Positioning an Institution

Jesse Nusbaum, The Puye Room in the Palace of the Governors, 1913. Courtesy Palace of the Governors (MNM/DCA), Neg. No. 139154.

What is now Santa Fe is one of the old places in a region inhabited for at least 12,000 years. Traces of those who have gone before can be found across this ancient and sacred landscape.

These fragments have invigorated the study of archaeology and anthropology, inspired artists, and enriched our contemporary cultures, from Clovis Points to the A-Bomb, feast days to Folk Art Market. It is also a land marked by conflict and contest, where we hold tightly to our traditions.

Dialogue and discourse, as well as innovation and reassessment, are endemic here. Perhaps it is a result of the productive, creative tension between tradition and change. Our shared and individual patrimonies, and our disagreements and divisions, focus our efforts like the form and structures of poetry, offering challenges that demand intelligence and originality. It is often a messy, contentious process, when it comes down to which monuments to protect, which values to privilege, and whose culture to celebrate. This is the necessary and essential work of living in a pluralistic community. It is part of what makes living and working here both rewarding and confounding, and part of what has been attractive to artists, art lovers, and art historians…and apparently, museum builders.

It is these complex, contradictory, and fertile conditions that first sparked my desire to understand the history of cultural institutions as constitutive forces in Santa Fe almost twenty years ago, when I first started visiting and researching the area. Now, as a community resident and part of the leadership team for the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, one of the youngest additions to the pantheon of Santa Fe museums, I find understanding our past to be ever more important as we look to define our future. 

Much of what continues to define Santa Fe emerged in parallel with the creation of the Museum of New Mexico. In 1909, in one act, the territorial legislature made the Palace of the Governors the home of a newly created School of American Archeology (which eventually evolved into the School for Advanced Research) and the first galleries of the Museum of New Mexico, focusing entirely upon archaeology and anthropology. Edgar Lee Hewett was the founding director of both institutions, a position he retained until his death in 1946. In the years immediately following the museum’s establishment, Hewett and the museum he directed underwent a process of constant adaptation and growth, preparing the way for the opening of a new, purpose-built Museum of Fine Arts (now the New Mexico Museum of Art) in 1917. Essentially, the Museum of New Mexico (MNM), founded rather narrowly as a complement to a school for American archaeology, continually redefined itself, almost chameleon-like, to reflect national trends. Within a few years of opening galleries dedicated strictly to anthropology, the museum began exhibiting fine art. Going beyond that, in the mid to late teens, the galleries began embracing more avant-garde art, placing the MNM at the forefront of modernist artistic movements both in New Mexico and nationally.

The early museum staff included a number of individuals with training and experience grounded primarily in archaeology and anthropology. In addition to Hewett were individuals like Sylvanus Morley, a Harvard-trained archeologist and pioneering Mayan scholar; Kenneth Chapman, remembered as a gifted “artist archaeologist” and a reluctant but dedicated administrator; and Paul A.F. Walter, a journalist, founding editor of El Palacio, and another capable museum administrator. In less than a decade, they fundamentally shifted the what and the how of their exhibitions from cases of pots and artifacts to modern art galleries replete with the latest installation and display technologies. A fluidity of ideas, definitions, and even hierarchies enabled Hewett and his team to fill the galleries with interesting materials and fostered (mostly) productive cross-cultural conversations.

The first published description for the Palace galleries outlined a plan to fill the space with objects representing the ancient cultures of the American continent and the old world. This parroted the approach of large, encyclopedic museums. As Hewett first conceived of the museum, the galleries would combine objects and artifacts, the tangible “results” of anthropology and archaeology, with illustrations. For example, a room dedicated to the cliff dwelling culture of Mesa Verde would be decorated with “paintings done by capable artists, who would go to Mesa Verde and study the atmosphere, the physiography, the ruins of that region, and represent them in oil or water colors,” to bring the environment into the museum. The purpose of such paintings was to, “tell the person going through the museum what the collections alone cannot be made to tell.”

And so initially, art supplemented artifact. The museum commissioned Carl Lotave to decorate rooms named after locations where Hewett’s archaeological teams had been active, including Pajarito, Rito de los Frijoles, and Puye. In the museum’s first galleries, realistic painted murals portrayed the natural environment in which artifacts had been found. Furthermore, paintings could reconstruct images of the past, allowing curators to place artifacts into a living context, or at least an imagined past life.

As early as October 1913, the Palace galleries started hosting more than just illustrated anthropology. While the concept of exhibiting art as art alone received no mention in the first report to the Board of Regents of the Museum or in the territorial bill establishing the Museum, artists began regularly exhibiting in the Palace. 

Volume 1, Number 1 of El Palacio described a three-day “Fine Art Exhibit in the Museum” October 24–26, 1913, featuring eleven works by Taos art colony co-founder Ernest L. Blumenschein. While the exhibition was brief, small, and held in the temporary space of the museum’s reception room, the Blumenschein exhibition was still a significant precedent, and Blumenschein’s work often appeared in subsequent years. 

The next art exhibition occurred in August 1914, kicking off the first of the museum’s annual exhibitions. It featured twelve artists and lasted almost a month. From that point until the new Museum of Fine Arts building opened in 1917, fine art was almost always on view at the Palace. 

In a matter of just a few years, the leaders of the Museum of New Mexico—particularly Hewett, who was so thoroughly grounded in archaeology and anthropology—substantially altered their thinking about the value of fine art. Juxtaposing art and artifact destabilized the categories themselves. Limitations remained in what the museum believed constituted fine art, but this too was quickly changing. 

The first substantial article dedicated to art exhibitions appeared in the October 1914 issue of El Palacio with the headline “Art Events in Palace: Three Notable Exhibitions Held in Three Weeks. Canvases by Painters of Indian Life and Western Scenes Admired by Throngs…” This prominent mention of art as a component of the museum’s programming is evidence of how quickly fine art became a cornerstone, but it also suggests the limitations of their approach. In placing emphasis on “Indian Life and Western Scenes,” the museum presented these paintings as little more than free-standing versions of the murals found behind cases in other galleries. 

If an attempt was made to engage these works on aesthetic terms, it was minimized by the contextual framing of the surrounding galleries and the brief duration of the presentations. These exhibitions were unbelievably short by contemporary standards. Between August and October of 1914, for example, a dozen artists were featured in a show of loans from local collections, on view for just over two weeks in August. Ernest L. Blumenschein had work up for one day in September and three days in late October; Joseph Sharp enjoyed a one day exhibition on September 14. Perhaps in a small community, all interested parties could see a show in one day, but brevity marginalized the art, especially given that the exhibition of anthropology and artifacts remained permanently installed.

The Museum of New Mexico’s exhibition history between 1913 and 1916 strongly favors Southwestern art, largely due to the museum’s location and origins in anthropology. With such material, displays could include fine art without extinguishing the impulse to present “Indian life.” The romantic images produced by the Taos Society and Santa Fe artists—scenes of Pueblo men carefully posed in the studio with props or set against the rugged landscape, and portraits of Pueblo women carrying water jugs or watching dances—complemented the museum’s origins: presenting interpretations of Native culture and history. 

Ultimately, it was an artist not yet affiliated with Santa Fe, Robert Henri, who proved most influential in rethinking the role of art at the museum. Recent articles in this publication have described how Hewett and Henri became partners in the presentation of art at the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 in San Diego [bit.ly/Villela_MOA] and the also in Santa Fe [bit.ly/Nelson_MOA]. Hewett kept staff members in San Diego and Santa Fe busy planning displays for Ancient American Art. Most of these installations were anthropological and followed the methods used for the Palace galleries—artifacts complemented by murals, photographs, or sculptures. Hewett also authorized an exhibition called Modern American Art, to be held nearby. As a pair, the displays offered an explicit contrast between ancient and modern, but they also demonstrated an intriguing shift: both were explicitly exhibits of art.

Hewett recruited Henri, an experienced artist who regularly grappled with the aesthetic, intellectual, and social meanings of art as well as the practical concerns of lighting and display, to coordinate Modern American Art. Thus, San Diego’s exposition brought the MNM into the national discourse on art and accelerated the shift from anthropology to art. The lessons were quickly applied in Santa Fe, with plans for a new museum building based on the design of the exposition’s New Mexico building emerging by November 1914, before the San Diego fair even opened.

Tellingly, there is nothing about art in the earliest announcements about the new building; it was to feature “exhibits of scientific, archaeological, historical, art, and industrial value,” as J.K. Shiskin described in El Palacio. Nonetheless, in the years prior to the new building’s opening, art appeared with increasing frequency and the operating definition of art expanded substantially. In March 1915, two exhibitions of landscapes by Bert Geer Phillips and Chicago artist Royal Milleson complemented an installation of Edward S. Curtis’ Indian photographic portraits. Ten artists participated in the First Annual Exhibit of Santa Fe Artists, opening in August 1915, and the Taos School artists presented fifty canvases in October. Gerald Cassidy, Victor Higgins, Sheldon Parsons, and Walter Ufer opened an additional group show that month, which remained on the walls through January 1916.

Rather than days, these exhibitions stayed up for months. The pattern for 1916 was similar—large group shows intermixed with solo exhibits and smaller group shows. More artists, and more diverse artists appeared, including women and artists from beyond the immediate region. Several women were featured in solo exhibitions—Doris Rosenthal, Mrs. Winslow Skinner, Helen Dunlap—and more women were included in the Second Annual Exhibit of 16 Santa Fe Artists in 1917, including Sara Tudor Parsons, Lucie Bayard, Matilda Secor McCord, Elizabeth S. McCord, Grace Ravlin, Lucy Elizabeth Case Harwood, and Alice Oliver Henderson. Artists like Henri, and a group show of English artists (Laura Knight, Harold Knight, S.I. Birch, E. Hughes, and G. Harvey) expanded the geographic scope.

Meanwhile, construction continued, with the building increasingly described as the “new art museum.” By January 1918, just months after opening, the new building was referred to exclusively as an art museum. 

Yet even as Santa Fe embraced art, the art world was undergoing a seismic convulsion. Modernism emerged to challenge conventional assumptions about beauty, the function of art, and just exactly what could be considered art. As happened with the transition from presenting artifacts to showing art, the museum adapted quickly, moving  in a few short years from reactionary criticism to bold advocacy.

The Fourth Annual Exhibit of [the] Taos Society of Artists, held in 1918, exemplifies the museum’s starting position. Vigorously and unapologetically, El Palacio presented the Taos Society as champions for pictorial realism—a bastion of non-abstract decency, even sanity, in painting: 

It may be true that color, technique and “quality” are everything, but the people, the final arbiters of fame, demand the pictorial, look for a story or a sentiment behind, underneath, and within a picture, and they will not be denied, no matter how much artists and connoisseurs shout their shibboleths. Mere abstract beauty may light fires of enthusiasm among a few choice spirits, but humanity has and always will demand sentiment and will acclaim whole-heartedly the artist who exemplifies his canons of art in a picture that also tells a story, rather than the artist who insists that he has nothing to do with emotion, with the sentimental and that he demeans his art when he sets out with his brush to tell a story that the rabble will understand.

Further, “in none of the paintings exhibited does one find representation of the impressionist or so-called modern tendencies. The public declares the pictures to be ‘sane’; they do not scream at you, there is no grotesqueness, nothing bizarre or flashy, no discord.” Such a statement—reactionary, conservative, and populist—aligned the museum in direct opposition to modernism. 

But the growing influence (and sensationalism) of modern art could not be ignored. As more artists visited the area, some relocating permanently, they brought different approaches. Paul Burlin exhibited realist paintings at New York’ s 1913 Armory Show just a few months before moving to Santa Fe; in response to the Armory Show, his style changed as he adopted Fauvist coloring and Cubist or Expressionist abstraction. Raymond Jonson, who would play an enormous role in New Mexican modernism, exhibited work in Santa Fe in 1918, prior to his first visit to the city in 1922. In 1919 and 1920, Santa Fe saw the likes of Leon Gaspard, Marsden Hartley, B.J.O. Nordfeldt, Randall Davey, John Sloan, and Santa Fe’s Los Cincos Pintores: Jozef Bakos, Fremont Ellis, Willard Nash, Will Shuster, and W.R. Mruk. It was during these years also that George Bellows, Leon Kroll, and Andrew Dasburg were visiting Santa Fe. And this is to say nothing of artists that visited in the 1920s, including the likes of John Marin, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, and Georgia O’Keeffe. With such diverse artists in the region, it became increasingly clear that those pesky “so-called modern tendencies” were not going away and could not be ignored if the museum hoped to remain relevant. Much as the museum had learned to accommodate and present fine art a few years earlier, the institution now had to rethink art and come to terms with modernism.

And it did. By the twenties, the museum was exhibiting modernist art, sponsoring lectures to introduce modern art, and writing favorably about modernism in El Palacio. The approach to integrating modernism mirrored the process of a decade earlier, when artistic scenes of “Indian life” entered the museum under the auspices of anthropology. Modernist artists and authors who found inspiration in the landscape, cultures, and indigenous or Hispanic artistic motifs of the region and expressed their appreciation in paint or words made their modern ideas more palatable to the local audience, even as they sought something “exotic” to share with national audiences. 

Marsden Hartley’s example demonstrates how the museum introduced modern ideas through a set of values and terms that placed modernism within the regional context and made it more compatible with the museum’s exhibition program. Hartley came to New Mexico in June 1918 to spend the summer with Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos. Hewett exchanged letters with Hartley and offered the artist a studio in Santa Fe. By November 1918, just months after the El Palacio review of the Taos Society heralded their “sane” representational work, Hartley—a self-described “ultra abstract,” “ultra modernist” painter—was painting in Santa Fe as a guest of the museum. Hartley’s writings on aesthetics, the importance of place, and his understanding of the spiritualism of Native Americans appeared in El Palacio in the late teens and in Art and Archaeology in the early twenties. By publicizing Hartley’s writing, the museum placed itself at the vanguard of a circle of modernist artists and intellectuals seeking to define a distinctly American culture through the study (and yes, callow appropriation) of Native American culture. Supporting Hartley allowed the museum to position itself as the leading arbiter of a regional cultural identity and as a vital and progressive voice in a national debate about the future of American art. The accompanying elevation of Native art and life as a creative wellspring also provided further impetus for the exhibition of Native culture and artistry as art rather than anthropology. 

Between 1919 and 1935, the museum presented almost twenty exhibitions featuring contemporary (specifically, produced since 1900) Native American art—predominantly painting and pottery, but also weaving and silver work—and fostered new fairs and markets. Bess Murphy’s article in El Palacio’s centennial series [bit.ly/Murphy_MOA] explores the opportunities and contradictions the museum offered indigenous artists, providing deeper insight into the shifting perceptions and hierarchies that characterize the early decades of the museum. Though indigenous artists were frequently exhibited in its fine art galleries, conflicts, contradictions, and competing ideals existed. Indian art was variously presented as fine art, ethnographic evidence, commercial decoration, and tourist souvenir. Native artists were almost exclusively relegated to specific alcoves in a manner that differentiated them from their Anglo counterparts. Weaving, silverwork, and pottery were frequently intermixed, in a manner that could encourage the perception of Indians as producers of arts and crafts as opposed to the more prestigious fine art. Annual blanket exhibitions haphazardly presented historic and contemporary examples by both Indian and Hispanic weavers, with little regard for the creators of the blankets. Often, emphasis was instead placed upon the collectors—almost always prominent Anglo Santa Fe citizens. Exhibitions such as Navajo Silversmith’s Art, Owned by Mrs. Gerald Cassidy, elevated the collector while obscuring the artist.

To confuse matters further, the museum often intermixed historic objects with contemporary production, blurring the lines between modern, living peoples and the fabled past. While this juxtaposition of artifact and modern Native artwork may have enhanced the apparent authenticity of the contemporary art object, it did little for the contemporary artists’ identity as vital participants in American society. 

The adapted design exhibitions perhaps most egregiously undercut the status of Native arts. Almost as soon as the museum began to exhibit Pueblo artists as fine artists, companion exhibitions emerged that devalued Native imagery into commercial trinkets and decorative tchotchkes. Barely a month and a half after its first exhibition of Pueblo painters in 1919, the museum held a one-day exhibit of table linens and housewares with designs and colors “suggested by the Indian.” Other examples of commercial objects with designs adapted from traditional Native American motifs included scarves produced by a local Anglo woman featuring “sharp and definite geometrical symbols as they are found on pottery,” exhibited in 1926. Two years later, Eugenie Shonnard, best remembered as a portrait sculptor, presented her porcelain pieces with adapted Indian designs. In 1930, Miss M.F. Murdock of Phoenix, Arizona, showed her tapestries with Indian designs, including reproductions of a Hopi katsina, an image of a Hopi boy climbing a ladder into his home, and a painting of three deer under a rain cloud. 

This last image makes the point forcefully. The inspiration for Murdock’s tapestry was an original painting of three deer by Zia Pueblo artist Velino Herrera (or Ma Pe Wi). That very painting was actually hanging in the same gallery while Murdock’s tapestry was on view. Herrera’s original artwork was reproduced as a decorative consumer object created by and profiting a non-Native maker. Hung together, the reproduction upstaged the original: El Palacio never mentioned the original apart from the announcement of Miss Murdock’s tapestry reproduction.

Despite these contradictory efforts, Native artists gained significant new opportunities for training, exhibition, and sales in the 1920s and beyond, even as they often found themselves relegated to the role of modernism’s handmaid, hailed by the critics as authentic and intuitive modern artists while their work (and prices) remained clearly demarcated as Indian. Still, almost a century later, Santa Fe is at the forefront of Native American art and hosts the largest annual Indian art market in the country, an event that brings substantial profits to Native artists and is run by Native Americans. 

In telling this story about the museum’s early, ever-shifting understanding of art, where categories collapsed as quickly as they were established and definitions slipped constantly, my goal is to demonstrate that museums are constitutive institutions. Museums don’t just present materials, they actively make (and remake) meaning. Museums continue to play a key role in understanding and reconfiguring how the arts of New Mexico are made meaningful, in and out of the region. 

An incident from the campaign to build the new museum illustrates my point. Opposition to the new museum was led by Colonel Jose D. Sena, president of the school board and patriarch of one of Santa Fe’s most influential Hispanic families, led the opposition to the new museum. Colonel Sena publicly opposed the Fine Arts Museum, claiming in 1915 that the city’s school children had little use for an art gallery:

How many of the children of our city would become artists and derive material benefit from the art gallery? Are you not aware that an exceedingly small percentage of the citizens of this great government of ours can and do dedicate themselves to art, and then those that dedicated themselves to that profession, many of them become subjects of the poorhouse?

Imagine where Santa Fe would be if such views held sway? Fortunately, Sena dropped his opposition when a compromise was reached providing funds to expand Sena High School.

In the subsequent decades, the Museum of New Mexico played a critical role in the establishment and identity of Santa Fe, defining the city as a cultural destination and creating economic opportunities that have helped to sustain the city for much of the past century. At the same time, I am struck with a growing sense that many of the structures, ideals, and even architectural design guidelines established in the early twentieth century haunt and at times hamper the city. Perhaps by recalling and embracing the boldness of those early years, we’ll find the courage to define an equally vivid vision for Santa Fe’s next 100 years.

Cody Hartley is senior director of collections and interpretation at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. His Ph.D. dissertation, completed in 2005, focused on Santa Fe and the creation of the Museum of New Mexico.