Regardless of the reason, eliminating a 1980s-era mural as part of the creation of a new, $12.5 million contemporary art museum in the Santa Fe Railyard doesn’t sit well.
The mural, Multi-Cultural, displays the original peoples of this area, its creation a gift of the Chicano Movement — when large-scale paintings in public spaces became places to display the stories of people often overlooked, whether Native or Hispano.
Muralist Gilberto Guzman — rightly a Santa Fe Living Treasure — led the project, with such noted artists as Frederico Vigil, David Bradley, Cassandra Mains, John Sandford, Rosemary Stearns, Linda Lomahaftewa and Zara Kriegstein joining in its creation.
To many in Santa Fe, removal of the mural is another step in the continuing gentrification of our town. A fancy art museum, named for the sorts of donors who have the money to fork over $4 million, hardly feels welcoming to many.
The mural belonged to locals. The museum will be for newcomers. That’s the unfortunate perception.
In this classic us-versus-them story, the state Department of Cultural Affairs has fallen short in explaining why the mural’s instability necessitates its removal. This evidently is less about aesthetics than about this reality: Outdoor murals disintegrate over time.
At a Historic Districts Review Board meeting last week, we learned that the mural has been recorded and its image will be projected on a blank wall once the museum is completed. That’s progress, but not nearly enough considering its iconic status and the loss of other murals, including ones at Nava Elementary School and City Hall.
The state should find a better way to honor the mural’s significance to our town. Among its images are a corn goddess, the Rio Grande Gorge, Indian frybread and Spanish armor, a complex representation of cultural interactions and civic pride.
Building a new museum to house contemporary art boosts the Railyard and Santa Fe — although we remain concerned about operating funds, considering the perennial cash shortfalls for museums. This one will function as an annex to the New Mexico Museum of Art on the Plaza, with the contemporary branch in the former Joseph Halpin State Records Center at the corner of Guadalupe and Montezuma streets.
Once the place where railroads carted in freight to be unloaded in warehouses, the Santa Fe Railyard has morphed into a space with galleries, shops, the farmers market and other attractions. The grit is gone.
A new museum focusing in contemporary works will further enrich the Railyard, with collaborations and partnerships possible among the galleries, Site Santa Fe and the just-relocated New Mexico School for the Arts. But all of that can happen without leaving a bad taste behind. Find ways to build this museum with the goodwill of the community — all of it.
The state did an admirable job of working with the Historic Districts Review Board to alter the museum’s original design, focusing on concerns about height, aesthetics and its place within a historic district.
Just as there was give and take in designing a building to house contemporary artworks appropriately, there can be more efforts to preserve this mural. Perhaps the wall cannot be saved, but something more permanent than a projection is possible. Consider a photograph as part of an exhibit explaining the history of building — including paying tribute to Halpin and his work — going back to the structure’s original function as a warehouse for Charles Ilfeld & Co.
More broadly, perhaps it is time to bring back the era of large public works projects to involve artists from this place, including training young people. In 2020, murals might not be the answer, but surely the Department of Cultural Affairs — headed by a local, Debra Garcia y Griego — and the city of Santa Fe could find collaborative projects to beautify the town while enhancing our sense of place. The Halpin mural could be re-created, too, another way of preserving an important piece of community art — is there a place in the Railyard where that would work, if not at the museum annex?
Retrace steps, bring in artists and community members, but don’t allow a mural depicting the original inhabitants to become an afterthought. When people stand up and say they are not being heard, listen. Take the time to get this right, because a museum celebrating art should not be the vehicle through which art is erased, and through that, a community left behind.