Published: May 13, 2003
By Laura Beach
SANTA FE, N.M. — The newest museum of early American decorative art is not in New England or the South, and it is not a tribute to English, Dutch, French or German design traditions. Rather, it is the , which opened last July on a chamisa-covered hillside overlooking the ancient city of Santa Fe, its mission to celebrate Hispanic culture across four continents and five centuries.
“They say salsa sells more than catsup,” says the museum’s Cuban American executive director, Stuart Ashman, noting the current wave of interest in everything from Afro Caribbean jazz to the Latina bombshell Jennifer Lopez.
“It’s ironic that this is the first museum exclusively devoted to Spanish colonial art,” he adds. The museum’s directive, he explains, is to look outward from New Mexico, the northernmost reach of Spain’s empire, at the entire range of the culture; to consider how the culture has transformed local traditions throughout the world and how it, in turn, has been transformed.
Between 1519, when its forces entered Mexico, and 1565, when it gained control of the Philippines, Spain’s empire encircled the world. The result, say museum officials, was the first global culture, unified by trade routes stretching from Manila to Madrid.
While the and its worldly preoccupations are new, its collections are not. The assemblage began in 1928, three years after writer Mary Austin and artist-writer Frank G. Applegate founded the Spanish Colonial Arts Society with the goal of saving threatened New Mexican relics and preserving the traditions the artisans that produced them.
One of the Spanish Colonial Art Society’s first endeavors was the establishment of Spanish Market, an exhibition and sale of traditional New Mexican art by contemporary Hispano makers. When the market opened under the portal of the Palace of the Governors on Santa Fe’s plaza in 1926, it had only 12 vendors. Today Spanish Market, which convenes twice a year in July and December and attracts an estimated 70,000 visitors, features hundreds of artists working in every medium.
The society’s first acquisition, a painted altar screen by the northern New Mexican artist Jose Rafael Aragon (circa 1795-1865), was followed in 1929 by the purchase of an architectural landmark, a lavishly if primitively decorated chapel in the small village of Chimayo, north of Santa Fe.
Joined by noted collectors such as Mary Cabot Wheelright and the artists Andrew Dasburg and Gustave Baumann, the society expanded through the 1930s. Its collections grew to include locally made paintings on hide; Rio Grande-style weavings; colcha embroideries; carvings and paintings of saints, called “bultos” and “retablos”; shawls; and altar cloths.
Between the 1950s and the 1990s, the society was further blessed by major gifts from transplanted Bostonian Alan C. Vedder, the society’s curator between 1974 and 1989, and his wife Ann; Rebecca Salsbury James, the wife of photographer Paul Strand; and artist Cady Wells, among others. In 1961, Ruth Catlin gave several acres to the society as a potential site for a museum. Without money to build, however, the land went undeveloped. Meanwhile, from 1953 to 2002, the society’s collections were housed nearby at the Museum of International Folk Art, on Museum Hill, where the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture and the Wheelright Museum of the American Indian also cluster.
The society’s dream of a place of its own came true in 1998, when an anonymous donor provided a graceful adobe home built in 1930 by John Gaw Meem, the prominent local architect who popularized Santa Fe’s distinctive Pueblo Revival style between the 1920s and the 1950s. Commissioned by John D. Rockefeller to serve as the residence of the director of the nearby Laboratory of Anthropology, the structure retains such classic Meem details as handmade ironwork and carved doors and beams. According to Meem authority Bainbridge Bunting, the architect drew direct inspiration from Byne and Stapley’s Spanish Interiors and Furniture, a picture book published in 1928.
“We had to refurbish the house and restore it without compromising its historic detail. Bathrooms and closets were eliminated to make space, guest quarters became offices and the former kitchen is now a museum shop. We added 6,144 square feet for collections storage, research and conservation,” explains Ashman. Working with Architectural Alliance, the society broke ground in June 2000, supported by the proceeds of a $7 million capital campaign.
Boasting a peaceful setting away from downtown Santa Fe’s tourist hubbub, a courtyard garden planted with high-desert specialties, intimate galleries and novel displays, the , with 20,000 visitors so far, has rapidly become a favorite destination in a city known for cultural attractions.
Richest in New Mexican art, its 3,000-object holdings also feature material from Central and South America, the Caribbean, the Philippines and Goan. A smattering of objects from Europe, Asia and North Africa, such as a Saltillo-style cotton blanket made in Czechoslovakia or Bavaria for the American market, illustrate the convergence of cultural and economic influences.
Five hundred pieces were selected for nine debut exhibits shown throughout the single-story building. “Un Mundo del Arte (A World of Art)” considers the pan-national theme that is central to the museum’s mission. The exotic works on view illustrate the complex progression of Gothic, Mudejar (Muslim-Christian), Mannerist, Baroque, Rococo and Neo-classical style in Spanish-speaking countries around the globe.
“The trade systems that supported Spanish settlements also allowed for the importation of non-Spanish artworks, providing Spanish artists with multicultural prototypes and styles,” writes Donna Pierce, the museum’s former curator and author, with Stuart Ashman, of Conexiones: Connections in Spanish Colonial Art, the profusely illustrated collections catalog published to coincide with the museum’s opening.
Across from this cross-cultural installation is a gallery very much more focused on New Mexican art of the colonial era: vivid retablos, almost calligraphic in their shorthand rendering of saints; devotional objects and furniture inlaid with straw, a simple but effective alternative to costly inlaid hardwoods; and punch-decorated tinwork, called poor man’s silver. Even in the remotest corners of the territory, the influence of European fashion can be seen in a mortised and tenoned side chair with Eastlake-inspired incised and painted decoration, and a primitive pine daybed whose serpentine silhouette is clearly Neo-classical in origin.
In 1961 and 1963, the Spanish Colonial Arts Society contributed period rooms to the American Museum in Bath and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. An updated interpretation of a colonial New Mexican interior is seen in “La Casa Delgado,” the museum’s period room, based on the 1815 will and estate inventory of Captain Manuel Delgado.
“This is not an idealized setting,” says Ashman, noting the scholarly advances that have changed the way period rooms look. “What’s interesting is that not all of the pieces we show are locally made. Based on the records, we included Chinese porcelain plates, a Spanish olive jar and Mexican cloth. It gives you a real sense of what the home of a wealthy, important Santa Fean might have looked like.”
“Visiones (Visions)” presents contemporary work by Hispano artists. It currently offers, among others, bultos by Charlie Carillo and Jimmy Trujillo; retablos by Alcario Otero and James A. Cordova; furniture by David C. de Baca; colcha embroidery by Irene E. Lopez; and a Rio Grande weaving by Teresa Archuleta Sagel.
Far from static, the is planning a regular program of changing exhibits. Recently opened is “Nuevas Obras: Recent Acquisitions,” showcasing works by Alcario Otero, Nick Herrera, Luis Tapia and others. “El Retablo Nuevo Mexicano/The New Mexican Retablo” debuts on June 13. Retablos, devotional paintings on panel or large-scale altarpieces, are the “signature” art form of colonial New Mexico, organizers say.
“Our goal is to be the premier collection of New Mexican Spanish material and its comparison around the world. How living artists are interpreting the tradition is an area of particular interest to me,” says Ashman, who has charted out a singularly rewarding future for himself and for the .
The is at 750 Camino Lego, telephone 505-982-2226.
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