ALBUQUERQUE — Northern New Mexico’s cultural landscape changed last month when the Center for Contemporary Arts of Santa Fe’s (CCA) board of directors voted to permanently close the organization. That decision led to job loss for 14 full-time arts workers, including the center’s first Native executive director Danyelle Means (Oglala Lakota), and the shuttering of an art space that served Santa Fe for over four decades. Five weeks later, with a board member-initiated fundraising campaign securing pledges and donations of over $300,000, CCA reopened in a purely cinematic capacity last Thursday, May 11.
CCA’s closure was informed by a combination of factors, including pandemic mandates and protocols, shifting models of cinema distribution and consumption, evolving artist and donor demographics, and fundraising challenges that originated with the structural inequity of the nonprofit philanthropic model. In an interview with Hyperallergic in April, former CCA Deputy Director April Chalay also cited a “lack of identity” exacerbated by turnover in the organization’s leadership team.
The new CCA is being led by general manager Paul Barnes, a retired documentary film editor and previous board chair. Along with film critic David N. Meyer and No Name Cinema founder Justin Clifford Rhody, Barnes is co-curating the Closer Look series of film screenings and conversations that marks the center’s reopening.
In the wake of Means’s leadership — which many praised as forward-thinking and included cinema as just one aspect of a multifaceted contemporary art exhibition and programming roster — the community is asking questions about how CCA will face its history and create its future.
Artist Hoka Skenandore (Oneida, Oglala Lakota, Luiseno) credits collaborations with CCA as essential to building his career and wonders how the center’s historical role in providing opportunities for artists of color and other marginalized identities will figure into its future.
“My question now is, what is CCA going to look like? Its world-class director and curator are out of the picture, which feels like the same old institutional whitewashing,” Skenandore told Hyperallergic. He cited the recent resignation of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art Director Ngaire Blankenberg, who was in her role for only two years before announcing her departure this March.
Continuing under the CCA banner, the center retains an association with a storied history — both positive and negative — and a stated mission of “celebrat[ing] creativity across the arts, humanities, and sciences by generating transformative experiences.” CCA now exists without an executive director and Barnes faces an uphill battle to revive the center based on its sole remaining offering, a cinema that lost 72% of its ticketed revenue between 2019 and 2022. With a skeleton crew and a dearth of administrative, development, and marketing support, former deputy director Chalay believes that establishing a cinema-centric CCA as a sustainable enterprise is unlikely, but would require outside-the-box office thinking, a long-term angel investor, or both.
According to Chalay, minimal cinema staffing will cost CCA $304,000 annually, a figure that only covers wages, not costs such as rent, utilities, insurance, and building or grounds maintenance. Another consideration of cinema operations is the substantial royalty costs paid to distributors, which Chalay says range from 35 to 40% of ticket sales. Since grants awarded to CCA for visual arts programming are restricted, the center will need to secure solid revenue — more than 28% of pre-pandemic ticket sales — to pay ongoing operational costs.
In response to speculation that the closure was an intentional effort to oust CCA leadership, Chalay discounts the notion of organized conspiracy, but not that of incompetence.
“It was more ineptitude and failure to support or listen to the professionals they hired to do this work,” Chalay told Hyperallergic. When the fundraising campaign’s success forced a decision on the board, Chalay suspects its members reverted to their frequently voiced problem-solving refrain of downsizing to “just a cinema.” While the center’s own data doesn’t support that solution, Chalay notes that it’s an easy model that kicks the decision-making can down the road.