Nestled in a rift valley fringed by quiescent volcanos, Albuquerque is a vibrant high-altitude arts destination that celebrates its multicultural heritage.
By Judith Fairly (All photos in today’s post were also shot by Judith Fairly)
New Mexico has attracted artists since Georgia O’Keeffe’s iconic paintings drew widespread attention to its remarkable combination of light and space. O’Keefe was not the first artist to be enchanted by the Southwest when she visited New Mexico in 1929 at the invitation of Rebecca Salsbury James, a painter and the wife of photographer Paul Strand. Many women artists came west to escape the restrictions they encountered in the eastern art establishment and, like their male counterparts, found inspiration in the landscape and the spiritual life of the Native American and Hispanic people.
There is perhaps no state more closely identified with the art of its native people than New Mexico. Santa Fe and Taos are familiar arts destinations to most travelers but Albuquerque, the state’s largest city, also has a long and rich cultural history. Founded by Spanish colonists in 1706 on the banks of the Rio Grande River, it developed into an important agricultural trade center on the Camino Real. The construction of a depot in Albuquerque in 1880 by the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad spurred the city’s growth and invited travelers to experience the Southwest’s exotic combination of native cultures and desert geography first-hand.
Fred Harvey, the entrepreneur who established the Harvey House chain in the 1870s to provide quality food and lodging to rail travelers, collaborated with the Santa Fe Railroad to market the Southwest by offering guided tours from rail stations to pueblos and historic sites. The tourist trade supported Harvey’s curio shop empire and created an enduring industry for Native American artisans.
On arrival at the Albuquerque International Sunport, a Pueblo style terminal designed in 1939 by Ernest Blumenthal, a visitor is greeted by art works on rotation from the airport’s 113 piece permanent collection. The landscaping outside the terminal is a festive collaboration between native plants and large-scale sculptures; nearby, support columns for the interstate are painted in colorful indigenous designs.
To the west of Albuquerque, visitors can walk among more than 20,000 petroglyphs incised in hardened lava from five extinct volcanoes at Petroglyphs National Park by ancestors of today’s Pueblo people; to the east, ruins of mission churches on the Salinas Mission Trail bear witness to contact early in the 17th Century between Spanish missionaries and a thriving trade community of Pueblo Indians.
Eleven of New Mexico’s 19 Indian pueblos are located near Albuquerque.
Three hundred years of the city’s past are catalogued at the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History; the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and the National Hispanic Cultural Center provide a deeper understanding of the indigenous and colonial societies upon which the city is founded.
Art is everywhere in Albuquerque, due in part to the city’s public art program, also known as “1% for the Arts.” Established in 1978 with the Art in Municipal Places Ordinance, this initiative set aside 1% of city construction funds derived from general obligation bonds and has resulted in the purchase or commission of more than 400 pieces of art celebrating Albuquerque’s cultural and artistic roots. There are also thousands of historical works of art in the city and across the state created between 1934-1943 by artists and craftsmen who participated in New Deal programs such as the Works Progress Administration.
While arts programs across the nation are seeing their funding cut off, this isn’t the case in Albuquerque, according to Sherri Brueggemann, program manager of the Public Art Urban Enhancement Program. “Albuquerque has a scrappy community of artists—not rich, but creative with resources,” says Bruggemann. There’s wide public support for the city’s multicultural artists and a longstanding collaboration between the arts and industry, and the arts and science. New Mexico’s prominent role in the development of nuclear technology has kindled the collective imagination of artists across the state; visitors can learn more at Albuquerque’s National Museum of Nuclear Science & History.
The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque has a permanent collection of over 26,000 works of art, five galleries, and the nation’s largest university museum collection of photography. Alternative spaces include 516 ARTS, an independent nonprofit arts venue, a “hybrid gallery-museum” that hosts exhibitions of both local and international artists working in all media. The Anderson-Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum—Albuquerque is considered by many to be the hot air balloon capital of the world—includes art in its mission statement.
Asian and African immigrants employed by the railroad began to arrive in the area in the 19th century; as the city’s science and technology sectors have grown, so have the numbers of newcomers from around the globe. Artists from these communities are represented alongside Native, Hispanic and contemporary artists by more than 100 galleries and alternative spaces in Albuquerque, including the five galleries at the University of New Mexico campus.
New Mexico is a place that embraces tradition but encourages originality; in the clear desert light, under the wide-open skies, many travelers have left their old lives behind and discovered their true selves.
A version of this article originally appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of The Artist’s Magazine, www.artistsnetwork.com.