It’s a cold March morning when I meet with Shelley Simms at UNM’s Jonson Gallery. Simms is the administrative assistant at the gallery and a UNM alumnus. A few months back, she and I, along with the UNM Art Museum’s Esther Golden, discussed art in Albuquerque over French-style sandwiches. We had gotten together to talk about what programs and exhibits their organizations were offering, but it quickly became a larger conversation about UNM’s art presence in the city.
There is, of course, Popejoy Hall, which hosts traveling shows (such as Mamma Mia!, which, much like when The Eagles come to town, I will have to see with my mom) as well as the homegrown talent of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra and others. But what became clear during our lunch was that, in a city of nearing one million people, UNM is one of the few spaces that offers such a range of art, including theater, galleries, film series and more. Much of the “more” is “public art”—created with the specific intent of being accessible by all.
Simms has offered to take me on a walking tour of UNM's art, with a special focus on public art installations. We cross Lomas and head toward the North Campus, first walking through the Phil and Olga Eaton Sculpture Garden of Healing. Most of it appears to still be in the planning stages, though pieces such as the apparently untitled Ernest Shaw metal piece in front of Novitski Hall will be a part of the project. The sculpture is a combination of abstract shapes that reminds me of workers shouldering burden, but it’s possible I’ve just spent too much time in Eastern Europe.
We hook around to the law school to see Simms’ favorite piece, “Highground” by Lloyd Hamrol. In between the law library and the golf course, “Highground” is two semicircles of concrete that rise out of the grass, creating a sloped plain. According to the slightly out-of-date brochure I’m armed with (the Public Affairs office says it’s working on new ones), “Art in Public Places Self-Guided Tour,” it alludes to both the scales of justice and the putting greens nearby. Which seems bizarre except for the fact that it works. It’s art that Simms describes as “subtle and integrated into the landscape.” So subtle, in fact, that it bears blue spray paint marks from a grounds crew marking lines for some project. I ask Simms how that could happen, but she can only guess. Most likely is that they didn’t know it was art. What I can glean from others at UNM—who, given the current state of affairs between staff, faculty and administration, don’t want to go on the record—is that there isn’t one central person or authority in charge of the campus’ public art. If there is, he or she is hidden behind scores of people who don’t know it, and so maintenance crews aren’t able to coordinate with anyone to make sure art pieces aren’t spray-painted.
As we walk back toward the Main Campus, I notice that a lot of art I see on the medical school’s grounds has an industrial, abstract feel. Simms posits pieces with a specific narrative or point of view—such as Luis Jimenez’ “Fiesta Dancers,” Bruce Nauman’s “The Center of the Universe” and "Cultural Crossroads" by Bob Haozous—“have engendered so much controversy. I think it’s good to have dialogue, but as a result, perhaps, many pieces at UNM are abstract.”
We talk about “The Center of the Universe” and how it’s been altered from its original, somewhat controversial design. Nauman constructed it in 1988 so that, just as it stretches equidistantly in the four cardinal directions and up, it extends down as well. The intent was not for people to walk through it but rather to evoke space as a center. Out of safety concerns, a grate was added over the downward column, and because of people’s love of throwing trash in places that aren’t trash cans, another grate was added under that. The unfortunate effect is that you can no longer make out the bottom, and part of the piece’s message has been effectively cut off.
That’s not to say UNM’s public art is neglected or unappreciated, nor is this what Simms conveys. I watch students sit on a hill, looking at the slicing movements of George Rickey's wind sculpture " Two Lines Oblique: Variation 3" southeast of the duck pond. John Tatschl's untitled stained glass wall on the College of Education's administrative building is a gorgeous meeting of European art and mid-century design. But except when it engenders controversy, much of the public art at UNM seems to serve as wallpaper, background and decoration. Sometimes, people only care when they hate it.
Since my camera is dead when Simms and I take our tour, I convince my husband and dog to join me that weekend to take some pictures. Though he went to UNM, he's never walked through campus with the intent of looking at and talking about its art. For two hours, we rate work, discuss the effect new construction has in changing the impact of a piece, puzzle over the clunk of the steel-and-marble "Formas al Cielo" outside of Scholes Hall, and spend a lot of time playing with our dog around "Highground." As we leave, an older couple walks over and onto the piece. Maybe they didn’t notice it until they saw us there, but maybe it’s been their private place for years. At the risk of ruining that for them, I wish it weren’t such a well-kept secret.