Every year, it seems, galleries in Santa Fe either close up shop in one of the city’s four main areas where art venues and studios are concentrated — downtown, the Railyard, Second Street, and Canyon Road — or move from one place to another. It would be shortsighted to think that the economic collapse of 2008 hasn’t had an impact on the changing landscape of the art market, even if for a time we were insulated from its effects. A core group of dedicated artists has responded to the challenge of finding representation in a difficult market by sponsoring, sometimes at their own expense, pop-up shows at alternative venues. What sets them apart? Usually it’s a level of community involvement that reflects the growing dynamic of support between artists, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and business owners. There’s pride in this dynamic and recognition that Santa Fe really is the City Different.

“State of the Arts” is a column that addresses the changing artistic landscape in Santa Fe and what it means for struggling, emerging, and established artists and their representatives. If you have an opinion on the subject and wish to weigh in, I want to hear from you (mabatemarco@sfnewmexican.com). There are big changes ahead for the city, and attention is now fixed on the most unusual of neighborhoods, where a growing movement in support of Santa Fe’s underrepresented artists has taken root. I am talking about the Siler District, the area around Siler Road, on the south side of town, an industrial neighborhood where for years artists have taken advantage of cheap rents: some for living, others for studio work, some for both. The big news on this front is the upcoming establishment of Meow Wolf’s new art complex in the space formerly occupied by Silva Lanes bowling alley on Rufina Circle. Earlier this month, it was announced that local author George R.R. Martin was partnering with the collaborative of young artists to take over the 33,000-square-foot building. “George is covering $2.7 million worth of renovations — that’s roof and HVAC and electric and redoing the parking lot and building all these internal walls,” Meow Wolf spokesman Vince Kadlubek told Pasatiempo.

What sets the planned venue apart from other local institutions that feature contemporary art is that it is large enough to host revolving exhibits, permanent exhibits, artist studios, and educational facilities. That might sound a bit like what a museum offers, but it won’t be like any other museum in town. It will be something great for the youth of Santa Fe, the kids,” Martin told Pasatiempo. It should be a tourist attraction, an additional thing to do for people visiting Santa Fe, and something really innovative that employs a lot of artists in a very creative way. It’s a gigantic space with plenty of parking, which is a good thing to have. I know because I have the Cocteau, which has no parking, so I’ve seen the other side of it, too.”

If you recall Meow Wolf’s well-received Due Return, a large-scale installation that premiered at the Center for Contemporary Arts in 2011, then be prepared. The new space is large enough to fit nine Due Returns, and the group plans to make full use of it by offering 19 affordable artist studios, an artist work space, and a learning center that will be home to ARTsmart, a nonprofit that teaches art, literacy, and life skills to children through visual expression. “The learning center is a 2,000-square-foot space with the offices, so that in and of itself is a big thing,” Kadlubek said. There will also be a gift shop for the sale of merchandise from local artisans and a project space for casual programming separate from the main exhibition. Studio artists can utilize the space for collaborative projects. The learning center will also give children a chance to interact with artists and permanent exhibitions.

The space’s first permanent show, House of Eternal Return, takes up a massive 20,000 square feet. “We have a team of about 50 artists, programmers, and designers working on this right now. Just as the Due Return was a ship that had a fictional past, we’re wrapping storytelling into this even more heavily,” Kadlubek said. When visitors enter the exhibit they will come to the front lawn of a large Victorian house. “The crux of it is that something has occurred in this house that has created portals to other dimensions — just like every kid’s dream.” Inside the house, secret passageways lead to a number of strange worlds. You can crawl through a fireplace, for instance, and emerge into a massive cave system, or you open a refrigerator door and a tunnel leads you to another fully conceived world. There will be bridges connecting one area to another and a shantytown that can double as a music and performance venue. But that’s not all. Delineated spaces on the ground and second floors can be used for immersive multimedia art installations tied to the concept of the main exhibit but made by individual artists. “We’ll use digital technologies, iPhone apps, and touch screens, so even though you’ll have separate artists doing things in separate spaces, it’s not going to be fragmented.”

All of this is a few months away from being realized. Renovations begin in March. Meow Wolf won’t be in the space before April and doesn’t expect to open to the public until August at the earliest. “We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Martin said. “The building has been sitting derelict for six or seven years, so it’s not a turnkey kind of thing. Marshall Thompson and his crew at Constructive Assets are going in there to bring the building up to code and repairing the things that need repairing.”

Meow Wolf’s initiative bodes well for the up-and-coming art district, but it isn’t the only major project in the works in the area. There is also a proposal to turn the old solid-waste treatment site on Siler Road into working studios and affordable housing for artists, a proposal that, if adopted by the city, could be years away from completion. However, New Mexico Inter-Faith Housing has already partnered with Creative Santa Fe, which has a contract with the city to assess project development. Artists have also begun turning industrial work spaces into venues for contemporary art. Foundry owner-turned-gallerist Dwight Hackett was among the first to do so when he opened Dwight Hackett Projects (no longer doing public exhibitions) on All Trades Road. Now, Michael Freed’s studio on Trades West Road, off Siler, doubles as Offroad Productions, a space for quarterly curated shows. “It takes way too much time for me to produce four shows a year,” Freed said, “so I asked people I know that have a good curatorial eye to do three of the shows. They’re bringing in artists I might not know about.” Offroad’s latest exhibit, I Want to Believe (maybe), was curated by local artist Erika Wanenmacher. Previous shows have been curated by ArtBeat’s Kathryn M. Davis, artist Jennifer Joseph, and Cyndi Conn, Creative Santa Fe’s executive director.

Freed uses only 20 percent of sales to cover expenses such as security, a bartender, catering, and a special event license. Another 20 percent goes to pay the curators. These are lower percentages than most galleries take. “I don’t really care if I make money on this. It’s about this void developing in the art world that’s happening everywhere from coast to coast. The average gallery used to have some allowance for up-and-coming artists and unproven artists. It’s all going away.”

Freed has embraced the term SiDi, short for Siler District, in recognition of the neighborhood’s growing artistic vibe. Offroad’s shows are a chance to view imaginative art, and at this early stage it looks like the recent endeavors in the district will facilitate this effort on a grander scale. “I think it’s all playing into this idea of redefining spaces,” Freed said. “The way it looks to me is that the art that’s not in the gallery arena is the art that’s gravitating this way.” All of this is a potential boon, not just for artists already living and working in the area but also for young artists and residents, for whom the historic gallery districts are too exclusive and high-end. ◀