SANTA FE — Santa Fe Indian Market, the largest and longest-running Native art event in the United States, has obvious benefits for participating artists. They can showcase their works, enter the art competition, sell art, and network with collectors, curators, writers, fellow artists, filmmakers, and more. But how does the market benefit institutions — specifically, museums?
From its humble 1922 beginnings as a weekend art exhibition in the state armory, Santa Fe Indian Market, first known as Southwest Indian Fair and Industrial Arts and Crafts Exhibition, was the brainchild of adventurer and pilot Rose Dougan. This spinoff from Santa Fe Fiesta has grown far beyond a simple art market into what is known as Native Art Week when Santa Fe and surrounding communities welcome collectors, tourists, and curious art lovers from across the globe. The activities include museum openings, galas, live auctions, antiquity fairs, fashion shows, panel discussions, film festivals, dances, concerts, street protests, and no fewer than seven distinct markets. Exact figures are hard to come by, but this has long been Santa Fe’s most lucrative event and, in 2018, it generated an estimated $165.3 million for the city.
Local museums complement the market with an array of programs. As so many concurrent activities jockey for audiences, some organizers have to be creative. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture appealed to early risers with its Breakfast with the Curators, featuring Hadley Jensen and Rapheal Begay (Diné), co-curators of Horizons: Weaving Between the Lines with Diné Textiles. This year, the Museum of International Folk Art hosted performances by the King Island Singers and Dancers from Anchorage to accompany its exhibition Ghhúunayúkata / To Keep Them Warm: The Alaska Native Parka. The Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) gave its entire ground floor to the vivid retrospective The Art of Jean LaMarr, with a packed Friday night reception. SITE Santa Fe hosted the book launch of An Indigenous Present (DelMonico Books, 2023) and a tea dance for Jeffrey Gibson (Mississippi Choctaw/Cherokee), the first Indigenous artist slated to have a solo exhibition in the Venice Biennale’s United States pavilion (2024).
Attendees for events are one of the market’s benefits to local museums; however, museums must sustain funds to operate throughout the year. The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, founded by anthropologist Mary Cabot Wheelwright and medicine person Hastiin Klah (Navajo), has hosted its annual Native Art Week for 48 years. IAIA’s director of institutional advancement, Suzette A. Sherman, reported to Hyperallergic that their annual auction that week raised more than $750,000 for student scholarships.
Museums also hold their own markets, such as the IAIA Student and Recent Graduate Art Market, where visitors can meet young, up-and-coming artists and spot emerging trends. The Wheelwright hosted its third annual Case Trading Post Artists Market this year, a genteel affair on Museum Hill featuring a dozen master artists chosen by store manager Kenneth Williams Jr. (Northern Arapaho/Cattaraugus Seneca), in stark contrast to the hubbub and noise of the Plaza.
Increasingly, Native Art Week has become a pilgrimage for museum staff and board members throughout the United States, Canada, and beyond. Those fortunate curators with collection acquisition budgets can cherry-pick their favorite artworks for their institutions or negotiate ambitious commissions for upcoming exhibitions.
Evan Mathis, director of collections and exhibitions at the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Museum of the Cherokee Indian (MCI), traveled to Indian Market from the Great Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina. Mathis stated,
Santa Fe Indian Market week allows curators and institutions the opportunity to interact directly with the artists and have conversations about the motivation and intent behind the pieces they’ve created. These relationships can also lead to co-curation directly with Indigenous artists or their families, allowing for self-representation within museums and institutions that exhibit Indigenous art or objects.
The MCI recently removed sensitive items and funerary objects and replaced them with contemporary works by living Native artists, in an artist-led project called Disruption. He added, “Self-representation is something every institution should strive to include in their curatorial practice.”
“Native Art Week is deeply transformative to me as a curator,” said Maggie Adler of the Amon Carter Museum, which recently hosted the exhibition Speaking with Light: Contemporary Indigenous Photography. In Santa Fe, Adler appreciated the opportunity to meet artists involved with that show, as well as artists like “Terran Last Gun [Piikani], who have inspired me to reinvestigate our historical collections in new ways. The bonds that we build over these few days are just the beginnings of reciprocal conversations and insights that percolate and grow all year long until the next gathering.”
Adler noted that “Building connections with artists and other curators from around the world increases trust and transparency.” While museum professionals benefit from meeting artists, artists can benefit from meeting curators in social contexts, rather than in institutions, with their attendant hierarchies and power dynamics. These exchanges encourage more Native artists and their families to visit museums and, perhaps most importantly, their archives and collections — building bridges across communities and increasing diversity among museum audiences.