Santa Fe Raises Its Sites

ON THE INTERSTATE UP FROM ALBUquerque, things don't look promising: Indian-run casinos, factory outlets for handbags and drunk-driving lawyers. Can the traditionally artsy city of Santa Fe really lie just ahead? And could it really be the new international-contemporary-art mecca, as some people claim? Santa Fe art dealer Linda Durham says that an Eastern art critic who finally made a reluctant trip to the place asked her, ""And what do you show, little Indian angels floating up to heaven?'' Durham actually shows abstract paintings, but Santa Fe's reputation for ethnic kitsch is hard to shake.

Now the city is showing major signs of a grander, and riskier, artistic vision. Grander is the new Georgia O'Keeffe Museum - with the largest museum collection (about 100 works) of New Mexico's most famous artist - which opened last month right off Santa Fe's quaint main plaza. Riskier is SITE Santa Fe, a contemporary showplace whose second international biennial opened to a packed house, including several planeloads of hip New Yorkers, the same week. Together, these two institutions could attract enough attention from critics, dealers, patrons and young artists themselves to put Santa Fe in the contemporary-art big leagues.

Many of the ingredients have been in place for a while. Such collectors as Joann and Gifford Phillips (he's on the board of the Museum of Modern Art in New York) are longtime residents of Santa Fe, and new ones, like Robert Denison, chairman of the board of New York's avant-garde P.S. 1 museum, are moving in. Such international art stars as Bruce Nauman, Susan Rothenberg and Agnes Martin live full-time near Santa Fe, and others, like the sculptor Kiki Smith, come to work for extended periods. And then there's critical mass: this picturesque state capital of 60,000 sees a summer tourist influx of 100,000, some of whom come to see the Santa Fe Opera and art that transcends tchotchkes.

The O'Keeffe Museum resides, naturally, in an adobe building, elegantly renovated by minimalist New York architect Richard Gluckman. Though O'Keeffe, who died in 1986, was an uneven artist, her reputation as an early-modernist heroine is an enormous lure. Local gallery director Arlene LewAllen, who shows art cut from more contemporary cloth, says, ""This museum is the best thing to happen to Santa Fe since the corn dance.''

If the O'Keeffe Museum solidifies Santa Fe's recent artistic past, SITE Santa Fe is a magnet for cutting-edge artists who practice what Gifford Phillips calls ""installation art in all its guises.'' SITE Santa Fe started as just the 1995 biennial, but it's now a permanent venue, ensconced in a warehouse also redone by Gluckman (the board has mandated that a quarter of the artists shown should be New Mexican). The second biennial has a grandiose political theme (""Echoes of Art in an Age of Endless Conclusions'') and is painfully trendy. The work ranges from live blond models posing in pantyhose to a roomful of raw, painted-on-the-spot nudes. Nobody here seems to care whether the show is good; they're happy to have a vest-pocket version of European avant-garde extravaganzas like ""Documenta'' in town.

SITE Santa Fe was started by Laura Carpenter, a dealer and one of many sophisticated Texans who've migrated north. In 1991 she opened the only gallery in Santa Fe showing international heavyweights, such as Marina Abramovic and James Lee Byars. (It closed last year in the wake of a backer's lawsuit, but Carpenter is still dealing privately.) Joann Phillips was looking for a way to light a fire under the state-run Museum of Fine Arts. Carpenter suggested the best way was to forget the state's bureaucracy and start a new institution.

Ideas need money. The O'Keeffe Museum sped from proposal to ribbon-cutting in just two years, and SITE Santa Fe became permanent largely thanks to John Marion, the former head of Sotheby's in New York, and his wife, Anne, a Ft. Worth heiress who heads her own $250 million foundation. They bought a house in Santa Fe in 1988, and when he retired in 1995, they plunged into the city's art affairs. Anne became chairman of the O'Keeffe Museum board. John sits on it, too, and on SITE Santa Fe's. The Marions are also backing buildings for the Santa Fe Art Institute - which brings in artists like Eric Fischl and John Baldessari to teach ambitious neophytes - and the Center for Photographic Arts. Whatever the Marions touch seems to blossom.

The upgrading of Santa Fe's art scene hasn't come without conflict. That doesn't surprise anyone familiar with the town's inherent Anglo-Hispanic-Indian split. And some of its local traditional painters chafe at the idea of a bunch of New Yorkers telling them they need to look at weird art. Carpenter's uncompromising taste and aggressive energy have struck some as too in-your-face and - since she deals in the same kind of art that SITE Santa Fe shows - potentially self-serving. Last year she was bumped off SITE Santa Fe's board.

There's still something missing in the Santa Fe scene. Practically everybody wishes for another top-end gallery, like Carpenter's, showing Euro-faves and American post-whatevers. And the place could use a couple of nationally credible critics in residence. Most important, Santa Fe needs to breed some of its own adventurous young artists, who are good enough to be in the big-time biennial, instead of just attend it.

Santa Fe Raises Its Sites | News