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Art News

The Great Smoke Out

Cultural Center’s Art Museum clears the air

By Khyber Oser
The only art on display at the National Hispanic Cultural Center right now is the architecture.
Khyber Oser
The only art on display at the National Hispanic Cultural Center right now is the architecture.

A billowing mass of dark smoke enshrouded the National Hispanic Cultural Center’s 16-acre campus the afternoon of Monday, April 5. The smoke came from a wind-fed Bosque fire that raged as close as 200 yards away.

At the NHCC’s Art Museum, smoke seeped its way in through ventilation ducts and slits around doors. Visual Arts Director Tey Marianna Nunn and her staff were hastily evacuated by police, with no choice but to leave the museum’s multimillion-dollar art collection behind and cross their fingers.

“At that moment there was nothing we could do,” Nunn says. “Our biggest concern was that the smoke would be so bad it would set off our anti-fire sprinkler system. When they evacuated me from my office, I was already coughing and choking. And I did for a couple of days afterwards.”

Scenes from two movies flashed through Nunn’s mind on that panicked day, she says: The Rape of Europa, in which museum curators risk their lives to rescue artwork from Nazi plunder, and The Thomas Crown Affair, in which high-tech security barriers automatically wall off a gallery’s most valuable paintings.

Fortunately, the NHCC’s drama did not turn cinematic. Within hours, the fire was mostly contained and the smoke cloud began to dissipate. So far as Nunn and her conservator colleagues can tell, nothing in the museum’s holdings—which feature an array of traditional and contemporary work by artists in New Mexico and across the Spanish diaspora—sustained any damage.

The staff was hastily evacuated by police, with no choice but to leave the museum’s multimillion-dollar art collection behind and cross their fingers.

Due to some particulate matter that was still circulating and settling after the fire, NHCC officials decided to shutter the cavernous, 11,000-square-foot museum from May 17 to June 18 as a safety precaution for staff and visitors.

Why a whole month?

“First, it has to do with this major process of removing fragile objects from all the rooms and then waiting for the cleaning to be completed and the paint to dry,” Nunn explains. “But also, we would’ve closed half the museum anyway because we’re taking down our Cuban art exhibit.”

“Believe me,” Nunn adds with a laugh. “No museum director ever wants to close their museum. It’s not an easy decision to make.”

NHCC Deputy Director Gary Romero is supervising the labor of disaster-restoration firm ServiceMaster. The pricetag to unsully the walls? The museum has not yet received a total bill for the cleanup yet but the total cost is upwards of $500,000.

Romero describes the cleaning process as a multi-step one in which filtration systems clean the walls through a dry rub, a chemical sponge and a wet clean to ensure all residue is thoroughly eliminated.

When the nearly 10-year-old museum reopens next month, it will debut two brand-new exhibits along with its fresh coat of paint: New Mexico Furniture is Art and New Mexico Kids Furniture is Art.

“Sometimes we forget furniture is an art form because it’s so utilitarian,” Nunn says. “We sit on it or write on it or we put our dishes in it. But there’s a composition, a design and a technique that goes into a good chair to sit in. We’re trying to get people to focus in on that. And we’re really excited about the Kids exhibit, too. We even have two potty chairs!” (For display purposes only.)

Business as usual can’t come soon enough for Nunn and her staff. Approximately 350 to 500 visitors browse the gallery weekly, including an average of 150 on Sundays, when there are no entrance fees. The most recent pre-closure show, Confluencias: Inside Arte Cubano Contemporáneo, was recognized as one of the world’s nine “must-see” exhibits by Frommer’s travel website.

“It’s been very stressful to take the whole museum down,” Nunn says. “But everything is safe, and we’re just waiting to have everything reinstalled and have the two new exhibits up and the new paint job, and all the stress will have been worth it.”

New Mexico Furniture is Art and New Mexico Kids Furniture is Art

Opens Friday, June 18
free reception 6 to 8 p.m.
National Hispanic Cultural Center
1701 Fourth Street SW, 246-2261
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