The City Different: A Deep-Rooted Art Scene Is the Key to Santa Fe’s Magic

The City Different: A Deep-Rooted Art Scene Is the Key to Santa Fe’s Magic

As one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the United States, Santa Fe has long enchanted visitors with its rich history and unquestionable beauty. Situated at the base of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Santa Fe’s tranquil yet rugged environs engender both inspiration and isolation, providing ideal conditions for a multicolored artistic paradise to flourish. 

The city’s instantly recognizable character, an alchemical fusion of ineffable mystique and laid-back spunk, stems from a cultural continuum that links Indigenous peoples and European settlers to the multivalent influence of Santa Fe’s newest transplants. Though it remains modest in size, the city has supplemented its ever-ascending cultural cachet over the past several decades with robust dining and shopping scenes, making it a global destination for all.

Today, Santa Fe’s unique cultural offerings are acclaimed worldwide. Money.co.uk named it one of the world’s top cities for art and culture lovers,  alongside art capitals like Florence and Vienna. Encompassing traditional and contemporary, outdoor and indoor, invigoratingly immersive and breathtakingly intimate, Santa Fe is a place with something for everyone, where opportunities for exploration, reflection, and adventure abound.

The beating heart of the city’s art and culture scene is Santa Fe Plaza, a pueblo-style forum in the middle of downtown, crowned by the 17th-century Palace of the Governors. Step beneath the covered portal on the plaza’s north edge and browse scores of craft objects fashioned by Native artisans who set up shop there year-round. Across the street, the state-operated New Mexico Museum of Art holds one of the nation’s most emblematic collections of Southwestern art.

History aficionados will be particularly rewarded by a trip to Museum Hill, on the city’s southeastern side, where visitors can spend hours exploring Santa Fe’s most venerated art museums. Delve into the collections of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture and the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art to unearth the region’s past and discover how the creativity of these cultures shaped Santa Fe’s modern-day identity. This is also a timely moment to visit the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, New Mexico’s oldest nonprofit museum, which in 2022 is celebrating its 85th year. 

Another recognizable institution currently marking a major milestone is IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA), a bastion for contemporary art made by Native American, First Nations, and other Indigenous creators, and has in its holdings some 9,000 artworks comprising painting, sculpture, ceramics, textiles, media arts, and more. Both MoCNA and its parent organization, the Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA), cap off a year of anniversary celebrations (50 and 60 years, respectively) with open studio and cultural events that allow visitors to explore Indigenous cultures through art.

In 2005, Santa Fe earned the distinction of being designated a UNESCO City of Craft and Folk Art, making it the first UNESCO Creative City in the U.S., thanks in part to vaunted institutions like the Museum of International Folk Art. But the quantity and variety of cultural and fine arts in Santa Fe also makes for bountiful opportunities to reexamine such labels. For example, form & concept, a gallery space that invites guests to deconstruct the siloing of fine art, craft, and design, is championing that notion through its influential programming and artist residencies.

Despite its deep historical roots, Santa Fe is also a hub of contemporary art theory and practice. Its epicenter is the Railyard District, hailed as one of the nation’s best civic art districts and home to the world-famous SITE Santa Fe. This museum’s contemporary architecture, itself sculptural in nature, encloses similarly cutting-edge work in the forms of innovative exhibitions and acclaimed biennials. Around the corner is Art Vault, the city’s newest exhibition space, which specializes in various art forms, including video, algorithmic, and time-based media. Railyard Park, at the center of the district, is the venue for dozens of events each year, from interactive-art festivals to concerts and other performance art events.

The breadth of Santa Fe’s creative trove can’t be contained by indoor spaces alone. In addition to the murals and public art installations that dot the city, local artists and their creations seem to spill from their studios to mingle with visitors on the street. At least, that’s the case on Canyon Road, where more than a hundred adobe and Territorial-style buildings house galleries, boutiques, and restaurants along a walkable half-mile stretch that also hosts some of Santa Fe’s most user-friendly outdoor festivals. Venture a little farther outside of town and you’ll encounter Shidoni Gallery and Sculpture Garden, whose eclectic array of freestanding pieces makes it the premier site for outdoor art in the area. 

The city’s continuity with the desert landscape is never lost on its visitors. Expansive vistas, unique yet subtle color palettes, and enchanting geological forms make the region’s topography an art form in itself. It’s no surprise, then, that artists across epochs and around the globe have drawn inspiration from this environment. The legacy of Georgia O’Keeffe, one of New Mexico’s most famous residents, has left a deep mark on the area; her work threads through a host of regional venues, from the downtown Georgia O’Keeffe Museum to nearby Abiquiú’s Ghost Ranch, the artist’s longtime estate, whose 21,000 acres yielded subjects for some of her most iconic landscape paintings. By contrast, the Santa Fe Botanical Garden is a de facto plein-air gallery that offers verdant sanctuary for introspection amid the dusky hues of the arid terrain.

For thrill seekers and social media mavens, the Instagram-worthy visuals don’t end with desert sunsets and mountaintop views. Experience Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return, an interactive-art funhouse that invites guests to duck, crawl, and climb through its 70 rooms of eye-popping installations. Stick around until after dark for live concerts right in the heart of the mind-bending venue, or continue the adventure right outside in the surrounding Siler Rufina Nexus district, formerly an industrial neighborhood that’s now a hotbed for Santa Fe’s artists, performers, craftspeople, and makers of all kinds. 

This wide range of artistic traditions, media, and disciplines, all weaving together in a cogent way, is the key to Santa Fe’s magic. The spirit of the city’s diverse art scene lives in the spaces between dichotomies of old and new, physical and immaterial, dynamic and fixed. At seemingly every turn, there’s a chance to experience the wealth of possibilities found along these axes—and in them, boundless opportunities for discovery. And that’s just what makes The City Different.

Learn more and plan a Santa Fe visit at www.santafe.org.

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