Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Spring Is Nearly Here

Had a wonderful day in Santa Fe Monday enjoying the weather and three of the museums in Downtown Santa Fe I dearly love: The New Mexico Museum of Art; the New Mexico History Museum/Palace of the Governors; and the Museum of Contemporary Native Art.

Santa Fe (or "Fanta Se" as the City Different is sometimes known) can cause a lot of tittering among the cognoscenti -- I titter about it myself from time to time. It's also called "Adobe Disneyland" -- and for good reason. There is a certain artificiality about it, a certain belief that "what you see is what it was meant to be -- but it was never really like this, and it isn't really like this now." Not real.

It's a stage set for tourists. Even though it's not high season, and there's still a nip in the air (they say there might be snow by the end of the week) the tourists are assembling in their multitudes. Oh my yes. They come from all over. Yesterday, I encountered  tourists from the South, some from Germany, some from Japan.

They come from all over, they do.

Once there in Santa Fe some are enchanted, some complain. Well, the altitude (7,200 ft or so) affects people differently.

Ms Ché and I tend to take the Old Pecos Trail which leads to the Old Santa Fe Trail into town. The historic route. The road gets narrower and narrower the closer you get to the Plaza, but interestingly -- at least to me -- it doesn't go directly to the Plaza. Instead, it jogs on Water St. a sharp 90 degree turn, then another sharp turn on what's now Washington, and even then, where it ends at the corner of La Fonda Hotel, the trail is just off the Plaza. How supply trains maneuverered through that maze -- or even if they actually did -- I have no idea. I have a hard time imagining that a fully loaded supply wagon pulled by a team of mules, horses or oxen -- six, eight, or ten strong -- would even attempt it.

Many of the complaints of tourists today have to do with getting around and finding this or that attraction in Santa Fe -- once you find the city different itself. Or rather, its historic district. It's not exactly hidden, but it's not on the freeway, either, and the signs that seem to point you toward it aren't necessarily helpful. Unless you know your way around -- or have the patience of Job -- you're bound to get lost and frustrated, annoyed and even angry. I've seen it happen.

It must have been similar in the old days. Except in the Old Days, Santa Fe wasn't really a city at all. It was barely a settlement. There was  cluster of adobe buildings huddling around the Plaza and a big old adobe church -- the Parroquia -- a block off the Plaza, and that, pretty much, was "it." The rest of what constituted the town was a smattering of scattered farmsteads and haciendas extending north and south along the superlatively named Santa Fe River (which then and now was an intermittent creek.) At most, the area population amounted to a few hundred families, Hispano and Indio in several combinations. There were also a few Anglos from early times, but the demographics weren't like California's where the Anglos seemed many.

Santa Fe was more like a frontier garrison in the Old Days, with the Presidio dominating everything. A small remnant of said Presidio, grandly styled the "Palace of the Governors" remains across from the Plaza today. Although some of the building is "historic" -- ie: contains elements that were built in the 17th, 18th or 19th Centuries -- nearly all of it is a recreation. And the facade which greets tourists today and the portal under which the Indians sell their wares dates from 1913. It has not changed since 1913. When the Palace was being used for government and military affairs -- as opposed to being a museum -- the facade was regularly changed and the building was continually modified to suit whatever necessity or desire its proprietors envisioned. It was a living building. It hasn't been "alive" since it was re-skinned with a heavy beamed portal in 1913. And its mummification is one of Santa Fe's many peculiarities.

Josef Diaz, a curator of the History Museum, took us on a "backstage" tour of the Palace on Monday-- actually it was "on stage," and he was explaining how the set would change over the next few years. I've been to the Palace many times, but I saw rooms Monday that I've never seen before. I also saw rooms lit by natural light that had always been dim and shrouded in darkness in the past. One of the persistent frustrations of Palace exhibits is that they were so dimly lit, you could barely make out what was on display.

Now some rooms have been opened to daylight for the first time in decades, and Josef said that many more rooms will be. So. That's good. I'm all for it.

He also said that many of the current exhibits in the Palace will be removed and allowed to "rest." Some of them have been on display for 20 years or more and they are deteriorating. Others, he seemed to think, don't belong in the Palace, and they will move to the History Museum behind it. Or they duplicate what's already at the History Museum and they'll be retired. What they want to do with the Palace is focus less on New Mexico history per se and more on the actual history of the building itself -- particularly its period as governors' offices and residence -- and its role in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680-92. Well, now, there's an idea, I thought.

During the Pueblo Revolt, I've read, the Palace -- or rather the Presidio of which the Palace was a corner -- was transformed and rebuilt into typical pueblo housing  and at least one kiva was built in the Plaza. There may have been other kivas in the Presidio courtyard as well.

After the return of the Spanish, the Indian pueblo aspects were removed and the Presidio/Palace was restored to what it had been -- more or less -- before the Revolt, much as the churches that had been destroyed during the Revolt were re-built more or less like they had been prior to the Indian uprising. But exactly what the Indians had done to modify the Presidio and Palace was never entirely clear -- though there is a good deal of evidence of it remaining -- and there was very little on display in the Palace that made sense of that period at all.

Josef said that the plan was to turn over an entire room to the Revolt, and to open up many of the floors and cover them with glass that could be walked on so that the buried elements -- both Spanish and Indian -- can be seen more fully and clearly.

That's good, too. I'm all for it.

It will take years to change the Palace set, and then to populate it with holographic actors might take even longer. Yes, holograms are in the offing, and I'm not entirely sure it's a good idea. Governor Armijo is supposed to offer his holographic greetings in a room off the main entrance to Palace, and Governor Prince and his wife might have their holographic discussion in another restored residential room. This Governor Prince I don't know, so I asked Josef "What about Lew Wallace?" He seemed momentarily startled: "Didn't I mention him? Oh yes, we'll have an extensive display on him. There's a problem getting artifacts from his tenure as New Mexico governor, as they are in other museums or private collections and arranging a long-term loan can be problematical." I said, "Well, wouldn't he make a good holographic subject?" Indeed. Indeed he would -- thus obviating the need for many artifacts it seems to me.

Other things that Josef pointed out would be changed over time are that the Segesser hide paintings would be moved from a dark and narrow corridor to a building of their own which was previously used for storage. Murals that once graced the entrance hall would be restored and replaced and other murals in the building would be restored and better lit. The print shop would -- maybe -- be reconfigured (Tom Leach, Palace Press honcho, is not entirely convinced it's a good idea)  and the entire Palace would be lightened and brightened.

It all sounded great.

They only need $6 million and change to get it all done, and they have a million or so from the State to do the structural repairs. The rest gets to come from "us" -- the public, starting in 2018. OK. The amount of private wealth available in Santa Fe for these sorts of projects can be positively breathtaking.

At the Art Museum, curators took us through the current Alcove Show and the "Stage, Setting and Mood: Theatricality in the Visual Arts" exhibit that was prepared to go along with the (brief) exhibit of a Shakespeare First Folio. The First Folio/Stage exhibit was located in a room beyond the guitar exhibit, and the guitars were the main draw once people learned they were there. The Art Museum had publicized the First Folio extensively, but not the guitars. So when people arrived to see the Folio and had to go through a really extraordinary display of contemporary and historic guitars, including an air guitar, to get to the Folio, they stopped, stunned and intrigued. I bet half of those who arrived never got to the Folio at all, they were so captivated by the guitars.

It happened even on the tour I went on on Monday. The Folio was gone, but the guitars were still there, and about half those on the tour stopped and gawped. The curator for the "Stage, Setting and Mood" exhibit encouraged them to come join her in the next room -- they could appreciate the guitars on the way out. Well, that seemed to bring them into the "Stage" exhibit, but I could see some looking longingly out the archway into the other room.

The curator (didn't get her name -- was it Carmen Vendelin?) had selected works that demonstrated "theatricality" in painting, sculpture, and other media. Most of the items were from the Museum's own collections, and many of them I had seen before. There was no problem in seeing them again and appreciating them this time for their theatricality. But there was one standout work I had not seen before, a painting by William Jacob Hays from the 1860s of a huge buffalo herd on the move that was lent from Tulsa's Gilcrease Museum. As the herd rumbles toward the viewer, one of the animals appears to stop to consider the skull of a long departed buffalo on the ground before it. The moment is compelling, almost otherworldly, and that is one reason why the painting was selected for this show.

Theatrical? Positively Shakespearian!

The Alcove Shows have been a feature at the New Mexico Museum of Art since its opening in 1917. A handful of artists are offered alcoves off the entrance to the Museum proper to exhibit their works for a week. Works in all genres and media are acceptable. The emphasis is on New Mexico artists -- of which there is an inexhaustible supply -- and the frequent rotation of artists and their works is energizing. We saw works by Scott Anderson, Gloria Graham, Scott Greene, Herbert Lotz, and Bonnie Lynch. Media varied from ceramics, to photography, to paintings and mixed media. Whether one "liked" the work or not was beside the point. The point was exposure to it and to its varied point of view. I found myself intrigued by everything shown at this Alcove Show.

Ms Ché and I have long been participants and patrons in the arts, and now that Ms Ché is a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, our participation and patronage seems to be growing. One of the reasons we live in New Mexico in our dotage is the pervasiveness of art and the presence of so many artists, galleries and museums to showcase the work.

It's a never-ending wonder.

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