As I sit under the Cross of the Martyrs, a monument commemorating the death of Franciscan friars and Spanish colonists during the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, I wonder why there’s nothing that remembers the four Pueblo Indians whose deaths, by order of Juan Francisco Treviño, New Mexico’s governor from 1675 to 1679, helped spur the uprising in the first place. My thoughts then turn to public art, and I begin to ponder why so much of it in Santa Fe is so bad. 

A particularly garish example is New Mexico’s Eternal Flame, a monument to the members of the 200th Coast Artillery who died during the Bataan Death March in 1942. Rising above a marker attached to the base is a narrow black pedestal with a golden eagle, its wings open as if in flight, perched on top. The marker was made by the men of the 200th when they were stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas. A couple of decades after the fateful surrender it was moved from Fort Bliss to its current location outside the Bataan Memorial Building on Don Gaspar Avenue. A common refrain heard when discussing the piece with friends and colleagues is that the eagle looks like an example of the Reichsadler, the imperial emblem that was taken up by the Nazi Party. That has always been my impression too — and it’s an unsettling one, considering that the men the Eternal Flame commemorates died fighting against the Axis powers. 

In 1971 Lorraine Carr, a columnist at the time for The Santa Fe New Mexican, wrote that the “artistic citizens declared the marker was a monstrosity and should be relegated to the dump heap.” At least it’s something to talk about. What about the rest of the public art in Santa Fe? Some works, like the Eternal Flame, are meant to honor history, the deceased, or an ideal, which is fine — but must so much public art (and in a city with a strong artistic pedigree, there really isn’t as much as you might expect) also be boring?

To be sure, a lot of public artworks come in the form of figurative bronze sculpture. You could almost call it the default medium for outdoor art, but such works rarely engage the senses or reflect Santa Fe’s vibrant contemporary-arts community, heir to the city’s considerable artistic legacy. The Journey’s End, a 2002 bronze by Reynaldo Rivera that is located off of Old Santa Fe Trail at the entrance to Museum Hill, is a monument to the settlers who traveled across the historic route stretching from Franklin, Missouri, to Santa Fe — but it’s hardly representative of anything in the collections at the Hill’s four museums. 

Conceptual or experiential works of public art are few and far between. When Galisteo-based artist Nancy Holt died last year at the age of seventy-five, I was reminded of how her land-based installations and public sculptures were often positioned with consideration for the surrounding environment, even aligning themselves with celestial bodies. Holt was aware of a sense of place, whether regional or universal, and it’s regrettable that nothing comparable to her Sun Tunnels (Great Basin Desert), Dark Star Park (Rosslyn, Virginia), and Solar Rotary (the University of South Florida in Tampa) can be found here. There is James Turrell’s Blue Blood, an early example of the artist’s templelike Skyspace installations — works in which the sky and its changing quality of light are directed through a rectangular opening to create a sensory experience — that was built in 1988 on the campus of the Center for Contemporary Arts. Despite efforts to fund its conservation, the piece has languished.

Santa Fe has not been kind to its public art. After being partially toppled by strong winds in the spring of 2007, Stonefridge — Adam Horowitz’s 18-foot-tall, 100-foot-diameter replica of Stonehenge that sat on a former landfill off of Buckman Road (it was made from discarded refrigerators) — was never rebuilt, despite its status as a tourist destination. “Stonehenge for me represented the birth of technological civilization, and I wanted to recall that and at the same time make reference to what may be death to our nation,” Horowitz told The Santa Fe New Mexican after it had been damaged. Horowitz aligned his work not with celestial events, as Holt did, but with Los Alamos National Laboratories: a symbolic nod to the dark side of technological advancement. Stonefridge, a monument to consumer culture, was still in development as a long-term project when city officials elected to remove it, citing safety issues. Stonefridge had become a public nuisance.

In 2013 Cathedral Park’s sculpture of Don Diego de Vargas was badly damaged by vandals, who defaced it and nearly knocked it off its pedestal. Harry Bertoia’s Untitled (Monumental Sonambient), a sound sculpture on the grounds of Peyton Wright Gallery, was targeted the following year, as was the bronze burro at the entrance to Burro Alley. Time takes a toll on public art, but the risk of vandalism is probably greater for works that don’t engage the public in meaningful ways. Instead, such pieces sit still, sometimes — as in the case of Don Diego de Vargas — even rankling people. Some Native peoples view De Vargas’ place in history quite differently from many Hispanics, which may or may not have had something to do with the assault on the Cathedral Park statue.

One positive thing that may have come from the incident is a call for debate. After all, a work of art shouldn’t have to meet such a fate in order to capture the interest of passers-by. Perhaps public art of the future will challenge a viewer’s perceptions and commissioned structures will be inseparable from the spaces containing them, making their physical hosts part of their compositions. Perhaps such places will give their visitors a sense of what they’re all about by inviting human guests to interact with them, explore them. I’m hoping for works of art that speak to the concerns and experiences of living cultures — that are, in a sense, alive themselves — and aren’t merely unchanging monuments to people and events from long ago. ◀