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SANTA FE, New Mexico — New Mexico’s State Historic Preservation Office has approved a design for the New Mexico Museum of Art’s new Vladem Contemporary museum, after adjustments were made to an earlier version of the design. The $12.5 million dollar project is expected to break ground in 2020. One casualty of the project will be a 40-year-old mural painted on the side of the Halpin State Archives building at 404 Montezuma Street, to which the Vladem Contemporary will be an addition. The mural was painted in 1980 by Gilberto Guzman, who was named one of Santa Fe’s “living treasures” in 2017.
The Vladem Contemporary, named for a donor who gave $4 million to the project, will be located in the city’s Railyard district, a neighborhood has been at the epicenter of Santa Fe’s gentrification over the past few decades. A press release from the State Historic Preservation Office said the new project “physically and ideologically brings the museum into dialogue with the cultural scene in the Santa Fe Railyard district.” This means growing the scale of the New Mexico Museum of Art, to be sure — implementing larger and more flexible spaces, and creating more opportunities for education, multi-media, and performance. But it also means building upon the momentum of the gentrification of the Railyard, and that means largely ignoring the concerns of the people who have lived in Santa Fe for generations.
The mural is representative of a time in Santa Fe when muralism was gaining popularity, and in particular was a venue for expression about the complex social makeup of New Mexico. Guzman worked with several artists on the mural, including David Bradley, Cassandra Mains, John Sandford, Rosemary Stearns, Linda Lomahaftewa, Zara Kriegstein, and Frederico Vigil. Tom Romero, president of the board at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe, told Hyperallergic that “the whole idea was driven by the Chicano movement that was spreading across the country … the work is supportive of the folks and the native peoples, and the mix of cultures.”
The Halpin building features a sign that reads “a nation that forgets its past has no future.” Romero said that “tearing down the mural seems to be counter to the words that are on the door frame … We preserve a lot of stuff that doesn’t need to be, but we won’t take care of something that is an expression of the social conscience of its time?” Romero emphasized that the idea of having a contemporary art museum in Santa Fe is not disliked, in fact it’s welcome. “But the Railyard was originally supposed to be a community-centered place,” he said, and the removal of the mural runs counter to that intention. “All of that is being taken away so that some guy named Vladem can have his own DNA spilled on the center of Santa Fe,” he said.
Alicia Inez Guzman, who wrote about the mural for Southwest Contemporary in 2018, said that seeing the mural on her way into town is a significant part of how she remembers Santa Fe as a child. “It is piece of cultural patrimony in a public space,” she told Hyperallergic. “Once it comes down, it will be symbolic of a broader erasure the city is experiencing — the housing crisis, gentrification at its peak.” The mural, which has not been well-maintained and is in need of restoration, features a wide array of images, including references to the Mexican flag, a steam engine and railroad workers, the Rio Grande gorge, a corn goddess, a Spanish bull, and a woman rolling out maize.
“I obviously support contemporary art, but I also support cultural patrimony in public spaces,” said Alicia Inez Guzman. “I think that mural was painted for the community, but maybe the Vladem Contemporary isn’t for a broader community. It’s for one echelon.”