A peaceful gathering in front of the "Multi-cultural" mural on February 6, 2021 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

SANTA FE — Even before a crowd had gathered in front of the “Multi-cultural” mural, located in the heart of Santa Fe’s Railyard District, city and state police cars were already circling the block. Within minutes, more than a dozen officers were standing guard along the sidewalk, flanked by parked patrol cars and a police surveillance camera.

“We invited the Department of Cultural Affairs,” Carrie Wood, a member of a campaign to save the mural called Keep Santa Fe Multicultural, said of the planned peaceful gathering that took place last weekend, “but they didn’t respond to our email, or even take the time to talk to us. They just sent the cops.”

After years of design revisions, state and city approvals, and a construction freeze as a result of the pandemic, the New Mexico Museum of Art (NMMA) announced construction would start in early February on its second location, Vladem Contemporary. The project has been steeped in criticism since early 2018, when naming rights were offered to Bob and Ellen Vladem in exchange for a four-million-dollar gift. Transplants from Chicago, the Vladems have come to symbolize a wave of outsiders reshaping Santa Fe’s real estate and art scene toward wealthier interests.

The most recent announcement was especially inflammatory to advocates of the “Multi-cultural” mural, including the grassroots coalition Keep Santa Fe Multicultural, of which I am also a member. As a group we have spent much of the last year in dialogue with members of state governance, including cabinet secretary Debra Garcia y Griego, NMMA Director Mark White, and others, campaigning against the planned “retirement” of the artwork. The mural, located on the eastern facade of the Joseph E. Halpin Records Center, will be destroyed as a consequence of the renovations. The exterior wall where it is located, according to architectural plans, will remain. Keep Santa Fe Multicultural has since shifted from calls for preservation to holding the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) — the state entity that oversees the New Mexico museum system — accountable for what appears to be a strategic lack of transparency.

Painted in 1980 by Los Angeles-born Chicano muralist Gilberto Guzmán, alongside Zara Kriegstein, Frederico Vigil, Linda Lomahoftewa, Cassandra Mains, David Bradley, Rosemary Stearn, and students from the Institute of American Indian Arts, the “Multi-cultural” mural capped an era of community-based efforts to represent a sense of place and belonging for Chicanos and Indigenous people, and a regional brand of mestizaje. Inspired by the legacy of Los Tres Grandes — Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco — this newest wave of muralistas made public art when the term was hardly vernacular.

(photo by Carrie Wood)

At the time, the mural predated the state’s Art in Public Places program, which wasn’t established until 1986. Still, Guzmán, who self-funded the project, came to an agreement with the State of New Mexico’s now-defunct property control division which owned the building and was tasked with its maintenance. The agreement stipulated the artwork would not be altered during its natural life. “Multi-cultural” was never, however, formally accessioned into the state’s public art collection, leaving it without the legal protections that come with being in a collection.

“It’s a loss of what little we have left in that part of town,” Hernan Gomez Chavez, another member of Keep Santa Fe Multicultural, said of the mural. It’s located near Canyon Road and in the historic eastside, an area that has already seen the effects of gentrification. “The mural has a vested history in the community.”

In a press release from 2019, DCA stated: “no treatment is currently possible that can fully address the integrity of either the original image or the artist’s aesthetic intent.” But according to Cynthia Lawrence, the conservator who was contracted to assess the mural’s condition and possible future, she offered multiple options to DCA in a report authored in 2018. The mural could be conserved, moved to another location, or repainted by a collaborative team, including original artists, conservators, and contemporary artists, she wrote. Whatever the course of action, her report stated, “The final decision … should include input from all the various stakeholders: the owner/municipality, the community, and the original artist.” Instead, she told me, “DCA misrepresented the report” by cherry-picking phrases about the mural’s condition to predetermine its fate.

At a time when many of Santa Fe’s monuments are under fire for their glorification of state-sanctioned histories of violence and white supremacy, the “Multi-cultural” mural, which features an Indigenous corn mother at its center, is still slated for demolition. Despite pressure from Keep Santa Fe Multicultural, DCA never held any townhalls about the future of the mural, making many question the motives behind the state entity’s dismissal of any conservation efforts, especially in light of their mandate to preserve and celebrate New Mexico’s cultural integrity.

Bob Vladem, who believed his gift kickstarted a “stalled capital campaign,” told me, “I paid full list price. I paid four million dollars for the naming rights that were offered to me.” He continued, “When I made the gift, the mural was not even anything talked about … The decision was already made.”

While NMMA has championed Vladem Contemporary’s planned diversity and equity initiatives, their paltry attempts at engaging Santa Fe’s communities of color have felt like nothing more than lip service. “It would be awesome to work with DCA,” Wood said. “This could be an amazing partnership. We could do something together with their resources and our network,” she continued. “Why are they so resistant to change?”

The DCA has not responded to email requests for comment.

A Chicana writer from the northern New Mexican village of Truchas, Alicia Inez Guzmán explores histories of land use in New Mexico and the Southwest. She holds a PhD in Visual and Cultural Studies from...