The creator of a downtown Santa Fe mural that has become a flashpoint for discussions of class, race and gentrification is seeking a court order to keep his artwork from being torn down to make way for a new contemporary art museum.
Gilberto Guzman’s mural Multi-Cultural is a colorful piece that was painted on the east side of the Halpin Building on Guadalupe Street in 1980 with the help of several other artists and students from the Institute of American Indian Arts.
According to his lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque, the state agreed not to alter or paint over the work “during its normal life” and to give Guzman access to the mural so he could maintain it over the years, which he last did in the early 1990s.
But now the Halpin Building is being renovated and will be replaced with the Vladem Contemporary, a satellite branch of the the New Mexico Museum of Art.
Department of Cultural Affairs officials have said the mural will be “retired as part of the renovation and the department plans to “acknowledge the mural and its history with a display” inside the museum.
Guzman in the lawsuit contends the plan violates his contract with the state and his rights under the federal Visual Artists Rights Act.
He’s asking the court to issue a temporary injunction — which would become permanent if his lawsuit is successful — to prevent the Department of Cultural Affairs and the city of Santa Fe from taking any action to “remove, alter, deface, modify, mutilate, or destroy” the mural without his permission while his lawsuit is pending.
Guzman’s lawsuit also asks the federal court to convey him ownership interests in the mural and “exemplary and punitive damages … to deter future similar conduct.”
An injunction would not hurt the state or city, the lawsuit says, “As they have the funds to provide for an alternate design and plan for the Halpin Building” and already had a plan that would have preserved the mural, “but have since changed this plan to fully demolish it.”
The Department of Cultural Affairs did not respond to messages Monday seeking the date the mural is scheduled to be demolished, but construction has begun at the site.
Guzman’s attorney, Penelope Quintero, says in the lawsuit the city has authority over the building under state laws limiting construction or renovation of state buildings or landmarks in historic districts.
In an email, City Attorney Erin McSherry wrote the city is not party to the removal of the mural, and its statutory authority over the building was exercised last fall when the Historic Districts Review Board “provided review and consultation to the Department of Cultural Affairs.”
She added the city’s “applicable historic design standards did not relate to the mural because the mural is less than 50 years old.”
Guzman, 89, also has created murals in the the Roundhouse and the Bataan Memorial Building. Though some have said the work on the Halpin Building is beyond repair, Guzman previously said he could refresh it with help from others who are better able to work on scaffolding.
The artist isn’t the only one attached to the mural, which depicts people of different cultures and known landmarks of Northern New Mexico and the development of the region. Activists complained its removal is a symbol of the ongoing gentrification of the city and have held several demonstrations opposing the mural’s destruction. The most recent took place Saturday.
A liaison for Guzman declined to comment Monday, saying she wanted to wait until the Department of Cultural Affairs had been served with the lawsuit.