Everywhere there are one-of-a-kind objects to look at, handle, and exclaim over. But the colors hit your senses first in wave after wave of vibrant textiles: bandhani tie-dyed tunics, handwoven pashmina shawls, Andean ponchos embroidered with birds. Snippets of English and Spanish mingle with Arabic, Hebrew, Gujarati, Chinese, and Bengali (among dozens of other languages) as the scents of fry bread and roasted corn waft by from the market’s International Food Bazaar. Tens of thousands of shoppers stroll from booth to booth, which are under a network of tents, chatting with more than 150 artisans from around the world who have gathered in Santa Fe to sell their work at the International Folk Art Market.
The annual International Folk Art Market (IFAM) takes place on Museum Hill from Friday, July 12, through Sunday, July 14. This year, IFAM has Americans represented in the mix.
“It’s this magical weekend where everything you always wanted to be possible for people is possible,” said Keith Recker, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, resident who has volunteered at the International Folk Art Market since 2009. “Everybody from different countries, speaking different languages, with different habits and hand gestures, is working together to make this big thing happen.”
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Now in its 16th year, the International Folk Art Market (which many simply call IFAM) kicked off with a welcome celebration and artist procession on the Santa Fe Plaza on Thursday, July 11. It continues through the weekend at Milner Plaza on Museum Hill. A ticketed opening-night party is Friday, July 12, and the market is open to the public on Saturday, July 13, and Sunday, July 14. This year’s honorary chair is Ndaba Mandela, an author and the co-founder and chairman of Africa Rising Foundation, a socioeconomic empowerment organization for young Africans. Mandela is the grandson of Nelson Mandela, the legendary anti-apartheid activist who became South Africa’s first black president.
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IFAM is a festive, crowded affair that feels much like the controlled chaos of an open-air market anywhere in the world. It’s the result of a painstaking, yearlong process that is managed by a small paid staff and more than 2,000 volunteers, who work about 23,950 hours during June and July.
Stuart Ashman has been involved with the market since its founding in 2004, when he was cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. He became IFAM’s chief executive officer in January. One of his favorite parts of the weekend is the artist procession on the Plaza, during which the artists wear clothing traditional to their homelands. There, they are greeted by a cheering crowd and local dignitaries. Ashman likened it to the United Nations, Santa Fe style.
“What impressed me most is the interaction between the artists. I remember seeing an Israeli artist walking with a Palestinian artist. I said, ‘That’s what world peace looks like.’”
Fifty countries represented
By the time shoppers are grinning over their purchases in 2019, artists are already applying (through the website) for IFAM 2020. In 2019, 715 artists applied from 77 countries, including Pakistan, Spain, Haiti, Morocco, and Ecuador. Some come to the site because people have noticed their work and encouraged them to apply. People like Recker, who is the president and co-founder of HAND/EYE Fund, an assistance program for artists, and travels to developing countries to help them with creative and business challenges. Some artists apply because they know others who have been successful at IFAM. Ashman said it’s a loose but effective recruitment strategy.
Individual artists, artist cooperatives, and nonprofit organizations submit photos of their work, descriptions of their materials, and information on pricing — and then they wait while two volunteer teams of experts evaluate the applications.
This is where the real work begins. The globe is divided according to the expertise of the seven-member selection committee, each of whom reviews and ranks about 100 applications. They are academics, gallerists, and museum curators led by committee chair Cristin McKnight Sethi, an assistant professor of art history at The George Washington University and expert in the traditional arts of South Asia. She first came to IFAM to shop at the market in 2013. The following year, she volunteered as a translator for artists who spoke Hindi and Urdu. She was invited to join the selection committee in 2015.
“I’m excited by the materials because they are contemporary examples by living artists who are, in many cases, carrying on traditions of objects that I’ve studied from centuries ago,” said Sethi, who is a researcher and historian. “The most important criteria that we’re looking for is artistic quality.”
But is it folk art?
IFAM artists work in traditional and contemporary folk-art mediums. How they make their art might may be virtually unchanged for hundreds or even thousands of years. Or perhaps a form has evolved, responding to the changing availability of materials or profound cultural shifts. For instance, South African Zulu baskets, which were once woven of grasses and palm leaves, are now also made of recycled telephone wire. About 30 artist booths this year are reserved for innovators, such as the Peruvian collective Amapolay, which focuses on the work of Andean migrants who brought traditional painting motifs from the rural mountains to the big city of Lima. There, the imagery and materials adapted: Now screen printed on T-shirts, they picture a synthesis of life as it was and life as it is now.
Conversations about artistic quality and what exactly counts as folk art are frequent during the selection and placement process. Ashman said that criteria includes using original materials and organic dyes, among other markers of authenticity. The story behind the work is especially important when it comes to evaluating more contemporary interpretations of folk art. “Innovation doesn’t mean you do anything you want,” Ashman said of this question. “Innovation is still rooted in tradition.”
The Amapolay T-shirts were a hot topic during selection discussions, said Sandra Wylie, the associate director of IFAM. “There was some discussion of how it was folk art. [These artists] represent a lot of the people who are farming in Peru and because of climate change are being driven out of the places they’ve farmed for generations, and driven into the urban centers. The clothing illustrates the images that they are bringing with them that they don’t want to lose as they assimilate into the cities.”
In November, the selection committee meets for a week of 12-hour days in which each member presents individual applications, makes their recommendations, and then they vote as a group. Agreement is hardly a given and debates can go on at length.
They slowly whittle the pile from upwards of 700 down to about 240 before passing the baton to the placement committee, a group of experts in the buying and selling of art. This group curates a diverse yet balanced market, looking at pricing and aesthetic trends to ensure a fresh mix of artists. To that end, about one-third of the artists are new to the market each year. Keith Recker is on this committee, bringing to bear his experience as vice president of merchandising at Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales, and as executive director of Aid to Artisans, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating economic opportunities for low-income artisan groups around the world. He said he relishes arriving at IFAM every year and reconnecting with artists he knows from his previous work with Aid to Artisans — as well as getting to know new artists and finding out what makes them tick.
“Sometimes it’s endangered traditions. Sometimes there’s an environmental message. Sometimes it’s the spark of personal creativity,” he said. “It is meaningful to me to discover what fires someone into their career and into coming to Santa Fe.”
Converging on Santa Fe
Artists have travelled a collective 912,299 miles to Santa Fe this year. Some came alone and some have family members in tow. Thirty first-year artists applied for and received donor support for travel and lodging, while others financed their own trips. Some artists are able to save from previous years’ earnings, and some arrange to have these funds deducted from their sales. Ashman assists many of the artists with their visa applications.
Due to current federal restrictions, there are some artists who cannot make the trip, no matter how much the selection and placement committees like their work. Wylie mentioned Iran, Lybia, Syria, and North Korea as “travel ban” countries from which it is virtually impossible to come to the United States. A family of Syrian glassblowers works with a philanthropic French couple in order to have a presence at IFAM. The couple drives into Syria periodically and purchases everything the family has made. “And then they sell it at the market. All the proceeds go back to the family. The French couple doesn’t take a cut,” said the associate director.
Prior to setting up their booths on Museum Hill, the artists spend a few days getting business training and mentoring in American commerce. They might need to learn how to run credit card transactions, or want to expand their business by selling online. IFAM also mentors artists and artist cooperatives from the market who have the ambition and capacity to sell wholesale through an IFAM market in Texas called Collection at the Dallas Market Center that is held in June for big buyers.
“The good thing about wholesale orders is that they extend the work for cooperative members all year long. They start off busily preparing inventory for a show or event and a wholesale order at the event keeps them busy for weeks and months afterward,” said Recker, who was co-creator of Artisan Resource at NY NOW, another venue for world folk artists, including some IFAM artists.
Artists keep 80 to 90 percent of what they make at IFAM. The organization’s cut supports their operating expenses and is kept as low as possible, said Ashman. First-year artists give 10 percent of their sales to IFAM, as does anyone who earns less than $10,000. Returning artists who make over $10,000 pass on 20 percent. For many, the net pay is well worth the trip.
Ashman tells a story about talking to a Cuban painter after his first market experience. “I said he’d done really well, and he asked me, ‘How well, $6,000?’ I said more. He said, ‘$8,000?’ I said no, $14,000. He was an engineer. He took out his calculator. He said that, with the currency exchange from dollars to pesos, he’d made 90 years of his salary that weekend.”
Exploiting artists and cultures?
As easy as it is to feel good about buying art directly from the makers and supporting people who might really need the financial boost, is it possible that the artists — or their traditional cultures — are somehow exploited by the market? Ashman said no, pointing to the many protections in place to prevent it, from the selection and placement process to overarching rules that ensure that shoppers can’t take advantage of artists: Prices are pre-set and no haggling is permitted. Additionally, volunteers roam the market to keep an eye on booth inventory and pricing. Sometimes, artists who are accepted but cannot make the trip sell through a third-party representative, “But as far as I know, they are not profiting from this. They are doing it to help the artist,” he said.
In terms of the potential for cultural exploitation, by which the existence of IFAM — or any other art market — could shape the art being made in a particular region or community, Ashman distinguished between different kinds of commercialism. “We look at that as a bad word, yet we’re trying to teach [the artists] commerce. If they can apply their tradition to contemporary, useful objects — why not? This is America, right? It’s all about capitalism. But if your scarves sell well at market and then suddenly everyone in your village is making the same scarves as you, that’s an impact that can’t be controlled. Some artists will stick with tradition and others will respond to the market and still keep the tradition.”
Some people may feel that buying a piece of an artist’s culture — even if it’s art — is appropriation, an expression of an inherent power dynamic between Euroamerican consumers and artist producers from the less-developed countries, said Khristaan Villela, executive director for the Museum of International Folk Art and an ex-officio board member of IFAM. “But while many Folk Art Market artists come from less-developed, formerly colonial nations, many come from the so-called ‘First World,’ even Europe. There is no way that foreign consumers would not affect the artistic production in the home countries and communities. But as cultural consumers, we all strive to do more good than harm. We should also note that the artists themselves set their prices at the International Folk Art Market, and expecting them not to engage with the global market is itself patronizing.”
The Big Weekend
The effort to bring the market together is impressive — and a little overwhelming. It takes three weeks to decorate Museum Hill. The sheer number of zip ties (14,000) used to make sure everything stays where it’s supposed to is staggering. There are 19 tents held up by 600 tent poles, and 30,000 shopping bags are used over the course of the weekend. In 2018, 21,000 people shopped at IFAM, more than 60 percent of whom came from outside of Santa Fe. The economic impact to the region is $13,722,315, with $3.22 million in sales by artists. About $2.6 million went home with them.
Keith Recker spends about 25 hours a week, every week, on his volunteer duties for IFAM — far more as the weekend gets closer. On the opening Friday, he is on Museum Hill when the sun comes up, putting the finishing touches on the market. He witnesses the arrival of the artists and gets to watch them unpack their wares and set up their booths.
“It’s like Christmas except I’m not the one opening the presents. Everyone is opening boxes,” he said. For Recker, who has a side job as a trend and color forecaster for the popular color matching system Pantone, this is the moment he waits for.
“You stand back and you see every shade of natural dye that they make in the foothills of the Himalayas. This altitude-specific indigo, this weed, this herb coaxed into cultivation. It’s miraculous.” ◀
▼ International Folk Art Market, 505-992-7600, folkartmarket.org/tickets
Market Opening Party, 6:30 - 10 p.m., Friday July 12
Milner Plaza on Museum Hill, 706 Camino Lejo
▼ Early Bird Market, 7:30 - 10 a.m. Saturday, July 13
▼ Saturday Market, 10 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. Saturday, July 13
▼ Sunday Market, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sunday, July 14Milner Plaza
For information on parking, shuttles, additional IFAM events, and more, go to