Albuquerque's underground art scene is small and inconspicuous, but its many charms are finally attracting some attention
There are two things every artist needs: space and light. Since New Mexico has such an overwhelming abundance of both, it's no wonder it has become such a haven for artists. Of course, when people think about thriving New Mexican art centers, it's Santa Fe and Taos that come immediately to mind, not necessarily Albuquerque. As far as the arts go, New Mexico's biggest city is still trying to find its place on the map.
It's a struggle. Albuquerque is a growing city, not some plastic-wrapped, high desert oasis that's been frozen in time to make it more appealing to out-of-state visitors. The city has evolved from its days as a desert cowboy frontier to become the economic center of New Mexico, a place that has always valued industry above the arts.
Still, one of Albuquerque's greatest claims to fame in the last few years was when George Mason University Professor Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class (Basic Books, $15.95), ranked Albuquerque the "Most Creative Mid-Size City." Florida's 2003 book suggests that cities like Albuquerque—with large numbers of scientists, engineers, architects, educators, writers, entertainers and, yes, artists—are in the best position to adapt to the economy of the 21st century. That's because, according to Florida, people with these kinds of jobs are responsible for generating new ideas, and creativity will be essential to adapt to a rapidly changing economy.
Today, many locals look at the honor Florida bestowed on Albuquerque as a painful cliché. If we're so creative, for example, why can't we figure out a way to bring more high-paying jobs to the state? Why aren't corporations beating at the gates to set up shop in town?
One aspect of Florida's argument, though, certainly rings true: You can't swing your purse without hitting an artist in this town. Artists and other creative types come to New Mexico from all over the world. Most of them initially intend to become part of the more concentrated art scenes in the northern part of the state, but many soon realize that life is sometimes a lot easier here in Albuquerque. Whether due to our relatively low cost of living or the already saturated art market in Taos and Santa Fe, truckloads of artists choose to establish residency in the Duke City. So it's inevitable that we've evolved some sort of art scene. It might not be big. It certainly isn't lucrative. But it has its own attractions.
Fueled in part by the talented students and faculty at UNM's innovative art departments, the best work created in Albuquerque tends to be more experimental and conceptual than the art made in Taos and Santa Fe. Sure, Old Town is filled with galleries specializing in standard Southwest landscapes and depictions of traditional Native American and Hispanic life. That stuff sells. But the most interesting art made in Albuquerque doesn't sell particularly well. It's created in alternative art spaces operated by people dedicated to promoting work that isn't going to appeal to most out-of-state shop-and-gawk tourists.
But Albuquerque's artistic output is finally getting some national attention. In 2005 the city was rated the No. 2 art destination for mid-sized cities by AmericanStyle magazine. (Buffalo, N.Y., was No. 1 and Pittsburgh, Penn., No. 3.) Could Albuquerque be perched on the brink of an artistic renaissance?
Contemporary, alternative art consisting of room-size, site-specific installations using video, electronics and even performance often can't be properly displayed in mainstream art galleries. Suitable spaces for this kind of underground anti-commercial art come and go but Albuquerque has no shortage of brave souls willing to jump into an artistic endeavor that has little or no chance of ever becoming financially successful.
We now have plenty of venues where artists can knock holes in the walls, put grass on tables and paint the floors however they see fit. Venues like the Donkey Gallery, [AC]2, the Harwood Art Center and Ace Barbershop represent just a few of these frontier outposts for unconventional creativity.
Elements of pride, dedication and the sheer love of making contemporary art are what fuel Albuquerque's artistic culture. David Leigh and Larry Bob Phillips run the Donkey Gallery on south Fourth Street, in a strip mall that includes two other art venues, the Bivouac Artspace and the Petting Zoo. Their venue has never placed any emphasis on publicity, yet their receptions are popular because they've found a way to channel some of Albuquerque's pent-up creative energy. The operators focus on love and support of the arts, rather than promotion and marketing. They rarely turn a profit, but they have a great time with the work they do.
A lack of profits is something Albuquerque artists and gallery owners have come to expect. Michael Certo, owner and curator of [AC]2, says low funds are simply a reality in the city. In his opinion, this is mainly due to the nature of the work being made here. “Artists are making work that's not very sellable,” Certo says, “It's maybe more experimental, and they need a venue that's not based on selling, and the commercial venues are always based on selling. The artists here are making more video work, more performance work, more installation work, where there isn't even a product to sell. So you need alternative spaces to fill that niche between commercial gallery and an institutional museum where you're not going to have a lot of up-and-coming artists being shown.”
Fortunately, Albuquerque is a relatively inexpensive town to live in with a decent job market, so it's accommodating for all manner of starving artists who might be homeless if they tried to set down roots in other regions of the state. The fact that so many artists in New Mexico live in Albuquerque has created a tight-knit artist community. In a town where it's nearly impossible to make a living as an artist, creative types feel an almost primal need to stick together.
The Harwood Art Center is a perfect example of a local art venue whose mission is to build upon and strengthen the bond between local artists. Director Susan McAllister says the Harwood, which is owned by the Escuela Del Sol Montessori, was established in order to “find a way to bridge with the community. We didn't want to be isolated as just this little independent school with no connections to the community. So we started the Harwood to be a community outreach center. Everything we do has its foundation in the arts, but we contribute to a lot of community development as well.”
The Harwood Art Center has four artist galleries, two of which are more “formal,” where artists have to apply to have their work shown. The other two galleries, located on the second floor, are reserved for community exhibitions, where the artists, ranging from local high schoolers to those living in homeless shelters, can exercise their artistic freedom. The staff at the Harwood frequently engage in communal collaborations with the participating artists and volunteers at ArtStreet, a community-based project and collective open studio space for those with and without homes. These two alternative art venues provide an uplifting and often therapeutic service to some of the more overlooked members of the Albuquerque artist community.
The Downtown Contemporary Art Center is another prime example of an alternative art venue that makes contributions to our artist community. Husband and wife team Colleen and Joshua Franco, owners since August 2004, rent out 20 studios for artists at the DCAC. Colleen says it's their “intention to have this space as a community service to artists. We look for artists that are serious about their work.” The artists at DCAC infuse the gallery halls with the sights and sounds of their creative ingenuities in a superb array of artistic media. From graphic design and photography to jewelry and jazz bands, the DCAC provides space for artists of every genre. The creative charge emanating from each of the represented artists resonates back to the rest of Albuquerque's creative class, making the DCAC one of the hotspots of our Downtown contemporary art scene.
Their dedication is appreciated by many. Artist Young Sook Park found it easy to make a smooth transition when she moved to Albuquerque from Seoul, Korea. She immediately took up an artist residency at the DCAC studios. “Art flourishes throughout the entire city,” Park says. “I was surprised to discover that Albuquerque had such a big artist community. It was easy for me to meet other artists here and make connections.” Young said that she first looked into opening a gallery in Santa Fe, but found it was too expensive, slow-paced and conservative for her artistic endeavors. With the support of Joshua and Colleen Franco, Young was able to open her own contemporary art gallery, Park Fine Art, in Downtown's Civic Plaza.
Park's story illustrates that Albuquerque can be a welcoming place for new artists. In larger cities like New York or San Francisco, some artists spend years, sometimes their entire lives, struggling to get attention. Their efforts often end in frustration. In Albuquerque, the arts operate on a more human scale. If you're a new artist, it's much easier to get shown. Colleen Franco said she and her husband “like to blend the work of newer artists with some who are more established in their career.” The same idea holds true at the Donkey Gallery. “We try to have as varied an approach as we possibly can,” says Larry Bob Phillips. “We want to show artists of every medium, at every stage of their career and of every age.”
It's not just galleries that give local artists exposure but other businesses as well. Restaurants and coffee shops all over the city represent both established and up-and-coming artists by allowing them to hang their art on the walls. The trend is not a new one. Artists like Edouard Manet and Paul Cezanne once held their own art exhibits in local cafés to spite the stuffy, academic art purists of their time who refused to include their unconventional work in more prestigious shows. These exhibits were derided by the artistic elite, but they had the positive effect of putting great art in front of a new audience. To this day, displaying in businesses is often viewed as inferior to being displayed in a traditional gallery, but it's a trend that never disappeared. It continues to expand to other nontraditional venues.
Ace Barbershop, managed by Gabriel Jaureguiberry, is not only a place to get your hair cut and hang out, but also a place to check out amazing work by young, local artists. “We're open to pretty much everything,” says Gabriel. “That's our motto, to welcome all styles. For me, the main thing is witnessing the intersection of culture, seeing and meeting people from all different walks of life. Everyone comes to our shows--headbangers, hip-hoppers and punk kids--and that's cool because it reaches beyond me and the shop. It's great to see all these different people hanging out together and being comfortable with one another. The fact that it's art that brings these people together only makes me happier.”
Unity, open-mindedness and passion are the main ingredients that give Albuquerque's art and art venues their unique flavor. It's tough building an art scene out here in the provinces, but Albuquerque has come a long way in a short time. There may not be as much money and hype as in larger art markets, but that doesn't seem to be causing much concern. Sometimes operating outside the spotlight is a good thing. In coming years, the sheer joy and excitement of the city's little art scene will continue to propel Albuquerque toward undiscovered and exciting creative territory.