorate, of course — that’ll be another decade or so,” he said. “At that point, they can redo it or take it down and get someone [to paint a new mural].”
Guzman said he would lead a team, with young people from Española and surrounding pueblos, to help repaint the mural because he can’t climb on scaffolding or spend long hours working.
In late January, he wrote a letter to state political leaders and the public asking for “support in helping the Department of Cultural Affairs and I agree on a building design” that would keep the mural in its current location.
His letter referenced a contract made in the 1980s that said the state retained all rights to ownership but “expresses its intent not to alter or paint over the mural during its normal life.”
Theresa Sanchez, a friend of Guzman’s who has sat in on negotiations with Cultural Affairs officials, said she helped deliver his letter to get the word out.
“There is a lot of support for the mural,” she said. “And I want the public to use their voice and tell the department that they don’t want to see it go.”
In the 2019 legislative session, Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, introduced a proposal to give the Cultural Affairs Department $52,600 “to contract and commission a mural for the New Mexico Museum of Art,” which is expanding to the Vladem site.
The appropriation was approved, but the department did not use the funds.
Ortiz y Pino, who said he is looking into whether the funds can be reauthorized, said he would sign off on any compromise the groups may make.
“I’ll support whatever agreement they reach,” he said. “The intent was to preserve that mural somehow.”
But Garcia y Griego said the Cultural Affairs Department, which has the final say, does not intend to put any mural on the museum’s outer walls.
“We have decided that is not a viable solution for a museum environment — that we put a mural up and that it has a lifespan of five to 10 years,” she said. “We were excited about the idea of recreating the mural and keeping it inside, where it can be preserved and protected and maintained into perpetuity.”
She said she met with Guzman to discuss other options for preserving the artwork, and they came to a verbal agreement in the fall to create a smaller replica, painted on panels, to hang inside the museum lobby.
“The point in doing that was to maintain the legacy of the mural and to also maintain some of Gilberto’s art, his hand on the site,” Garcia y Griego said.
The panels would be made a permanent part of the museum’s collection and displayed in a publicly accessible area, with no ticket required, alongside historical signs and wooden beams from the building, she said. If there’s no agreement to repaint the mural, she added, officials plan to display photos and a plaque, along with pieces of the original mural.
Guzman said he rejected the offer in September because he couldn’t be sure the museum would keep the mural on display.
Meanwhile, Garcia y Griego hinted the department would meet with the city to discuss the possibility of relaxing restrictions against new murals downtown but could not provide a timeline.
“I think this is a larger community conversation around murals and how Santa Fe is going to support the work of mural artists going forward, given the legacy that exists,” Garcia y Griego said.
Guzman said he has been worn down fighting for the mural, but vows to go in the effort to save it and to inspire others to bring art to the streets.
“It’s so wonderful to have the art, outdoors, walking along, then to see a mural with beautiful colors that hits them like — bam!” he said. “I would like to encourage people to appreciate art, to live on another level.”