A Vital Spaces fundraiser (photo by Shayla Blatchford)

SANTA FE, New Mexico — Jonathan Boyd saw an empty space. Rather, he saw a lot of empty spaces — storefronts and schools and apartment buildings all over Santa Fe, waiting to be redeveloped or sold or reviewed by the city’s historic board. A furniture maker with a real estate investment background, Boyd also knew how challenging it could be for artists in Santa Fe to break into the community, figure out how to make money, and afford to stay. He saw potential in the short-term vacancies caused by turnover, development wait times, and gentrification. So he created Vital Spaces, a nonprofit that occupies temporarily empty commercial properties in Santa Fe to provide studio and exhibition space to local artists at little to no cost.

After conceiving the project, Boyd learned about Chashama, a similar organization is New York City founded by Anita Durst. Durst “has been instrumental” in helping Vital Spaces with the nuts and bolts of the operation and getting it off the ground, Boyd told Hyperallergic. Durst visited Santa Fe in 2017 to meet with and advise Boyd before he formally started the project.

Vital Spaces moved into a downtown property at 220 Otero Street in March 2019, has a midtown exhibition space at 1604 St. Michael’s Drive, and just started a new lease in Santa Fe’s Midtown Campus. Formerly the Santa Fe University of Art and Design and the College of Santa Fe, the Midtown Campus project is still in its early stages: the Santa Fe New Mexican reported on January 13 that the city was “closing in on [a] short list of master developers” and the development project “could run 10 or 20 years.” In the meantime, the 64-acre campus has been mostly sitting empty.

Vital Spaces’ presence there will consist of four to six studios, plus a large exhibition area. Applicants are selected by a volunteer curatorial committee, with consideration to both artistic merit and the “perceived impact the exhibition would have on the city of Santa Fe.” The committee is made up of four local curators: Amber-Dawn Bear Robe of the Institute of American Indian Arts, Joanna Lefrak of SITE Santa Fe, Bess Murphy of the Ralph T. Coe Center for the Arts, and Ariel Plotek of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Vital Spaces hopes to bring in other organizations to curate shows and collaborate, and will be inviting proposals for exhibitions, workshops, outdoor installations, and more. As this massive, centrally located campus sits waiting for its next life, Vital Spaces aims to create a hub of creative, collaborative community. “We are working in the interim time,” Boyd said. “What is possible in this space right now?”

Rental costs in Santa Fe have increased 40% in the last five years, and affordable studio space is becoming increasingly difficult to find. “I was thinking about leaving Santa Fe, because I started looking around for a new studio and there was hardly anything available. Everything was just astronomically priced,” said John Vokoun, an artist who has lived in Santa Fe for almost 18 years. He learned about Vital Spaces and moved into the Otero Street space in July. He sees Vital Spaces as a key ingredient in making Santa Fe more accommodating to artists who are pushing the envelope and fostering dialogue. “Organizations like this are the only way forward,” he said, “where artists can experiment with things that aren’t certain to make any money, but are fascinating and generate energy and conversation.”

Vital Spaces is particularly invested in creating generative dialogue around art. Program director Hannah Yohalem said the organization “wants people who are going to grow beyond the walls of their studios.” This can mean collaboration between artists within Vital Spaces, bringing in other community organizations, holding public events and workshops, and more. There is plenty of energy around art in Santa Fe, but it can be hard to identify entry points, or figure out where the centers are. “There is a lot of fragmentation in the Santa Fe arts community,” Yohalem said. “Part of our goal is to break down those silos.”

Vokoun says he’s “being pushed by collaborations that are popping up” through Vital Spaces connections, and working on new projects “that are really experimental and strange. Santa Fe needs to have more spaces and support for people to experiment, to get a little crazy. That’s where new ideas come from.”

Vital Spaces is experimenting with alternative ways of displaying art as well. This fall, the organization will arrange a series of storefront windows displays, paying artists to create installations in windows all over downtown Santa Fe.

“Expanding the definition of what it means to show art, that’s something that excites me,” Vital Spaces artist RJ Ward told Hyperallergic. Ward transformed a basement kitchen at the Otero Street property into an installation, which included a major overhaul of the stairwell. The building owners were glad to have him clean up and repaint the space at no cost, and RJ was able to experiment and explore in a previously unused part of the building. “The idea of the space being the starting point, and to transform it in some way,” he said, “that’s how I prefer to work.”

Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz, a documentarian and oral historian who calls herself a “cultural worker and cultural producer,” is using her Vital Spaces studio to work on a project called New Canon of Mythologies, which compiles and shares “ancestral stories and future-facing prophecies of New Mexico-based Indigenous, Black, and woman of color iconoclasts.” The project will conclude in September with a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. This is Tho-Biaz’s first ever personal studio space, and “there’s something about it that conjures magic,” she told Hyperallergic. “If we value the folks who are creating some degree of positive change, let’s look at how we support them. Money is one way — thank god, and more, please — and at the same time, so is space.”

Tho-Biaz is also joining forces with fellow Vital Spaces artist Raashan Ahmad, who is an emcee, producer, and DJ. The pair will be throwing a “Black love storytelling event” in February in Santa Fe. “My cultural work practice is a folk art — oral history — that is clearly devoted towards liberation, transformation and love,” said Tho-Biaz. “This is what Vital Spaces is supporting through dedicated studio space for me.”

Ahmad’s work as a musician takes him all over the world, but he has called Santa Fe home for nine years. “The art space in Santa Fe is vibrant,” he said. “The people that get left out are the indigenous folks, the black folks, the poor folks, the folks that don’t have the resources and the means. Vital Spaces can help and has helped.”

As Santa Fe faces skyrocketing housing costs, gentrification, and existential questions about how its identity as an art town remains relevant and applicable, Boyd and Yohalem are working to convince property owners of the benefit — to buildings and the community — of having artists occupy spaces that would otherwise be collecting dust. As Ahmad said, “artists create something from nothing, that’s our job.”

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Ellie Duke

Ellie Duke was the Southwest US editor at Hyperallergic. She also co-edits the literary journal Contra Viento. She lives in Santa Fe, NM. Find her on Twitter.