Opening reception for Self-Determined at the Center for Contemporary Arts of Santa Fe on August 18, 2022 with work on view by Ian Kuali’i from his series Ma Ka Ho‘ona‘auao Ā Ma Ka Ihe Paha – By Education Or By Spear (Monument/Pillar Series) (2022) (photo by and courtesy Shayla Blatchford)

SANTA FE, N. Mex. — Until late last week, the Center for Contemporary Arts of Santa Fe (CCA) presented contemporary art and film, including arthouse, indie, and foreign cinema, its historical bread and butter, for over four decades in the high desert. CCA’s closure on the evening of Thursday, April 6, was abruptly announced and enacted. A press release announcing the closure and local media coverage cited pandemic mandates and protocols, changing models of film distribution and consumption, and long-standing fundraising issues as prime movers of this cultural institution’s demise.

But other reasons — including a pandemic-era exacerbation of the nonprofit philanthropy model’s innate structural inequity, shifting artist and donor demographics, and an institutional identity crisis — have received less coverage. According to former CCA Deputy Director April Chalay, who worked for CCA in several positions for over five years, the problems that led to the center’s shuttering have existed for a long time. 

Citing a board-produced list of 11 CCA directors over the past 19 years, which she feels certain is missing some names due to lax record-keeping, Chalay said CCA cycled through executive directors at an unsustainable pace for the past couple of decades.

“A new director every two to three years creates a culture of instability and a huge lack of identity,” Chalay told Hyperallergic.

Under the stewardship of its final Executive Director and Head Curator Danyelle Means (Oglala Lakota) since July 2021, an embattled CCA had been on the upswing programmatically and curatorially. The 2022 show Self-Determined: A Contemporary Survey of Native and Indigenous Artists was included in Hyperallergic‘s list of the top 50 exhibitions of the year.

Demographic changes also played a role. “Not many people will voice ‘I don’t like this because it’s turning brown-er or younger,’ but that’s absolutely what happened when the CCA found [Danyelle Means],” Chalay said. “We had people who started criticizing us and saying, ‘your director is Indigenous and you’re doing an Indigenous show, are you just going to be an Indigenous arts org? Because that’s not what I want to give to.’”

Another issue that plagued CCA was the very nature of nonprofit art grants and donations, namely restricted versus unrestricted giving. As Chalay noted in her interview, most private donations and grants are restricted, meaning that they are earmarked for a specific exhibition or program and so cannot be used by organizations in ways that are most beneficial for long-term sustainability by funding overhead, including staff payroll.  

“The problem with the traditional nonprofit board model is that it relies on a colonial model of philanthropy that’s based on the fact that older white people who come from heritages of wealth have the money and deem an organization important enough to give to,” said Chalay. “We were really hoping to get to the other side of these funding issues to be able to give voice to that [conversation] but we couldn’t get there because our board did not fundraise.”

CCA’s closure also reduces the number of film spaces dedicated to screening foreign, independent, and experimental film in the Santa Fe area to those at the anti-profit No Name Cinema and the largely refocused event space at Jean Cocteau Cinema

Artist Ian Kuali’i (Kanaka Maoli/Shis Inday), whose series Ma Ka Ho‘ona‘auao Ā Ma Ka Ihe Paha – By Education Or By Spear (2022) was featured in the Self-Determined exhibition, called the shuttering of the CCA “a massive blow to inclusivity in the arts.”

“Rarely have I ever encountered an arts institution that throws complete support behind the vision of the creators they invite into their space without trying to alter it,” Kuali’i told Hyperallergic. “It is equally rare that we have Indigenous female representation in a contemporary arts executive position, and I’m talking about the broader contemporary arts, not Indigenous/Native contemporary arts … The health of our future generations and communities are deeply tied to representation and visibility.” 

A devotee of Zen and the lost art of diagramming sentences, Samantha Anne Carrillo (she/her) is a writer and editor whose journalism career has included stints as an arts, associate, culture, managing,...