Vladem Contemporary reflects our times

Stuart Ashman

The Department of Cultural Affairs, the Museum of New Mexico Board of Regents and the Museum of New Mexico Foundation have undertaken the task of renovating the former Joseph Halpin State Archives building into a state-of-the-art contemporary museum.

The new museum will be administered by the New Mexico Museum of Art as its contemporary art wing, allowing the original 1917 building on the Santa Fe Plaza to chronicle the past 100 years of New Mexico’s art history.

Currently, there are no other contemporary art institutions in Santa Fe that collect works of art. This has the unfortunate result of many important collections leaving the state for museums elsewhere. In addition, there are few opportunities for the many contemporary artists in our state to exhibit their works in a museum setting, much less have their works purchased and accessioned into a museum collection.

I attended the May 9 Historic Districts Review Board hearing at the City Council chambers to speak in support of the museum’s building project, and I was pleased that so many people attended and that the majority spoke eloquently in favor of the initiative. I was somewhat dismayed, however, at the few who spoke against it not because they didn’t think that we should have a contemporary art museum in Santa Fe but because they objected to the design features that they felt were out of place in the Railyard.

As a disclaimer, I want to confess that I played a role in this dilemma. I was the one who acquired the property from the General Services Department for the purpose of a contemporary wing of the Museum of Art when I served as Gov. Bill Richardson’s Cabinet secretary of cultural affairs.

As a longtime Santa Fean, I remember when Guadalupe Street was first paved. I also recall that the area in question was essentially an industrial neighborhood. The Tomasita’s building was abandoned, B & M Upholstery was where the Zia Diner later opened, and the Coca-Cola bottling plant was across the street. The point is that the Guadalupe/Montezuma streetscape has changed dramatically in the last four decades.

One only needs to look at the upgrades to the old St. Vincent Hospital, the galleries along the Railyard and the striking SITE Santa Fe building to see how tastefully considered improvements have enhanced their appearance and the quality of life in Santa Fe.

The point of all this is that the cityscape, especially outside the historic core, has been evolving to adapt to the needs of the community while at the same time reflecting the style that has become so appreciated.

Renowned New Mexico architects Devendra Narayan, Deirdre Harris and Graham Hogan have created a thoughtful and sensitive design that clearly demonstrates a new structure while preserving and honoring the historic Territorial Revival-style archives building. A basic principle in the renovation of historic structures is to ensure that the new does not imitate the old, so that one can clearly differentiate between the two.

The Museum of New Mexico Foundation undertook raising the necessary funds. The success of its effort demonstrates that there is ample support for this project from a broad base in the community. Robert and Ellen Vladem, two visionary philanthropists, joined the effort and gifted $4 million to make this dream a reality, and hundreds of others joined in to support the project.

The New Mexico Museum of Art, built in 1917, was thought to be a revolutionary piece of architecture. Let’s celebrate its centennial with a building that reflects our times.

Stuart Ashman is a former director of the New Mexico Museum of Art; founding director of the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art; Cabinet secretary for the Department of Cultural Affairs under Gov. Bill Richardson; former president of the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, Calif.; and currently the chief executive officer of the International Folk Art Market.