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Where To See Art In Santa Fe?
There’s no doubt, Santa Fe is among the best cities in the world to view art.
From museums to galleries, hotels to government buildings, art is everywhere in the City Different.
What makes Santa Fe especially unique is the prevalence of Native American art. The colors, textures, and patterns of Native American pottery, baskets, carvings, and jewelry have influenced everything in the city. There’s no mistaking this town for anywhere else in the country, or even the world.
The challenge then becomes deciding what type of art you most want to see given the limitations of time. After recently spending eight days in the city, I hope to guide you on the best places to see art in Santa Fe.
Santa Fe Art Museums
During my stay I was able to visit four Santa Fe Art Museums. All were excellent, but each quite different. So here’s a quick recap to help you choose.
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
The O’Keeffe Museum is definitely the best known and most popular Santa Fe Art Museum, and was my personal favorite. Painter Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the most significant artists of the 20th century, renowned for her contribution to modern art.
O’Keeffe began her career in New York City and the early works were often of skyscrapers. But what she became internationally known for were the artworks created while living in and near Santa Fe. These works featured desertscapes, bleached skulls, and most notably, abstracts of flowers.
Currently, the museum has a collection of almost 150 of O’Keeffe’s paintings, just a small fraction of the nearly 2,000 works she created in her lifetime. Displayed in mostly chronological order, the museum allows visitors to experience the evolution of her art.
The highlight for me was the recently conserved painting, Spring. Badly damaged, O’Keeffe had considered discarding this artwork, but was talked out of it by museum curators and her personal conservator, Caroline Keck. In addition to the painting, the personal letters between artist and conservator are on display.
If your time in town is really limited, and you have to choose just one museum, the Georgia O’Keeffe is it. There’s no doubt it’s among the best museums in Santa Fe.
You’ll find the museum just a block off the historic plaza, so easy walking distance if you’re staying in that area. To manage crowds, advanced, online reservations are required and can be purchased up to 30 days in advance.
Santa Fe Museum Hill
The next two museums I visited were located on Santa Fe’s Museum Hill, a bit outside the city center. If, like me, you don’t rent a car, it’s a short, ten minute Uber ride from the historic plaza.
I began at the Museum of International Folk Art. Admittedly, I was going to skip this museum until a friend strongly recommended it, and I’m really glad she did. Museum founder, Florence Dibell Bartlett, believed that the art of the craftsman is a bond between the peoples of the world. Exhibits may feature costumes and clothing, quilts, textiles, masks, music, and much more. It will not be your typical art museum filled with painting, sculpture, and photography.
As a descendant of three Scandinavian grandparents, I most enjoyed the current exhibit Dressing with Purpose: Belonging and Resistance in Scandinavia. It examines three Scandinavian dress traditions—Swedish folkdräkt, Norwegian bunad, and Sámi gákti—and traces their development during two centuries of social and political change across northern Europe.
I visited close to closing time, so did not have time to view all the exhibits, but I was delighted to see Clearly Indigenous: Native Visions Reimagined in Glass. I have long been a fan of glass art, most notably the work of Dale Chihuly. I was pleased to learn that he helped develop a passion for this genre among Native Americans through his work with young artists. The combination of glass art with traditional native art like pottery and basket weaving is evident in many of the pieces. There’s also a video highlighting the artists in their home studios that was a perfect complement to the exhibit.
Both of these museums are part of the New Mexico Culture Pass program. For just $30 you’ll have admission to 15 museums and historic sites in the state. Four museums in Santa Fe participate.
IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts
Appreciating modern and contemporary art has been an evolution for me, but I now make a point to see contemporary art museums in most cities I visit. While classical art is an essential part of any culture, it’s the contemporary genre that is most relevant for us today.
The Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) is the country’s only museum for exhibiting, collecting, and interpreting the most progressive work of contemporary Native artists. This artwork challenges the viewer and leaves a lasting impression.
I was quite moved–and disturbed–by one of their current exhibits, Exposure: Native Art And Political Ecology, which documents international Indigenous artists’ responses to the impacts of nuclear testing, nuclear accidents, and uranium mining on Native peoples and the environment. I had no idea the high percentage of these activities that take place on native lands around the world. The resulting damage to land and people has been devastating, and yet its gone mostly unacknowledged by anyone not living on these lands.
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Santa Fe Galleries
With over 250 galleries in the city, you’ll find a wide array of art that includes painting, pottery, textiles, sculpture, photography, and more. Fortunately, most of them are located in and around the city center, making it easy to access them on foot.
Canyon Road Galleries
The largest concentration of art galleries is along the half mile, gently sloping Canyon Road. Start at the base and meander uphill while browsing its 100 galleries lined with mostly adobe structures. Originally a residential neighborhood, artists began living here in the 1920’s and slowly it evolved into the arts centric community that it is today.
My favorite stop along Canyon Road was Wiford Gallery and their outdoor kinetic sculptures. For about ten minutes I strolled through this space which appears more like a small park than a gallery.
Historic Plaza Galleries
The historic plaza is also surrounded by dozens of galleries, many specializing in Native American jewelry, sculptures, and textiles. The larger galleries have storefronts around the main plaza, but venture into the small shopping malls and you’ll find an even greater selection. These malls are also a nice option if you want to escape the weather.
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Meow Wolf House Of Eternal Return
I was ecstatic when I learned that I’d be visiting Meow Wolf in Santa Fe and it did not disappoint. Spread throughout 70 rooms and two stories, this immersive and interactive art installation is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.
There are currently three Meow Wolf installations in the U.S.; the original in Santa Fe along with Denver and Las Vegas. No two installations are alike. And unlike a traditional art museum, guests are welcomed and encouraged to touch everything. Needless to say, it’s great for both kids and adults.
Meow Wolf House Of Eternal Return begins in a dimly lit, two story house. Guests enter the exhibit in the front yard and can move throughout the rooms of the home. But it gets really interesting when you find an exit to the rest of the exhibit–the one I found was in the back of a closet. Here you’ll find rooms decorated in pastel colors or neon lights or stairs leading up and down to a variety of other scenes. Each “room” is different and nothing is predictable.
There is a storyline that ties together all the rooms and experiences, but whether or not you choose to follow it is optional. I chose not to and instead just roamed through each and every room. You’re welcome to stay as long as you wish, but after an hour I felt I had seen enough. The endless lights and sounds can become a bit overwhelming.
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Art In The State Capitol Building
As the capital city of New Mexico, Santa Fe is home to the Capitol Building, or Roundhouse as it’s locally known. And while I don’t typically add these buildings to my to-do list, this one was an exception as it houses an extensive art collection.
Created in 1991, the Capitol Art Collection consists of nearly 600 pieces of art exhibited both outside and in the interior spaces. Every single piece was created by a New Mexican artist. I spent over an hour browsing the wide range of art and came away awed by the creativity of so many people.
If you just have time to see one piece, head to the fourth floor to see Buffalo, an oversized mixed media sculpture created by Holly Hughes. Look closely and you’ll see film, paintbrushes, plastic spoons and newspapers. Step back and all you see is the intense gaze of a powerful animal.
This is definitely among the best free things to do in Santa Fe. All you need to do is clear security at the entrance.
La Fonda on the Plaza’s Art Collection
While I highly recommend a stay at La Fonda on the Plaza, even if you choose different accommodations, you’ll want to check out the art collection in the hotel’s public spaces.
I had the chance to meet the hotel’s historian, Ed Pulsifer, and learned a great deal about this historic hotel and its art. There are 1200 pieces dating back to 1922 and all of them are on display in guest rooms or public spaces. Everywhere you look there is art from the large paintings gracing the lobby walls to the pottery poised over doorways. Even the panes on the glass doors surrounding the restaurant, La Plazuela, were hand painted.
Once again, seeing the art in La Fonda is one of the best free things to do in Santa Fe. And if you get hungry, pop into their excellent bar or restaurant for a meal.
Art In Santa Fe
This article is by no means exhaustive. There are so many more opportunities to see art in Santa Fe. However, I have covered the best known and most popular places, so you can make the most of your time in the City Different. No matter your time or budget, if you’re an art lover like me, you’ll definitely enjoy exploring this incredible town and all the genres of art it has to offer.