- Albuquerque sparkles in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains.
If the city of Albuquerque, N.M., ever decides to abandon “It’s a trip” as its tourism slogan, it could always try “They don’t call us ‘querque’ for nuthin’.”
Sure, it’s a bad pun, but it fits a city whose art scene is most often described as eclectic and … quirky. Albuquerqueans take their art scene very seriously, but they know better than to take the art itself that way.
Other cities fund stadiums; Albuquerque finances museums. The city lays claim to having one of the nation’s oldest One Percent for Art programs, with funds supporting everything from the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History in Old Town to more than 400 pieces of public art around town. The museum, which underwent an $8 million expansion in 2005, boasts an expanded sculpture garden with works by artists including Luis Jiménez and John Boomer, and an 8,000-square-foot changing exhibition gallery.
The creative temperament the city is so proud of is built into its heritage, developed through centuries of multicultural history. In addition to being a museum, the National Hispanic Cultural Center is an architectural work of art. Its structures tell the story of various cultures intermingling in New Mexico, including a work in progress–when complete in 2009, Frederico Vigil’s 4,000-square-foot circular fresco will depict the history of Hispanics in the Americas.
But you don’t need to visit museums to see the art. It’s sprinkled all over the city. A road divider might take the form of a giant, intricately bricked rattlesnake, mosaics and murals dress all sorts of surfaces, and downtown street signs represent significant local events and icons.
Those signs run along Central Avenue, Downtown’s main thoroughfare, otherwise known as Historic Route 66, where the neon glow emanating from vintage motor lodges, gas stations, diners and prestrip-mall shopping centers each night really does give the sense of a trip. Right through a time warp.
Art lovers who want to get their kicks on Route 66 might want to start in the resuscitated Nob Hill neighborhood, home of Mariposa Gallery. In business for over three decades, it’s one of the area’s contemporary-craft resident elders (though not nearly as old as Wright’s Indian Art in nearby Northeast Heights, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2007). Co-owner Jennifer Rohrig, who wasn’t even born when Mariposa opened, says the gallery has succeeded by changing with the times.
Though Rohrig confesses it’s hard to cycle out artists they’ve represented for years, she and partner Liz Dineen—both former Mariposa employees—decided when they took over that the place needed an infusion of new work. They’ve also given it a little extra prestige with folk artist Ken Saville’s skeletons and collages by Suzanne Sbarge. Sparge and Saville are among Mariposa’s many local artists. Rohrig says the gallery focuses on New Mexican art, but “without the howling coyotes.”
“The gallery has always been a place for emerging artists,” says Rohrig. “Anybody can come in here and buy affordable art.”
“We’re able to cultivate young collectors and serve experienced collectors as well,” she continues. “We really want to make art accessible and unpretentious.”
Collage artist Sbarge, executive director of Albuquerque’s 516 Arts, is one of the city’s cultural movers-and-shakers. Before operating 516, she ran the gallery in its previous incarnation as the popular Magnifico Arts at the same location. The two-story 516 Arts bills itself as a cross between a gallery and a museum; beyond exhibitions of both traditional and contemporary work, programs and events at the complex run the gamut from lectures to live music and poetry performances.
516 was launched in December 2006, with a show entitled “Green,” showcasing work by New Mexico artists in a variety of mediums. The title played double duty, acting as a symbol of the rebirth of an arts venue at the location. Organizers of 516 are hoping the nonprofit will bring a wider range of visitors to Downtown, Sbarge says.
Roy Sumner Johnson, owner of another veteran gallery, Downtown’s Sumner & Dene Creations in Art, has a similar goal in mind. That’s why he carries everything from kitschy collectibles to fine art at his gallery, across the street from 516 Arts. “I’ve been in business for 27 years, and to survive, I have to have souvenirs available. It doesn’t matter if it’s a $5 souvenir or a $5,000 souvenir,” he says. “It’s still something of that experience you had here in New Mexico.”
Johnson describes Albuquerque’s art scene as a reflection of the city itself: “a beautiful, eclectic blend” of Native American, Hispanic, Southwestern and contemporary influences.
“Eclectic”—or that “q” word— could certainly describe his store’s retail mix. Standouts include Normand Couture’s Jelly Beans series, modular sofas “with a sense of humor,” and tapestry art by Rebecca Smith.
Both Southwest art and souvenirs can be found at just about every turn in Albuquerque, but particularly in the city’s Old Town section, where you can buy directly from Native American crafters who spread their wares on blankets. Visiting Old Town gives visitors a taste of the original Albuquerque, settled 70 years before the American Revolution. Settlers built their homes, shops and offices around the plaza, which remains the center of activity.
If browsing in galleries is more to your liking, more than 20 are located in the flat-roofed buildings of Old Town. Weems Galleries, whose original site in Eastdale opened more than two decades ago, opened a second location in Old Town 16 years ago. Mary Ann Weems set tongues wagging when she first opened her establishment, mixing fine art with crafts and offering art at more affordable prices than many other galleries. That philosophy continues to propel the gallery, says employee Karen Furia. They keep art affordable “so everyone’s lives can be enriched by it,” Furia says.
If her two galleries weren’t enough to cement her reputation as an arts advocate in Albuquerque, Weems also organized the first Weems Artfest 25 years ago, to capture the holiday sales market for art fairs. The annual event, now known as the Weems International Artfest, brings together artists, children and charities, and has attracted celebrity artists including Sophia Loren and the late Anthony Quinn.
Whether you’re looking to bring home a piece of the Southwest with a traditional silver and turquoise work, or hoping for something a little more out of the ordinary, the best plan is to go without preconceived notions. And there are so many great deals to be had (the natives say you won’t find these prices in Taos or Santa Fe), the best rule of thumb is, if you love it, buy it. Or at least, have lots of fun looking.