The controversy over the proposed removal of Multi-Cultural, a mural at the old Halpin State Archives building, is not going away — and it shouldn’t.

As the state Department of Cultural Affairs prepares to remodel the building, creating a contemporary wing of the New Mexico Museum of Art, a number of Santa Fe residents remain upset that a 1980s-era mural depicting the coming together of cultures in the region is slated for destruction.

On Saturday, people joined hands outside the fenced-off building, with mural artist Gustavo Guzman there to support their efforts. They want the state to promise to preserve the mural, preferably on the side of the new museum. That may be impossible, but surely there is a place for it somewhere in the Railyard.

Now 88-year-old artist Guzman — a Santa Fe Living Treasure — is speaking out, talking about the creative synergy that created the project. Muralist Zara Kriegstein and Guzman brought together a top-notch group of artists — Frederico Vigil, David Bradley, Cassandra Mains, John Sandford, Rosemary Stearns and Linda Lomahaftewa — to create the 110-foot by 18-foot mural that depicts the many aspects of New Mexico cultural influences.

We agree with artists and residents that more should be done to commemorate not just the mural but the coming together of artists to leave their mark on what was then a decaying former industrial district in the middle of Santa Fe. With the move of the archives to Cerrillos Road and the reimagining of the Santa Fe Railyard — now an upscale art district with an urban park — the district’s once-gritty feel has vanished.

That does not mean that all of the past should be erased. As the sign that once stood at the Halpin Building reminds us, “Do not erase our history. A nation that forgets its past has no future.”

That saying was put on a temporary sign and posted recently in front of what is now a construction site, the brainchild of artist Hernán Gomez Chavez. He is encouraging other artists to stay away from a project to paint temporary murals to hang along the fences around the site as construction occurs. That artists might voluntarily give up a paycheck shows how deeply they feel about preserving the original mural.

We remain confident that a better solution for preserving the mural remains. Some representation of it inside the new museum, Vladem Contemporary, is appropriate; both photographs or painting it on small panels have been discussed — of the two, we hope Guzman will endorse the panels. It’s also right to pay tribute to archivist Joseph Halpin, who died in 1985. That way, people can understand his contributions to our state during 21 years as archivist, especially in the building that once bore his name.

However, there still should be a place in the Santa Fe Railyard to recreate this piece even though officials at the state Department of Cultural Affairs claim the mural has reached the end of its life span. That’s possible, given that the folks at the department did not maintain the mural over the years, at least not since a 1990s restoration project.

In the 2019 Legislature, some $52,600 was appropriated to commission a mural for the site — money the department did not spend. It’s unclear whether those dollars remain available, but appropriations sponsor Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said the intent was to somehow preserve the mural.

Department Secretary Debra Garcia y Griego said she believes the difficult but correct decision has been made to eliminate murals from the outside of the museum. That may be right for a museum, but state officials need to understand that many community members see this as another erasure of their presence in the heart of town. By keeping the mural present somewhere in the Railyard, those concerns will be addressed.

From this controversy, we believe more good things are possible. The city and state can work together to recommit to vibrant public art in and around downtown, employing local artists young and old to create new projects that enliven our downtown and city.

Even beyond downtown, art projects along the train tracks could make the entrance to Santa Fe visible from the Rail Runner Express more attractive and less graffiti-plagued. After all, public art is economic development, whether through payments to artists or as a means of attracting visitors. This protest reminds us that art matters in our lives. Don’t erase. Find a way to restore.

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(1) comment

William Schmitt

Murals are a wonderful thing for the city to support and it has done so for many spots around town. As part of the anti-graffiti program many artists both professional and youth artists have been employed around town to paint murals in graffiti hot spots. Many of these murals were created with the understanding that they would have a life time of about 10 years. It has been an effective program because would be taggers respect the art work. A key issue concerning murals is longevity. Remember, they are painted with materials that will deteriorate over time with exposure to the elements. The artists understand this when they paint out doors, and the people in charge of the anti-graffiti program understand this also. It appears that the general public is having a hard time grasping this idea. So a couple of things can happen to make the public more aware. One is providing some information about the fragility of out door murals. They will fall apart over time. The second is, if the city wishes to create a space for a mural like the Halpin building, the space can be created with the understanding that the image will cue changed after a period of time, or in the case of the mural on the Ware House 21 wall, the mural is in a constant state of change. Nobody that I am aware of has complained about the ever changing design on that wall. A third way of dealing with this is employing materials that have greater longevity. This is the case with the mosaic tile mural located at the corner of Guadalupe St and Paseo de Peralta that depicts the jaguar and serpent. That mural has been around for almost as long as the Halpin building mural and it is still in great condition. The fuss over the Halpin mural is more about a failure of expectations than it is about destruction of art work. The state, while failing to anticipate the controversy should not be held responsible for the deterioration of the mural. It's out door and it has fallen apart just as it was originally intended to do by the artists who painted it and the people who contracted it. Going forward it would be a mistake to ignore community concern about the removal of the mural and a sensible way to deal with this would be to commit to creating another space for a new mural.

In any event, The New Mexican should not throw fuel on a fire of a mis-guided concept of preserving a mural so badly deteriorated that there is no saving it

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