Reaganomics, that discredited pile of monetary policies that fueled the greed boom of the 1980s, brought vacant storefronts to downtowns across the country. Albuquerque was no exception. Consolidation of local banks left pockmarked the city center and raised questions about where exactly the heart of Albuquerque could be found. Old Town? Nob Hill? Somewhere among the developments on the Westside of the Rio Grande? Someone needed to step in and make a declarative statement. Enter Ray Graham.
Ray Graham may not have liked the direction downtown Albuquerque was taking in the 1980s, but he did like the direction of the Albuquerque contemporary art movement. He began buying up vacant buildings along Central and filling empty storefronts with art galleries showing local artists that lacked representation. His intent was not only to reclaim a space for small businesses Downtown, but to build a community of contemporary New Mexico artists.
In 1989, Graham bought the building at 516 Central Avenue and began major renovations, transforming the space into roughly what can be found there now as the contemporary art space 516 ARTS. Two years later he opened CAFE in that space, taking its name from the still-used tagline of 516 ARTS, Contemporary Art For Everyone. It is here at CAFE that we find a key ingredient for what has become 30 years of contemporary art in Albuquerque, and the genesis for the exhibit In Our Own Backyard, opening this Saturday at 516 ARTS.
In Our Own Backyard brings to 516 ARTS 18 New Mexico artists still working today who were either in Ray Graham’s personal collection and/or had shown at CAFE. It is a chance to reflect on where contemporary art has been and where it is going in Albuquerque. Old and new work show side by side in an examination of not simply individual evolution, but the shared impact that this place has had on the artists’ work.
“We are looking at what artists were doing 30 years ago and what they are doing now,” says Suzanne Sbarge, executive director of 516 ARTS. While many works included have come directly from Ray Graham’s personal collection, In Our Own Backyard seeks to go beyond merely exhibiting an archive by bringing in current work to demonstrate a continuum and inspire the next generation of collectors, curators and artists.
Sbarge says Ray Graham’s collection is unique. “Much of it came out of his wanting to support artists, not trying to build a collection that would go up in value. It was more about him supporting the artists and starting this space to try to be a catalyst in the arts community.” If longevity is any indication of the success of that support, then the 18 artists included have found continued success in their artistic careers. “The youngest artist is Jeff Krueger who was born in 1964 and the oldest artist in the show is Jerry West who was born in 1933.”
“It was very hard to limit it to 18,” says Sbarge of the process of selecting artists from a vast pool of possibilities. “Originally the goal was to have more like 10 to 12.” The 18 include Jane Abrams, Kim Arthun, Margarete Bagshaw, Virginia Baich, Steve Barry, Wanda Becker, Ann Dunbar, Barbara Grothus, Michael Hart, David Koch, Jeff Krueger, Felice Lucero, Delilah Montoya, Santiago Pérez, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith, Tom Waldron, John Wenger and Jerry West.
Beyond the exhibit, In Our Own Backyard also includes a speakers series consisting of three events aimed at fostering a dialogue about the ways that art journalism and art collecting can enrich and inform contemporary art in New Mexico. The first in the series focuses on art journalism in New Mexico, bringing together Bill Peterson, publisher of Artspace Magazine and Lauren Tresp, publisher of The Magazine of Santa Fe on Thursday, April 25 at 516 ARTS. The second and third consist of conversations with artists, collectors and curators. Sbarge says, “It’s a conversation between collectors and the artists they collect.” Events are scheduled for The Magazine Project Space on Thursday, May 9 in Santa Fe, and at 516 ARTS on Thursday, May 23 in Albuquerque. Further information can be found at 516arts.org.