I’m all for promoting New Mexico’s great cultural institutions and attracting a wider audience to what the state has to offer. So it was with curiosity that I downloaded the new Department of Cultural Affairs mobile app, the Cultural Atlas of New Mexico, when DCA announced its launch in early December. The app, which was developed by the Seattle-based tech company STQRY to the tune of $99,500is designed to give the user easy access to information on cultural and historic sites across New Mexico, such as state monuments and museums. News of the app’s availability came a few weeks after The New Mexican reported on deep cuts in the department that resulted in eliminated staff positions, reduced hours of operation at cultural institutions — along with higher admission fees at those institutions — as well as fewer free days for New Mexico residents (“After making deep cuts, Cultural Affairs struggling to stay afloat,” Nov. 18, 2016).

According to an earlier article in The New Mexican (“Eleven layoffs in Department of Cultural Affairs approved; 13 more will be hired,” Jul. 21, 2016), DCA Cabinet Secretary Veronica Gonzales told the State Personnel Board that “these are challenging times for our state,” citing declining oil and gas revenues. She told the board that DCA “is faced with a very big challenge.” But a December piece in the paper (“Contemporary art museum still on track for Railyard,” Dec. 28, 2016) reported that Gonzales and Gov. Susana Martinez have pledged a $1 million increase in the department’s budget to operate the New Mexico Museum of Art’s planned contemporary art museum, which is slated to open in 2020. It’s a baffling position, especially coming on the heels of statements made in a November budget hearing in which Gonzales told lawmakers cutbacks could include closing historic sites for entire seasons and temporarily suspending the Governor’s Arts Awards. “Veronica said that nothing was off the table. Everything is under consideration,” New Mexico Arts Executive Director Loie Fecteau told Pasatiempo. “We’ve had to cut costs given our budget situation in New Mexico. We were looking at a, b, c, d, and one of the things was suspending or canceling the Governor’s Arts Awards, but we are not doing that. We’re moving ahead.” New Mexico Arts is accepting nominations for the Governor’s Arts Awards through March and will announce the awardees in June.

As for the state monuments, The New Mexican reported in the July 21 article that out of 11 layoffs that were slated to take effect last August, six of them were historic-site management positions. But even as the department planned layoffs, they were also hiring new personnel. According to a draft budget report obtained by the paper last summer, new hires would cost the state $789,000. The duties of managing the historic sites that come under the DCA, which include Fort Selden, Fort Sumner/Bosque Redondo Memorial, El Camino Real, Fort Stanton, Coronado, Jemez, and Lincoln, have been divided into three regional historic-site management positions (since filled). The irony is that one of the employees who was laid off in August was an information-technology app developer for DCA’s New Mexico Historic Sites division. More than 60 letters were sent to the State Personnel Board criticizing the layoff plan and arguing that state monuments bring tourism to rural areas and that cutbacks in staffing and resources could have a negative impact on local economies.

Rather than buckling down, DCA rolled out the costly app. “It’s a brand new product, and we’re grappling with it in the face of a reduced state budget,” said Shelley Thompson, the Museum of New Mexico’s director of marketing and outreach. The funds for the app were made available at the start of the 2014-2015 fiscal year. “It was a special appropriation from the state, and the project did go through a full RFP process,” she said, citing the request for the proposal process employed by the state, in which proposals are solicited, reviewed, and scored. The award went to STQRY, whose product is a mobile platform offering a range of digital services to cultural institutions.

When you open the app, a zoomable state map appears, with icons marking places to visit. A menu shows available pages for destinations such as Oliver Lee State Park, the New Mexico Museum of Space History, White Sands, Fort Stanton, Trinity Site, and the UFO Museum. If you tap one — say, the UFO Museum — the app takes you to a page with a descriptive overview: “The catalyst for the museum was the 1947 Roswell UFO incident.” The page has a street map (114 N. Main St., Roswell) and a link to the museum’s official website. There are also pictures, including one of the museum’s “Alien Dissection” diorama. The app is compatible with Android and Apple devices and is available as a free download on Google Play and the Apple App Store. It is designed to grow over time. Any user can add new sites, pending review, as long as they fit DCA’s criteria. “We do want to keep it consistent with the vision that guided its development, which is to focus on cultural sites and natural sites with cultural significance,” Thompson said. “You can’t immediately upload anything, but we have on our website an invitation to submit a site. In everything we’ve done to promote it, we’ve tried to make it clear that this is a product that we welcome submissions to.” For submissions, see atlas.newmexicoculture.org.

If the Cultural Atlas increases tourism, that may ultimately compensate for its steep cost, but it doesn’t justify the loss of personnel at the sites promoted by the app. As reader Paula Lozar put it in an online comment on The New Mexican’s Nov. 18 story on budget cuts, “Once again, New Mexico shoots itself in the foot: Spend big bucks on a promotion to lure tourists here, then close or restrict hours on the sites and museums that tourists want to see.”

Payment for the app came from a Computer Systems Enhancement Fund designated for projects involving information technology. By late January, DCA had tallied nearly 4,000 installations of the app, according to DCA webmaster Doug Patinka. Not bad for its first two months. “We’re marketing it as widely as we can,” Thompson said. “We’re doing some print and some television advertising.”

For now, the app is available to anyone, which is as it should be, since it was paid for with tax dollars. Patinka told Pasatiempo that there are no plans to charge for the app. “We think of it more as a service.”  If the app ends up having a measurable effect on tourism, it may be worth it. But if you’re going to promote historic sites and cultural destinations around New Mexico, those sites should remain accessible. Nobody planning a visit wants to see “Closed for the season.” ◀

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