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.