COVID-19 is to Santa Fe commerce what Godzilla was to Tokyo.
With each thrash and stomp, it lays waste to events, to jobs, to profits — and in some cases, to hope.
But Kim Peone, a woman you probably haven’t heard of but no doubt will, isn’t about to shriek and surrender as COVID wrecks the summer.
Confident and committed, the new executive director of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts says the Santa Fe Indian Market — at least the one you remember — is gone for a year, but in its place comes a new method of doing business that may someday make 2020 the moment SWAIA turned a corner that had been coming for a long, long time.
The market is going virtual come Aug. 1. That means just what you think: Artists who sign up will be displaying and selling their work over the internet. And if it all seems foreign, unfamiliar, weird for an event that for nearly a century had made its mark with a one-to-one, here-try-it-on feel, Peone says: Buckle up, folks. This is just the start.
“If we were not in a pandemic, if we were doing business as usual, there is no way in hell that I could have pulled this off, because it’s very labor-intensive to develop the infrastructure for it and then the programming for it,” she says of the technological, marketing and business whiz-bang that goes with creating e-commerce on a large scale.
“Yes, there’s silver lining,” she adds. “It’s definitely lemonade for lemons, and it’s a godsend, because it allow us to build a model to take us into the next centennial with some real creative work.”
The reality, Peone says, is that SWAIA and Indian Market were going to have to transform the long-standing model anyway. Nobody likes the cancellation of the three-day event that brings a local economic impact of as much as $165 million to the area, but online sales, even for a roots-driven event, were coming as demographics and habits change.
Plus there’s this: By building a virtual platform for both SWAIA and Indian Market, then convincing Native artists to give it a shot (200 have signed up so far), Peone says the event can be more than three days in August — and one that creates better relationships between artists and would-be customers; creates a heightened sense of family within the artist community; even stokes the fire for the real thing when the market once again goes live in 2021 with its 99th show.
“When I was hired, the board was very forthright: ‘How are you going to take us into the next centennial, the next 100 years? … This is that platform,” Peone says.
Those on the nonprofit’s board agree.
“This approach is not a temporary fix,” says Mark Bahti, a member of the SWAIA board. “It’s a long-term strategy.”
Who in the world is Kim Peone? Well, in some ways, she’s Santa Fe — born here 52 years ago to parents who were studying at the Institute of American Indian Arts in the 1960s. She says her parents, Richard Teesatuskie and Annabelle Lizard, helped co-design the thunderbird that is part of the school’s logo. She happily interrupts a Zoom interview to retrieve a ‘64 IAIA class ring.
But in a lot of ways, Peone, whose roots are in the Colville Confederated Tribes and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is a lot of other places, too. As much as anything, she comes from Planet Business — fluent in the world that demands planning, marketing, execution. In a life that has taken her from one coast to the other, she spent time with big letters on her business card (CEO, CFO) running tribal corporations that dealt with hundreds of millions.
At SWAIA, she inherits an organization long-hindered by internecine squabbles and the churn of three executive directors in less than three years. Peone says she has spent much of her time since being hired in April offering an olive branch to those who have been hurt in the past. But she makes no apologies for wanting to make the organization and the market a better-functioning outfit. And if it takes business acumen and new ideas to do it, so be it.
“In the past, I think that the board probably saw artists as being those people who can manage this beast,” she says. “But it’s such a business model that you don’t need artsy-fartsy — you need analytical, logical, strategic thinking in order to manage this.”
You hear that, and it’s easy to think Kim Peone only has her eyes on one thing — the next thing. But you’d be wrong. Sure, tomorrow matters, a virtual market matters. But so does the past.
Balance them correctly, and maybe the next centennial is possible.
Phill Casaus is editor of The New Mexican.