City officials are seeking proposals from artists interested in creating a new multicultural mural on two walls of a tower-like structure on Federal Place at the downtown Santa Fe Community Convention Center.
While the city attempts to move forward on the “Culture Connects” public art project, it’s also in the early stages of getting its long-gestating discussions off the ground to address controversial artwork and monuments in public places.
The announcement of the new project also comes as the city has been under fire for failing to prevent the destruction of a fading 40-year-old mural on a state-owned building in the Railyard that is set for an overhaul to make way for a new contemporary art museum.
Gilberto Guzman, one of the lead artists on Multi-Cultural, which adorns the east side of the Halpin State Archives Building on Guadalupe Street, has asked a federal court to halt its destruction. He and other advocates for the artwork argue it has cultural and historical significance and should be preserved.
Should the city hold off on new art installations until it gathers input through its so-called CHART process?
Mayor Alan Webber said no.
“I don’t think everything tucks under CHART,” Webber said, referring to the upcoming talks on “community, history, art, reconciliation and truth.”
“I think there was a very specific mandate for CHART,” the mayor added.
The process, approved in January, provides community members and organizations an opportunity to discuss potentially controversial public art through a series of public meetings. The process will culminate in recommendations to the City Council on what do with some of those existing works, and to inform future public art.
The roots of CHART stretch back to former Mayor Javier Gonzales’ administration, but the effort was revived in the wake of protests last year over art and monuments viewed by demonstrators as culturally insensitive or outright racist.
On Indigenous Peoples Day, a group of Native American activists and their supporters pulled the 152-year-old obelisk known as the Soldiers Monument from its base on the Santa Fe Plaza. Activists had long decried the monument as racist, due to an inscription dedicating it to soldiers who died battling “savage Indians.”
Supporters countered that the Plaza’s longtime centerpiece was a tribute to Union soldiers of the Civil War and an important piece of the city’s history.
A few months before the obelisk’s destruction, the mayor ordered the removal of a statue of conquistador Don Diego de Vargas from downtown Cathedral Park and identified both the Soldiers Monument and the Kit Carson obelisk, erected in 1883 in front of the federal court building, as pieces that should be removed from public spaces.
But the removal stalled over legal concerns regarding ownership of the monuments and their historical protections.
According to the city’s request for proposals for the convention center mural, officials hope the piece will highlight the cultural relevance of art as a means to represent community and to increase awareness of the city’s multicultural history and shared values. The project is budgeted at $50,000, and artists have until April 15 to submit their proposals.
Webber said there is nothing in the CHART mandate that suggests Santa Fe should hold off on moving forward with new art until after the process is completed.
“I don’t think we are going to hit pause in all cases until we get the CHART process through,” he said.
Meanwhile, a movement to save the Railyard mural, half a mile from the convention center, has continued for more than a year.
Multi-Cultural, 18 feet high and 110 feet long, was painted in 1980 by Guzman and a group of other local muralists. The work is now slated for “retirement” by the state Department of Cultural Affairs as part of a Halpin Building renovation to create the future Vladem Contemporary, a satellite wing of the New Mexico Museum of Art. The state intends to acknowledge the mural with a display inside the museum.
Guzman and other supporters of the work aren’t satisfied with the plan.
Earlier this month, Guzman filed a federal lawsuit seeking an injunction to prevent the Department of Cultural Affairs and the city of Santa Fe from destroying Multi-Cultural. Guzman said in the complaint the mural’s destruction would violate his contract for the work.
Dozens of people also rallied in the Railyard on March 10 against the planned destruction. During the event, organized by a local coalition called Keep Santa Fe Multicultural, protesters placed a banner in front of the mural that read, “Gentrification is erasure is gentrification.”
The city and the Department of Cultural Affairs have until April 5 to respond to Guzman’s U.S. District Court petition.
Webber noted the concerns over the long-standing mural, but he added the convention center project was tied to existing funding stretching back to 2018 and was in no way an opportunity to atone for the mural’s potential destruction.
“We’re not replacing one mural with another,” Webber said. “But I think there’s a heightened sensitivity to murals and what they represent.”
Artist Sebastian “Vela” Velazquez, a Santa Fe native, often finds himself pondering what, exactly, murals represent.
Velazquez, whose paintings appear on prominent buildings from Santa Fe to Hawaii, recently completed a mural of slain Santa Fe High School basketball star Fedonta “JB” White at a family member’s home.
Velazquez said he was interested in submitting a proposal for the convention center mural.
But, he said, he believes the city needs to have a conversation about the message it intends to convey through public art.
Murals should tell stories about a city’s past, present and future, he said.
Of course, there is going to be beautification,” Velasquez added. “[A mural is] going to look pretty, but there should be a deeper intention to these murals. That’s what I am working on in my own career.”
Pauline Kanako Kamiyama, director of the city’s Arts and Culture Department, said she’s not too concerned about the eventual convention center mural running afoul of recommendations and findings of the CHART process. She noted the artwork follows the city’s Culture Connects initiative, created to help guide the cultural future of the city.
Kamiyama noted her intention is for the CHART process to become a more robust part of the city’s planning and for it to continue past its one-year time span.
“Not everyone will love it,” Kamiyama said. “but to me, that will help continue the conversations and dialogue.”
Phaedra Haywood, James Barron and Dillon Mullan of The New Mexican contributed to this report.