Learning from Santa Fe

DSC00734_2_1.jpg“Howling coyotes and pink cats” is how a Santa Fe dealer described the wares in the galleries of his competitors. The spectrum is much broader, in fact, and there are many diamonds in the rough. But the intrepid collector must wade through mountains of mediocrity to find the good stuff. Art-wise, this is a schizophrenic town. The undisputed capital of folk schlock, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a 400-year-old city that is the seat of a giant art industry, second in trade volume only to New York.

If the statistics are to be believed, this community of 66,000 people is, on a per capita basis, America’s premier cultural powerhouse. One billion dollars accrue to the state coffers annually from cultural tourism, which generates about a fifth of all jobs and two out of every five dollars earned. People calling themselves artists are five times more common here than anywhere in America, and photographers, a staggering 35 times. There are more than 200 galleries, the greatest density of art emporia in the nation in relation to population size. Auctions and art fairs draw huge crowds. Hotel rooms during the vast Indian Fair are booked five years in advance.

Reality check: The economic impact numbers are, to put it mildly, inclusive. They encompass all the hand-woven baskets, wool ponchos, silver belt buckles and turquoise earrings that populate the shop windows downtown. The aggregate numbers mask at least five collectibles markets: 1) the trade in extraordinary Native American craft objects, which sometimes command long waiting lists and are rarely discounted, 2) the regional market of what might be called legitimate Southwestern art, a parallel art-market universe with its own dealers, collectors, and highly valued painters and sculptors, 3) the tourist craft trade, with its endless variations on knockoff ethnic kitsch, 4) the “sofa art” galleries, with their attainably-priced pastel landscapes and unthreatening abstractions, and yes, those howling coyotes and pink cats, and last but not least, 5) a budding sophisticated contemporary art scene, currently operating out of a cluster of gallery spaces in the newly revitalized rail-yard area, and tapped into the national and international marketplace through fairs and the Internet.

Some people I met in Santa Fe feel that luxury spending by visitors has recently dipped, yielding to what one native called “T-shirt tourism.” But the engines of a vast self-sustaining art machine churn here furiously, in blissful isolation from Artforum-land. Sophisticates may scoff at all the commercial galleries on Canyon Road, but the art merchants of Santa Fe are doing just fine, thank you. They know their clients: well-to-do Texans who are more likely to think of a place like New York as “provincial,” snobbish, and culturally myopic. Here are some lessons Santa Fe dealers seem to have learned well:

DSC00738_2.jpgThink local: The art world is global, but you don’t have to be a jetsetter to flourish in this business. Santa Fe art is proudly regional. Even so, some dealers say they sell 20-40 percent of their inventory on the coasts, much of it online.

Diversify: New York and LA galleries are micro-specialized. Santa Fe dealers inoculate themselves against slower traffic and seasonal dips by offering a broad range of merchandise. Some can sell you a half-million-dollar painting, an $800 print, a pair of $80 silver earrings, or a $20 book. It may not sound cool, but it keeps the cash register humming.

Don’t put a white box in an adobe hut: The best Santa Fe galleries have their own style. They don’t try to copy urban galleries. Intimate “closing rooms” and sitting areas, often with fireplaces, provide a comfortable atmosphere for people who may feel threatened or put off by cold, cookie-cutter, sterile white-cube gallery spaces.

Profit from the cultural tourism paradigm: As soon as you step off the plane, you sense that tourism and the arts industry here function in unison. Galleries, hotels, restaurants, and city government have figured out ways to work together. That’s more than you could say about larger cities.

Collaborate: Galleries here compete like anywhere else, but the scene is small enough that they also know they need to work together, especially on joint publicity. They don’t have the luxury of doing otherwise. In this respect they are certainly smarter than their coastal peers.

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