Santa Fe Déjà Vu
BY LAURA ADDISON
On a bright day in January, Museum of International Folk Art curator Laura Addison sat down with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s new director of curatorial affairs, Cody Hartley, for a conversation about Hartley’s long engagement with the long history of art in New Mexico and his vision for its future.
Addison: I just have to ask, was the artist Marsden Hartley your great, great, great uncle?
Hartley: Unfortunately, no relationship. I did grow up in a family of artists, in Wyoming. My grandparents and my mother were professional artists. I have no artistic ability myself and art history was one way I could connect with my family on their level. [As an undergraduate at Wyoming] my major was in English with a minor in art history, and I took courses in Victorian painting and African art—and that piqued my interest in applying to graduate schools. My initial interest was African art, but I gravitated to American art at UC Santa Barbara.
Addison: You got both your master’s and your PhD [at UC Santa Barbara]. What was your master’s thesis on?
Hartley: Robert Henri and his time in Santa Fe. That became one small part of my dissertation.
Addison: The dissertation is titled “Art in an Arid Climate: The Museum of New Mexico and the Cultivation of the Arts in Santa Fe.” It almost seems like your whole life was preparing you for your new position.
Hartley: Without realizing it, yes. My grandparents had spent time here. My grandmother worked at Los Alamos and my grandfather went to the University of New Mexico.
Addison: The same grandparents who were artists?
Hartley: Yes. [My grandfather] pursued his MFA there. They ended up living in Colorado Springs, but they came back to New Mexico frequently for vacations, so I grew up hearing all these stories about Santa Fe and Taos. Curious about this place, I drove down from Wyoming for spring break and it made absolutely no sense to me. How does a community like this exist in a location that to this day is not that easy to get to? How does it have the kind of arts and culture that are so evident? This is about the time that economic surveys showed that Santa Fe was selling gobs of art, more than anywhere else of comparable size and more than most major cities. I wanted to understand how this was possible. I ended up coming back to Santa Fe pretty much every year for about a decade. Flash forward several years, [when] working on a dissertation topic I started thinking about Santa Fe again. I convinced my adviser that Santa Fe was a really interesting case study. How did it come into being and how does it have the artistic richness that it has?
Addison: There’s a question that you pose in the introduction to the dissertation: “How did Santa Fe become Santa Fe?”
Hartley: This was a community that put itself on the map very self-consciously, and it did that through a series of organizations and individuals who willed it into being. We’re still all benefiting from the structures they created.
Addison: Among those individuals was Edgar Lee Hewett, the first director of the Museum of New Mexico.
Hartley: Right—a very complicated character. I think he would’ve been a nightmare to work for. At the same time, because of his ambition he brought things into existence and simply made it happen. After he relinquished control, after his death, it took decades for many of those institutions to find their footing. He was certainly not the only person that helped create Santa Fe, but he’s more responsible for it, I think, than any other individual. He was a polarizing figure. He had an amazing ability to convince people to do things his way. He often seemed to secure the necessary credentials just after he got the job. He was not well regarded as an academic. His methodology was often considered suspect by the more forward-thinking individuals in his field. I don’t think he could’ve been successful in a larger place. Santa Fe offered this rich environment, this opportunity where he could nourish his ideas and create things, where somewhere else he would’ve been batted down.
Addison: You talk about Santa Fe as both typical of many American cities that were trying to leverage creative capital, but also unique in its ability to accomplish it.
Hartley: It was typical in that in the decades from 1900 to the 1930s many cities on the eastern seaboard and in the West were trying to figure out how to present themselves as unique successful communities, both socially and economically. Culture—museums, theaters, opera houses—those were all signs of a civilized city and a growing city. That pattern wasn’t unusual, but very few places were as successful as Santa Fe. They somehow got all the pieces in place—the institution building, the patronage, the businesses, the building codes, the aesthetic . . . [and] some really brilliant marketing.
El Palacio was a propaganda arm for Hewett. Every important thing that happened, he broadcast across the nation. It’s easy to make Hewett into something of a caricature, but he wasn’t stupid. He paid attention. He learned as he went. He was nothing if not an opportunist and a pragmatist. He adopted whatever he thought was going to be most effective in getting him to the next stage. My dissertation traces this series of progressions from the first displays in the Palace of the Governors, which were really about anthropology. This is his field, this is what he thinks he knows, and he’s presenting artifacts that have been excavated in the area and trying to tell his history of the region. He’s at this point only using art as an illustration. He does not have an art background and doesn’t think about art as something important and valuable in its own right. Over time he starts learning more about art. When he realized that the art pavilion [at the 1915 San Diego Panama-California Exposition] was as popular and successful as his anthropology exhibits, he thought: “Hey, there’s something to this.” Robert Henri really showed him how to do it. They were both such men of their ages—over-sized egos and a little bombastic. This was all happening with the backdrop of World War I. With U-boats off the coast of Maine, travel to Europe was much less desirable, [so] Henri had to find some other place to go to find the exotic‑looking types that he loved to paint. Here in Santa Fe, of course, he had these exotic‑looking “types,” be they Hispanic or Indian. Henri’s time in Santa Fe, his influence on Hewett, was critical in helping Hewett understand that this whole “art” thing had legs. This could really take the city somewhere.
As you track the correspondence and the articles in El Palacio about the building of what was just called “the new museum” at that point, it was going to [exhibit] anthropology, and industry, and other things, and maybe art, too. Art was just one of many, many things that were going to be shown in this new museum complex. By the time the building opened it was called the “New Art Museum,” and it was purely dedicated to art. Over those few years, Hewett really learned that art was much more captivating.
Addison: He was a quick learner.
Hartley: He was a quick learner. Modernism was an important factor. This was an age when, in the wake of the Armory show, you had a wide portion of the American public thinking that modern art was ludicrous, the “scribblings” of insane people. In earlier [El Palacio articles], at the beginning of the teens, they’re talking about cubism and modernism and all this horrible stuff that’s the work of stark-raving lunatics and it means nothing; the public, they said, will demand beautiful, pictorial scenes. They were showing Taos Society artists and typical romantic realist paintings and saying, “This is what good art is. This is what the people want and demand. It needs to have a story. It needs to be pretty.” Then, by the middle of the decade, towards the opening of the museum, suddenly they start giving lectures about modern art. You’ve got Hewett himself giving lectures interpreting cubist paintings and relating them to Native American symbolism. He quickly evolves from being radically conservative in the art world to being quite liberal and becomes a proponent, to a great degree, for modernism.
Addison: El Palacio was a really significant source for your own research.
Hartley: Yes, I could not have done it without El Palacio. I spent days in the archives going through old museum records, board minute reports, and financial reports, picking up little nuggets here and there, but the real gist of my dissertation research came from El Palacio. The museum wrote its own history. I knew that it was a propaganda arm at some points and couldn’t entirely be trusted to accurately represent everything that was happening. But in terms of providing a chronology of when things were done, and who did them, what was being shown, what the dialogue was, it was invaluable evidence. It’s really amazing that again, in this place—in this location—a museum system like this was created at that age, that quickly.
Addison: In your dissertation you talk about “Santa Fe déjà vu,” the many parallels between Santa Fe of the past and Santa Fe of the present and how a lot of the same topics get revisited over and over again. One is the debate between the historic and the contemporary—those who want this to be a contemporary art city and those who are more interested in the past. You talk about culture as a driver of the economy—a topic that is revisited often.
Hartley: How many times do we hear people say, “This city really needs to use arts and culture to rebuild its economy”? We’ve been rebuilding our economy for one hundred and twenty years now. Either we haven’t quite figured it out or we’ve let things slip. In the past decade Richard Florida and others have produced a whole series of books on creative capital and creative commerce—what cities can do to attract young, bright, talented, creative types to revivify dying downtowns. This is all stuff that Hewett and his friends were doing at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the railroad bypassed Santa Fe and this town’s economy was in the tank. It is amazing how those patterns seem to repeat themselves.
Addison: Let’s talk about your arrival here. You were assistant curator of paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and you helped open the Art of the Americas Wing.
Hartley: That was great fun. When that was done in 2010, I was figuring out what to do next and was lining up some exhibition projects and some book ideas. Then, I got an interesting call from the director. He asked me to consider moving out of curatorial and into development, which is not a normal career path [for a curator]. They had a program created in 2000 called Gifts of Art. They took the strategic, active approach of a fundraiser but applied it to collection building. It seemed like the most insane thing I could do as a curator. I felt like I was giving up everything I’d ever studied for or trained for. Once I made the leap I loved it. I never looked back.
We brought some incredible collections into the museum while I was there. I worked with the most interesting and exciting people, both collectors and the curatorial staff. I would never have had that opportunity if I’d stayed in my American art niche. I was very happy, but then I got a call asking if I would consider a position at the [Georgia] O’Keeffe Museum. I said, “That’s very nice. Thank you, but I’m very happy in Boston.”
Intelligently, they said, “That’s understandable. Would you be willing to at least look at the job description and let us know if you can think of anyone that we should be talking to?” I started reading the job description and I have to say it fit perfectly. Line-for-line I thought, “That’s me. Those are the things I like doing, that I would want to do more of.” I started talking to Robert Kret [director of the O’Keeffe Museum]. I was impressed by his ambitions for the institution, excited about what he saw as the potential for where this museum could go and what could be done with it in the coming decade. The more I learned, the more excited I got about what this museum’s capable of. It’s a quirky place. There aren’t many new museums. At sixteen years old we’re still very young. You can understand from my dissertation research [that] I find museums really interesting. To be in close to the ground floor of one, with a chance to really make a difference. . . .
Addison: Not only to this institution, but to the whole city.
Hartley: Exactly. That, I find exciting. The serendipity of it, coming full circle, that I would be coming back to now work in the community that I spent so much time thinking about historically. And, being able to think about, “How do we take all that past and move this into the twenty-first century? What does this town’s future look like as a center for the arts?” It’s exhilarating. Who gets an opportunity to do that?
Addison: You said you liked what you heard Rob Kret say about the next decade? Are you able to share that with the readers?
Hartley: We’ve spent the first fifteen years proving ourselves. We did major exhibitions. We demonstrated that we had the professional skills, the knowledge, the expertise, the staff to handle the finest artwork and work with museums across the country and around the world. We put together topnotch publications and came out of the gate running. I think we have a chance to think long term about O’Keeffe’s legacy and her role in American modernism. A lot of the focus has been so intently on just Georgia O’Keeffe, and understandably so. But I think she becomes infinitely more interesting when you start expanding beyond her and thinking more about the circles she moved in, the artists she was familiar with and corresponded with, the works and movements that she was a part of and that she reacted against, and the historical context. She lived an amazing life in an amazing century. We’re just now coming to terms with what the twentieth century meant for this country and for the world. Being able to think about her as a portal into this history, rather than simply a subject in a box, I find exhilarating. There’s enormous potential. Who has this much information on one artist? We don’t ever talk about this, but just think about her living at Abiquiu, just over the ridge from Los Alamos, knowing people like Oppenheimer, building a fallout shelter in her backyard. . . .
Addison: O’Keeffe in the atomic age.
Hartley: Yeah. I have that somewhere in my notes as a show idea. Who thinks of her in those terms? We don’t think about her as being part of that moment [in history], but she was.
Addison: She’s still very romanticized.
Hartley: I don’t think American art historians have really come to terms with how significant the Southwest was in the formation of American modernism. Everybody came through here. That was one of the things that originally got me interested in Santa Fe: “How does this town attract every single artist and writer you can think of?”
Addison: At one point, it had to do with subject matter. Don’t you think beyond that, it was really about a circle of friends?
Hartley: It was about a circle of friends. It was about a different destination. Certainly, Mabel Dodge Luhan was the single greatest factor in drawing many, many, many of those people here. They came here looking for America. They were trying to figure out what this nation was going to be culturally, because it was still a very undefined moment. All O’Keeffe’s comments about the great American thing and all that work to try to figure out what American art was going to look like as distinct from European art. This was a place where those artists felt like they could find something. You throw in the cultural history, the ethnic diversity. There’s too much interesting stuff going on for them not to want to be here.
Addison: Is Santa Fe what you expected? You spent so much time studying it.
Hartley: It is funny to live here after thinking about it in a kind of “academic tourist mode” during research and visiting. Living here is different, but I’m very happy. It’s so comfortable. The quality of life is high. Where [else] do you get skies like this? I was up at Abiquiu this morning, standing in O’Keeffe’s patio with that perfect rim of adobe and blue sky and thinking, “This is January 3rd. How is this possible?” I think there’s a lot of energy and individuals here who really want to see this community grow.
Addison: How do you think the collection will grow?
Hartley: Our collection? I would absolutely love to implement something like the Gifts of Art program of the Museum of Fine Arts [Boston] here. I want to ensure that collectors of O’Keeffe’s artwork think about this [place] as the national repository for her work—as the single best place to care for, share, interpret, and preserve their collections, their artwork.
Addison: What about O’Keeffe’s peers? Could the scope be larger, include collecting more examples of American modernism?
Hartley: Yes to modernism! There’s still some really good stuff out there but it’s getting harder to find. I would really like to have a collection that, at the least, allows us to present that context and show a broader sense of O’Keeffe’s relationship to her peers, how what she was doing was unique and different, but also how she was in dialogue with her times.
Addison: You’ve only been here nine months but, in a way, you’re writing a final chapter to your dissertation by being here and being part of the history. What do you think that chapter will be about when you write it ten years from now?
Hartley: Ten years from now? It will be about how the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum became a part of the community in a very meaningful, sustained way. I’d like to think that we’ll have a better understanding of O’Keeffe’s significance and her context. Every day, there are more people walking through those doors who have never known O’Keeffe as a living person. She’s always been a historical figure in their minds. So how do we continue to make her relevant and do right by the responsibility that we have in caring for this material?
Laura Addison is curator of North American and European folk art at the Museum of International Folk Art. She was previously curator of contemporary art at the New Mexico Museum of Art (2002–13), and is a frequent contributor to El Palacio.