ALBUQUERQUE — Not often, when a popular chief operating officer leaves an arts organization, do constituents get riled enough to do something about it, other than perhaps grumble on Facebook. However, John Torres Nez’s resignation from the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) in April tapped a well of discontent that had been bubbling for a while: Native artists were unhappy with Native art markets run by non-Natives. Nez’s departure set off a quick succession of events that led to the creation of the Indigenous Fine Art Market (IFAM). The all Native-run event has its debut August 21–23 in the Santa Fe Farmers Market building in the Railyard District. It’s the same week that SWAIA hosts its annual “Indian Market” in Santa Fe’s historic downtown.
In a phone call, Nez told Hyperallergic that IFAM arose of out a movement for Natives to own the conversation about their work: “Anyone can come listen to us, but we’ve never [run the dialogue] before. It’s always been anthropologists and art critics. Now, there are enough of us in the academic world and the fine art world to talk about it ourselves.”
Though critics and scholars in Native art magazines like First American Art Magazine and Contemporary Native Art Magazine have been leading the dialogue, artists say they’re still having a hard time getting people at institutions like SWAIA to listen.
SWAIA is the 93-year-old Santa Fe institution responsible for the annual Santa Fe Indian Art Market. “Indian Market,” as it’s called locally, began as a showcase for collections of Native American art held, in large part, by white collectors. In the early 1930s, it began to transform into the Native art celebration of today: a massive weeklong affair lined up with a host of other traditional art markets that have become a staple of Santa Fe’s summertime economy. The crowning occasion is Indian Market itself, held on Sunday, when hundreds of Native artists from all over the US and Canada sell their work directly to collectors in Santa Fe’s convention center.
Many young Native artists in town whose parents were also artists will tell you that Indian Market paid the bills when they were growing up. And yet, they’ll also likely tell you that the market has kept them in a “Native box,” with its focus on traditional work such as pottery, rugs, and jewelry. Nez says that Indian Market focuses too much on attracting a certain kind of collector rather than exhibiting the diversity of Native American art. “You know, SWAIA has been around a long time,” he explains. “The demographic of most major collectors — they’re in their 60s and 70s, and they collected in a way that doesn’t happen anymore.”
While older collectors are connoisseurs of, say, Pueblo pottery or Navajo rugs, Nez says collectors in their 30s or 40s are more eclectic, gathering according to broad tastes that range from traditional to contemporary and in a wide variety of mediums. To wit, in a recent interview on the Santa Fe-based podcast ArtBeat Conversations, artist Frank Buffalo Hyde, whose prints, paintings, and sculptures overtly confront stereotypes and appropriations of Native identity (like Johnny Depp’s Tonto), said he doesn’t know who his collectors are, but they tend to be younger. “Just because I don’t make pottery,” Nez says, “doesn’t mean that I’m not a Native artist.”
Immediately following Nez’s resignation from SWAIA, Arizona artist Nanibaa Beck circulated a petition to start a new market, and Nez responded by organizing an informal discussion in Gallup, New Mexico. Three dozen artists showed up. Top among their complaints was the fact that the Indian Market expo took place on Sundays — many of them have kids who go to school on Mondays, and others were frustrated that collectors had spent their money earlier in the week at local galleries. Artists had become accustomed to competing with their own representation at the galleries. But, more than anything, they just wanted to be heard. “They wanted to a voice; they wanted to be treated like fine artists and not little craftspeople cobbling away somewhere,” Nez says.
Before the month of April was up, SWAIA staffers Tailinh Agoyo and Paula Rivera had left the organization, taking leadership positions as IFAM. The team, along with many supporters, put together the framework for IFAM within two months, deliberately locating it in the Railyard District, seen by many Santa Feans as a welcoming space for the city’s new, young, and more diverse arts economy. The group settled on the name Indigenous Fine Art Market because the acronym includes a reference to “family,” a key motivator behind the market that Nez says extends to the larger community of Santa Fe, itself in a period of revitalization. “We elected a young mayor who wants to focus on nightlife,” Nez says. “We’re facing the reality of who’s going to come to Santa Fe in the next 20 years, and a lot of the community is excited because [IFAM] is in a space they like coming to.”
The decision to run IFAM concurrently with Indian Market was logistical, Nez says, as artists who wanted to participate were already prepared to work that week. With IFAM taking place Thursday through Saturday and Indian Market on Sunday, nothing’s stopping anyone from attending both. The former will run from 10am to 5pm all three days, and include a kickoff “Glow Party,” a stage for nightly performances, a skate competition, and a live painting event. Native artists Kevin Red Star and George Alexander, both with ties to Santa Fe’s Institute for Indian American Arts, designed all the T-shirts and other merchandise.
“Native fine art produces awesome painters and sculptures,” Nez concludes. “They’re not just old, very geometric, Navajo weavings. It’s a modern expression for a modern story. It’s what modern Natives are like.”
The Indigenous Fine Art Market runs August 21–23 at the Santa Fe Farmers Market (1607 Paseo de Peralta, at S Guadalupe St, Santa Fe).
Correction: This article originally stated that SWAIA stood for Southwestern Association of Indian Art, but the correct name is Southwestern Association for Indian Arts. Additionally, it stated that John Torres Nez was a board member at SWAIA; in fact, he was chief operating officer. These mistakes have been fixed.