There is more to Canyon Road than bronze animals, Kokopellis, and paintings of desert vistas and Indian braves. You will see quite a bit of this kind of art if you enter Canyon Road at Paseo de Peralta and far less of it if you enter farther up, near Palace Avenue, where galleries veer to the contemporary. Of course, there is plenty of clichéd Southwestern art to be had, but overall the strip of 100 galleries is packed with high-quality, imaginative work in many medziums, free for the looking, and not just for tourists and wealthy collectors. 

As the kickoff to the summer art and tourism season, the Canyon Road Merchants Association held Passport to the Arts on Friday, May 8, and Saturday, May 9. It’s the third year for the event, and though it’s not quite there yet, with the right coordination and promotion, Passport to the Arts has the potential to be the artsy street fair that many Santa Feans would love to attend while also attracting those important tourism dollars. According to local artist Bonnie Teitelbaum, who participated in the Quick Draw event — in which artists complete a painting or other work in just two hours — on Saturday morning for Canyon Road Contemporary, the event also socializes the artists. “We never get to see each other paint,” she said.

I attended Friday night gallery receptions as well as the Quick Draw with my husband and our dog. (Gallery owners on Canyon Road seem to love dogs, so it’s a great destination for a stroll with your four-legged friend.) There were also silent and live auctions and musical performances by students from some of the local schools. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of work made during the Quick Draw benefited the Santa Fe Public Schools Music Education Program. While gallery hopping, we learned about an Instagram-based scavenger hunt in the galleries and that “passports” with clues were available, but we were unable to locate any passports or anyone who was participating. When I later checked the event information on www.visitcanyonroad.com, a paragraph about the hunt mentioned participants meeting in the “sculpture garden” at Canyon Road Contemporary, but the location information was vague and Canyon Road has at least a dozen sculpture gardens. If I’d known to click on the site’s blog link, I would have found a bit more information, but links from the event page to Instagram would have been very helpful. (The hashtags used were #CanyonRoadPassport and #SimplySantaFe.)

The Friday-night vibe was, in a word, excellent. The mixed-media Pattern and Rhythm exhibition at ViVO Contemporary (725 Canyon Road) featured all local artists, including Joy Campbell, Danielle Shelley, and Ro Calhoun, with work that is tactile and often three-dimensional — and utterly unexpected if you assume all you’ll find is Santa Fe kitsch. Winterowd Fine Art (701 Canyon Road) was crowded with local artists and their families enjoying the evening, including Sarah Bienvenu, whose contemporary landscape paintings were on display. 

I asked the gallery owner, Karla Winterowd, why the event is called Passport to the Arts. Do people need traveling documents to feel invited to the galleries? Is this a marketing ploy to further exoticize Santa Fe for tourists? Winterowd explained that, actually, people come to Santa Fe and spend all their time on the Plaza and never realize that they’ve completely missed out on the Canyon Road galleries. The “passport” is really just a clever gallery guide. The manager at Nüart Gallery (670 Canyon Road) agreed that the event was positive, but neither gallery had artists participating in the two-hour Quick Draw. “None of our artists work that fast,” Winterowd said.

The morning of the Quick Draw came with stormy skies and light snow. Artists, painting with their gloves on, were set up at easels and tables in front of many of the galleries. A range of artists, many but not all from Santa Fe, were participating. Plenty of bright New Mexico sunsets were underway, but that wasn’t all that was happening. At GVG Contemporary (241 Delgado St.), owner Blair Vaughn-Gruler had three artists working on paintings; all were chilly, but none seemed to consider the time limit gimmicky or hard to work under. It was exciting to see so many artists in motion, lost in concentration. Perhaps changing the name from Quick Draw to “Plein Air Festival” would make it sound less like competitive fine-art making for the benefit of out-of-town gawkers. Buskers and musical groups scattered up and down the street, as well as food trucks, would really make this event stand out.

We explored some of the more traditional galleries at the bottom of Canyon Road, and though there is something unnecessarily fussy about all the heavy gilt frames in those spaces, and many of the highest-priced paintings don’t seem all that original, the artists who make them have superior technical skill. I didn’t find a single piece of art that felt amateurish or belonged in a student gallery. I think it all comes down to personal taste. What we find trite — too Santa Fe-style — often becomes that way due to proximity. We see these images so frequently that we forget people from far away might see them with fresh eyes. There is also something to be said for developing your own aesthetic outside of museum settings. Knowing what you think is schlock might be the first step to knowing what you love.

In short, Canyon Road is for all of us. Art is for all of us. You don’t need a passport. Just go.