By Rachel Preston
More than one of New Mexico’s great stories starts with a broken wheel… and the account of the Museum of International Folk Art is one of them.
Its founder, Florence Dibell Bartlett, got her first taste of New Mexico’s quaint and cordial village life—a style of living perhaps the polar opposite to that of the wealthy hardware heiress and world traveler in 1920’s Chicago—while awaiting a wagon tire repair in Santa Cruz, and she was hooked.
In the 1930s, Bartlett would purchase the San Gabriel Dude Ranch in Alcalde, which had hosted several other notable women who would inspire her efforts, including Georgia O’Keeffe, fellow Chicagoans “the White Sisters” Elizabeth and Martha White, and Mary Cabot Wheelwright (the last of whom would buy another renowned property, Los Luceros, nearby). Bartlett built out an extensive Spanish Pueblo Revival home which would become known as El Mirador (“The Lookout”) on the property. She hired Gustave Baumann who, with his wife Jane, was a frequent guest of the dude ranch, to carve wood details, as well as muralist Olive Rush to decorate the home.
Then, the collecting began. Neighbors and friends would visit, bringing along their artist friends, who would sell their craftware to the patroness. It was not long before the collection overwhelmed every room in the house. Bartlett needed a place to store it. Further, seeing how fragile those traditional lifeways seemed, she wanted to share it so those arts would be preserved.
Having been deeply impacted by the early twentieth century’s two world wars, Bartlett wanted to find ways of bridging differences to bring people together. She believed that the language of art was universal, and that folk craft and dress were a place where different people could find common ground and ways of relating to one another. Bartlett sought the advice of experts and friends to help her facilitate her mission, including advisors from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Denver Art Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Colonial Williamsburg. Finally, in 1950, Bartlett founded and endowed the Museum of International Folk Art as well as its supporting International Folk Art Foundation.
Bartlett called Museum of New Mexico Director Boaz Long and architect John Gaw Meem to El Mirador to see if it might be remodeled into a museum. The distance from Santa Fe, the building’s many levels, and the steep budget for the remodel contributed to the decision to build a new facility at Museum Hill instead.
In the late 1920s, what we know today as Museum Hill was part of an effort undertaken by Meem and the White Sisters, who bought properties all the way up Arroyo Chamiso past Sunmount Sanitorium to where St. John’s College sits today, in order to prevent the installation of a Southwest Chautauqua around Sun Mountain. Their protest led to the formation of the Old Santa Fe Association as well as transformed the beloved area where many—including Meem—had come to recuperate from tuberculosis into a place for Santa Fe to come together around the ideas of cultural exploration.
Because of the intention of this place they had preserved, how the museum sat within the landscape was vitally important to Meem. From placing the entrance of the museum at the centerline of the ridge and aligned to Truchas Peak, to aligning other views to the sacred Jemez and Sandia mountains, to building a terraced garden walk up from the lower parking lot, to his account that he had yelled at the excavators for using a bulldozer to clear plants near the building that were meant to be retained, Meem paid attention to the details.
With Meem’s own Laboratory of Anthropology and Director’s Residence (now the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art) to the east, the 1939 National Park Service Building by Cecil Doty beyond, and the 1937 Museum of Navajo Ceremonial Art built by neighbor Mary Cabot Wheelwright on the west, MOIFA was going to anchor Modernism into the architectural language of the area. Bartlett wrote to Meem that “the exterior of the museum should be simple in line and modern in feeling.” He confirmed this, adding that it should be “harmonizing… with the nearby regional style buildings in mass and color, but contemporary in its simplicity of detail.” The museum was going to put Santa Fe on the map as a modern international art destination… and the building needed to read as such.
While most of us know Meem as a revivalist, he regularly wrote and spoke on the ideas of the great artists and designers of the day, including Pablo Picasso, Le Corbusier, and Eero Saarinen. He knew he wanted to design a building that would function well, but that would be also considered beautiful by modern standards; he noted that Saarinen had once said, “You need to grow roses as well as cabbages.” In several speeches about his work, Meem said that he was “not trying to imitate an adobe.” Rather, he referred to his approach to design as “recalling some of the … characteristics such as flat roofs, sloped walls, and earth colors.” To that, he added terraced massing, parapets, and sparse window openings within large wall expanses, authoring a modern style of building that still remembered it was in Santa Fe.
While Meem was busy planning, Bartlett sent Director Robert Bruce Inverarity to research forty-five museums around the U.S. and Canada to determine the best practices for the new museum. She called on Meem to help her mold her vision of what an active international museum should be—with a crafts school, an outdoor amphitheater, and an outdoor collection of folk houses from around the world, something like an international Skansen—and to do it within her budget of $300,000 (about $3.7 million today).
Meem began designing in a way he was most comfortable: with a stone and stucco Territorial Revival building aligned with the Laboratory of Anthropology, with the entrance on the north under a long portal. From there, he explored what he might do to make the design modern. An alternate version had an oversized cornice that shaded the wall. One sketch appeared as if it was a Bauhaus effort. Another looked like it was a Frank Lloyd Wright building, with a stone façade, long horizontals at the eaves, and canopies over each of the tall windows. A circular plan from May 1949 centered on a “Hall of All Nations” with galleries and an amphitheater that radiated from a core hall. Another was laid out perpendicular to the Laboratory of Anthropology, with an irregular, angular entrance, and with what would later be described in the press as its “million-dollar view” at the lounge opening towards the southwest, so that the collection of international cottages could be laid out along the view of the Sandias.
The final design Meem and Bartlett arrived at was scaled without overwhelming the Laboratory of Anthropology, while tucking in an additional working floor below into the slope of the hill, in a modern, stripped-down adaptation of Meem’s Territorial Revival style. Meem played within his own language, puncturing the tall entry portal through the entablature emblazoned with the name of the museum. This “cap” on the building was a simplified version of Territorial brick copings, which reflected back on Greek Revival architecture. Meem hid in plain sight a timeline of the past seventy years of New Mexican design, and then broke it, hoping to cause visitors to pause and take it in. Painting the tall portal’s walls a light blue usually reserved for window trim ensured the effect.
Built between 1950 and 1952, the earth-toned stucco-covered concrete block building sat on a rubble stone plinth that hid the concrete structure of the lower floor, with concrete details at the top of the parapet and around the aluminum windows and doors. Within, the grid ceilings over the galleries were hung from Pratt steel trusses that echoed early long-span bridges, with light gage steel trusses holding up the lower ceilings. This structure would be used in later additions, with the trusses sometimes exposed for decorative effect, most notably in the Girard wing. Meem designed for passive solar design with both solar gain and shading at the south-facing terrace and offices; he wanted the building to perform in as much a modern way as it appeared.
Bartlett was concerned about her museum being accessible to everyone, so she directed Meem to locate public spaces and galleries on the main floor, and omit any steps into the building, so the elderly and infirm might be able to enjoy the space unencumbered. They also included a freight elevator for the staff to transfer collections from the basement to the exhibits.
The main floor featured a reception area with a handsome lounge featuring Knoll furniture by some of Mid-Century Modern’s finest designers, including Ilmari Tapiovaara, George Nakashima, Jens Risom, and Charles and Ray Eames; a nearly 8,000-square-foot exhibition space; a library; a 160-seat auditorium for folk performances, lectures, and films, which could also serve as gallery space for temporary exhibitions; plus dressing rooms for performers; bathrooms; and a staff kitchen. The basement offered collections storage, a catalog room, collection processing rooms, a laboratory, photographic studio, loading dock, two small offices for visiting scholars, and a separate apartment with a patio and private entry for a museum caretaker.
Bartlett would donate some 2,500 artworks from thirty-four countries to the museum, including traditional costumes, textiles, jewelry, ceramics, wood carvings, paintings, and jewelry acquired during her travels, referring to it as the “nucleus” of what would become a renowned folk art collection. By the opening, the collection had grown to include more than 4,000 items from fifty-five countries through donations from local collectors, as well as the French government; the Art Institute of Chicago; Harvard’s Peabody Museum; the University of Pennsylvania’s museum; Holland’s Rijks-museum voor Volkskunde; Austria’s Volkskunde Museum Wein; and the Heard Foundation in Phoenix established by Bartlett’s sister Maie.
Bartlett envisioned a museum alive with people and activity, and as such, the spaces designed for the display of the collection were just as important as the building itself. Atypical of museums at the time, color was a central feature, with colors, fonts, and graphics selected, as described in a 1953 special issue of El Palacio celebrating the opening, “to not only enhance the architectural qualities of the building but to provide pleasurable interest and variation.”
The entrance lobby was the heart of the museum, acting as a hub of spokes that radiated out to the museum’s different functions. Each space could be closed off without preventing access to the others.
The gallery was designed without columns or windows, with a ceiling that could be raised or lowered, and a grid of lights and light-hangers so that lighting could be located anywhere it was needed, resulting in a space that could be modified into almost any arrangement for exhibitions. The famous Costume Parade exhibit, with its unusual modern mannequins that allowed the costumes to seem as if they were being danced, was designed by Director Inverarity and Stanley Nelson. The Santa Fe New Mexican delighted in having the scoop that it was based on a New York striptease show, noting that the display was inspired by dancers coming down a ramp into the audience.
The exhibit was made more intriguing by its lack of glass; a low angled rail was the only thing separating the visitors from the art itself. Inverarity believed that putting art behind glass put a “psychological barrier between the exhibit and the onlooker.” Exhibits were designed to be uncluttered, so visitors could feel an intimate connection to each item, and were purposely arranged in an irregular manner so people could move about as they pleased. And it was not just a visual experience; the exhibition had folk music from around the world playing as visitors went through.
Bartlett was deeply invested in the project and it showed in her direction that the museum never compete with the architectural style or collections of other local museums; as well as in all the details she helped select, including hardware, casework, colors, and curtains. She even managed the checklist of items contractors needed to fix prior to the exhibition installation and museum opening a year later. Bartlett invited Gustave Baumann to paint the quote over the silver entrance doors: “The art of the craftsman is a bond between the peoples of the world.” He also hand-carved the dedication plaque for the lobby vestibule which, after years of being stored away, is currently being documented and restored.
Opening ceremonies in September 1953 were attended by more than 1,200 visitors. Engraved, hand-addressed invitations had been sent to foreign museum directors and diplomats, directors of the major museums in the U.S., local dignitaries and officials, and hundreds of supporters. Crowds followed hand-lettered signs up the new dirt road to the museum. Barlett cut the ceremonial ribbon while the Albuquerque trio Los Tres Caballeros played. The gallery opening that afternoon was followed by a series of talks on primitive, folk, and fine arts.
The museum was the first of its kind in the world, and was the largest single donation ever received by the state at that time. Articles about the opening noted that MOIFA was “the principal art museum building of the fifties so far.” The New York Times celebrated the placement of the building in the landscape, as well as its contemporary design, lauding the Finnish chairs, the push-button screen in the auditorium, and even the molded birchwood letter trays.
Bartlett donated the finished museum to the State of New Mexico, as she did with El Mirador, which was to be sold to establish a fund for the museum’s upkeep. She died just eight months after her dream was realized. Meem and his firm and mentees continued working on museum renovations through the 1960s.
Alexander “Sandro” Girard and his wife Susan famously started their life in folk art in 1939 on a belated honeymoon to Mexico. Girard was taken with the idea of real people making simple, beautiful objects which would share their values and ideals with others—especially children. A carload of objects bought on that first trip became the seeds of a collection that would ultimately number over 106,000 objects. The Girards would set up the Girard Foundation in 1961 to care for them.
However, folk art was not what most people knew Alexander Girard for when he and Susan moved to Santa Fe in 1953. Girard’s career was a masterclass in design thinking; a fusion of architecture, furnishings, fabrics, interiors, typography, symbology, and graphic design. He had added touches of folk art, reminders of color, culture, and play into the crisp, clean spaces he was designing in his early works, but those touches were not yet integral to his aesthetic.
John Gaw Meem was one of most important people Girard met when he began the process of obtaining his New Mexico architecture license. Meem had founded the New Mexico chapter of American Institute of Architects, designed the process of architectural registration, and was the connector of who was who in architecture and design. Meem must have been impressed with the designer—because in 1963, a decade after MOIFA opened, when he was dissatisfied with the proposed interiors at the Student Center for his patronage up the road at St. John’s College, Meem encouraged the college to hire Girard to design them anew. Girard designed a partially completed 80-foot-long painted mural of symbols that represented the highest ideals of the college’s renowned Great Books program, as well as the interiors of the coffee shop, painted doors, chandeliers, and a line of furnishings. He also donated several folk art pieces to the decorative effort.
Girard’s relationship with St. John’s would be transformative. For the next eight years, the Girard Foundation would consider donating the collection to the college. A competing pitch from San Francisco was also considered, but Girard preferred the collection to stay in Santa Fe where he and Susan lived, as it would be easier to install and manage that way. And Girard had a caveat for the donation: He wanted the collection wholly integrated into St. John’s programming, noting, “I do not believe that it is possible to acquire a balanced or truly comprehensive view of life, on which in turn valid conclusions can be reached, when the visual and tactile elements that surround us are not given an equal place along with our more purely cerebral faculties. … As great literary ideas have been presented… so have other equally great ideas… in other languages, those of building, painting, and design.”
Meem was copied on the correspondence. Girard put together three shows for the college’s gallery while negotiations were ongoing. Cummins CEO Irwin Miller and Donald Hall of Hallmark, both previous patrons of Girard’s, and of the arts in general, were approached for input and funding; however, when neither the funding nor the enthusiastic support of the college were forthcoming, the Girard Foundation abandoned the idea in 1973.
MOIFA Director Yvonne Lange caught wind of the situation, and approached the Girards to see if they might consider attaching their collection to the museum instead. Girard was reticent at first; he saw his collection as quite separate from Bartlett’s. Girard was clear that his collection was one of toys—eighty-five categories’ worth, whether they be pre-industrial “folk” handmade toys; “early industrial” toys made with foot-powered machines in the nineteenth century; or recent “industrial” toys made almost entirely by machine. Anything that was not that, he considered a supporting “property.” These included religious figures and prints, faux foods, cutouts, “Shadow Theater” puppets, antique samplers, textiles and belts, East Indian miniatures, tin containers, Chinese New Year posters, “magic objects” like amulets and tantra objects, masks, Mexican Day of the Dead objects, and graphics and paintings. Girard felt that the toys and their properties—which would be arranged without regard to their provenance or function—had little relation to the often useful craftworks that Bartlett had collected and catalogued as anthropological objects. In a binder that accompanied the collection, Girard noted a distinct difference, stating that “A comprehensive collection of toys might better express the history of man’s aspirations and dreams than the real objects of utilitarian culture they occasionally represent.”
Lange’s pitch was successful, likely in no small part due to the Girards’ history with the Museum of New Mexico. MOIFA had partially funded the Girards’ film about Mexico’s Day of the Dead made with Charles and Ray Eames in 1957, and showed the film annually for many years. In 1961, Girard produced the Christmastime Nacimiento nativity exhibition for MOIFA, plus another five shows for MOIFA and one for what is now the New Mexico Museum of Art before the donation of the Girard Foundation Collection was finalized.
In 1974, Girard started sketching potential addition concepts that illustrated his desired wing, which besides a large gallery also included a garden, an exterior exhibition in an enclosed courtyard, and a restaurant. He still had in his mind that the Bartlett and Girard Foundation collections were separate entities, and his early design separates a single wing from the original museum façade by a series of gardens to the left and in front of the earlier museum, where the labyrinth is now. An alternate version does the same, wrapping around the entire façade of the old building and around the auditorium. In this iteration, visitors arrive at a formal gated courtyard outdoor exhibition space, aligned just off-center of the existing entrance, so that when coming through the gate, they are greeted by a nicho filled with folk art. Galleries for the collection are located on either side of the court.
After four years of negotiations, the collection was formally donated to MOIFA in 1978. While Girard had put pen to vellum for several years working on designs, Lange would enlist architect Harvey Hoshour to help realize the Girards’ vision, so that Sandro could focus on transforming the massive collection into an exhibition.
Harvey “Tad” Hoshour, a modern architecture scholar and designer, was an ideal candidate for the project. He had spent 1957-1962 in Chicago and New York working for modernist icons including Harry Weese, I.M. Pei, and his idol, Mies van der Rohe. Mies had just finished Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he would define his approach that “God is in the Details”—a concept that would later influence the first project in which Hoshour and Girard would collaborate. Hoshour was laid off when Mies’ patron was killed in a plane crash, so in 1962, after passing the architecture licensing exams, he married his wife Lise and moved to Albuquerque to join the faculty of the University of New Mexico’s architecture program.
Hoshour began working with Girard in Santa Fe two days a week while starting his firm and becoming involved in the design of the First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque. Hoshour’s graduate thesis at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “A Proposed Unitarian Church for Albuquerque, New Mexico,” would prove to be prescient… especially once it was published at the moment the church wanted a new building (though the soaring sculptural angles of the earlier project were abandoned due to budget). Hoshour was working part time with Girard, so it was an easy ask to invite him to design the large wooden mural altar screen and an accompanying Herman Miller fabric-upholstered lectern. An order of Eames fiberglass stacking chairs completed the look. The building was dedicated in 1964.
Hoshour and Girard were a well-suited collaboration. Hoshour was also a folk art collector, and would build and maintain a friendship with the Girards through the years, traveling to Latin America on some of the buying trips that would result in the need for a space to keep the objects they collected. While Meem had researched and developed his appreciation of Modern design from afar, Hoshour and Girard worked with some of the greatest designers of their time—Harry Weese and I.M. Pei—at the same time. They shared an architectural lineage and language.
Among his solo projects, after 1952 Girard collaborated with designers Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson through his position as director of the Fabrics Division at Herman Miller. While he was a vital component in the team, it was not until 1955 and the Miller House project that Girard really got to step into the light as a designer. In their prior collaborations, he provided the “pop” in the firm’s modern-yet-traditional spaces, but right about the time that Nelson left in 1954 to go to New York to start his own firm to focus on furnishings, Girard stepped forward with a style of his own—one that would ultimately look at the entire space as potentiality. It was as if he was painting a mural, except exploding the two-dimensional image off the wall into three dimensions. While some of his earlier projects played with this idea, the Miller House’s bookcase behind his famous conversation pit was what got noticed; House and Garden magazine celebrated the three-dimensional mural with a two-page spread. Girard kept adding depth, eventually layering entire spaces onto each other. By the time he designed Herman Miller’s Textiles & Objects Shop in 1961, his designs encompassed the walls, the ceilings, the floors, layer upon layer, until the entire space became a three-dimensional mural.
Girard honed his style for the next thirty years, designing spaces, furnishings, fabrics, fonts, and more murals of both the two- and three-dimensional varieties, until every element of the spaces he created became a vehicle for storytelling. The culmination of his philosophy would be in the explosion of creativity that is the Girard Foundation’s Multiple Visions permanent exhibition at MOIFA.
Hoshour “got it.” The open, column-free gallery with exposed steel trusses and travertine floor he designed for MOIFA allowed Girard to do whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted—much as Meem’s gallery had. As quoted in the posthumous volume of his work, Architect: Harvey S. Hoshour, issued by the the Hoshour Archives, he described the space as “a simple container in which one of the world great designers could produce the visual magic for which he is famous.” Like Girard, Hoshour was humble. He was working concurrently on restorations of the Kimo Theater as well as the Occidental Life Building in Albuquerque, and he recognized he was modifying one of Meem’s legacy buildings… and that the addition should be respectful of that, too.
Hoshour prepared the straightforward ink-on-mylar drawings for the addition, as well as plans for how the exhibitions might be added to over time. Girard oversaw the design, selecting every detail—even down to the typography and background texture of the memorial plaque.
The Girard wing addition effectively turned Meem’s L-shaped building into what Hoshour described as “a present-day Renaissance palazzo built around a courtyard.” He added on the north, which unlike his typical work that celebrated a building’s structure, instead tucked its humble façade into the terraced mass of the existing building in an effort to blend in with its landscape. Meem’s façades and primary entrance remained largely unchanged. The new design only altered the museum’s look by cutting off the southwest terrace and its view of the Sandias in the distance. The fresh-air-and-sunshine effect of that space was retained by enclosing the resulting two-story courtyard in a simply-detailed balcony that connected the Bartlett wing and the Girards’ wing, offering visitors pleasant spaces indoors and out to take a break between the two collections. Hoshour left Meem’s lounge in place, updating the windows with new aluminum storefront (windows ganged together with aluminum to make a glass wall), and then mirrored the assemblage opposite in the new building. The sunken patio below still to this day acts as a lightwell into the lower-level offices, offering a zen garden-inspired space for staff. The lower floor addition also doubled the existing storage and collections areas.
The Girards’ collection’s many hundreds of organized cardboard boxes were stored in the auditorium until they could be unpacked and accessioned—a process which took two years. Ten thousand objects were integrated by Girard and his team of curators and assistants into the permanent exhibit, including several sets reused from the 1968 San Antonio Hemisfair. Girard attempted to make a plan for the exhibit, but gave up. As quoted by Laura Forde in Petit Glam No 7, he said:
There was no way to plan such an exhibition. I foolishly tried. But when I grasped the scope—106,000 objects—the first thing I figured I would do is go into a coma, then come out of it a few weeks later, realizing laying it out on paper just couldn’t be done. It was not practical.
He further explained,
My main aim was not to just line things up on shelves. It became a mania. And I surely didn’t want to create a moat between the people and the exhibition. No one pays attention if there’s enormous space. You don’t need all that room. You have to be able to get up close. I’ve listened to and watched people in exhibits and I see that they get bored quickly. Any rhythmic thing like case after case, or even labels in the same format, can be hypnotic. Anything that provides relief and excitement is very useful and desirable. You have to distract people into looking at things.
By the time he was installing the exhibition—what would prove to be his last work—Girard was a master of getting people to look at things. He prepared visitors for what they are about to see by placing miniature stage sets at the entrance. He is telling us that this is a play, and by passing through this space, we will pull back the curtains on new stories, or “sets,” as he called the individual displays. He wants us to remember that the sets are not “real”—he did not label the objects or arrange them by provenance, but instead arranged many things from many places together. He shows us that there is, for instance, no “Mexican Town,” but a hodgepodge of all the different kinds of people who might come together in a Mexican place and relate to one another. He was illustrating the motto inscribed at the entrance to the Girard Wing: Tutto il mondo è paese; “The whole world is home.”
Girard took great care with lighting the exhibit, and often placed objects so it required some effort to see what was going on—including on the ceiling so visitors had to look up, or so they had to kneel on the floor and look at them as a small child might see them. He invited play by leaving mischievous “Easter eggs” for curious observers to find. He also tied the exhibition to his other projects, especially in New Mexico, through the use of shared materials and shared symbols. Next time you visit, look for all the angels and trees of life—they are in almost every set! Throughout, he is reminding us that no matter where we are, we are not alone… and that our life and our community are gifts.
There is much to celebrate for MOIFA, with 2022 marking the fortieth anniversary of the Girard wing, and 2023 the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the museum by Florence Dibell Bartlett. With the seventy-fifth anniversary forthcoming, directors and staff are evaluating where the museum goes from here, including what changes might be made to bring the museum into alignment with its important place as a wellspring of inspiration for Santa Fe Modernism. Meem and Girard’s collective works at MOIFA and St. John’s still act as the upper and lower anchors of the area around Sun Mountain that Meem was trying to protect, establishing a place where modern and contemporary design can grow. It is worth asking what the future holds for a place that was envisioned as a living workshop for design in a location where cultures are united through dynamic artistic traditions.
Documenting the evolution of its architecture is one part of this effort. The beautiful Mid-Century furnishings tucked away in storage will be catalogued too, so they might be displayed, restored, or reused. As well, interiors, exhibits, signage and typography, the use of color, and light—all the ways that design enhances storytelling and teaches us about who we are in relation to one another—are being noted and celebrated. The Museum of New Mexico Foundation has even set up a dedicated support group, the Design Council, consisting of professionals in these fields, so that MOIFA can keep its finger on the pulse of design and enhance its ability to meet its mission of creativity and inspiration for the next seventy-five years.
Rachel Preston, director of The Ministry of Architecture in Santa Fe, has documented historic buildings across New Mexico and has produced documentaries about the architecture of Acoma and Bandelier. Rachel writes, teaches, and speaks about New Mexico’s thousand-year tradition of sustainable design.