When we decided to visit Santa Fe, N.M., art was at the center of the decision. We knew American artist Georgia O’Keeffe once called the region home, and that the city has a reputation for being one of the nation’s major art markets. We knew it is a city with lots of shopping, history and great food. But at the heart of it all is art. Here is how to experience Santa Fe art.
The local art scene has its roots in the region’s great Native American culture with a healthy mix of its Spanish Colonial past and more-modern transplants from Europe and America’s East Coast. Some of this country’s great artists called Santa Fe and Taos home in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and it’s easy to see why with the beautiful landscapes all around. I could rank these or give a best of list on how to experience Santa Fe art. Instead, I’ll give you a few of my recommended ways with a couple of other mentions for good measure.
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
Our first museum visit was at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum just off the Santa Fe Plaza. When we visited, it was the first weekend of the “Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George” exhibit, a showcase of 55 works from her time at Lake George. We arrived shortly before 11 a.m. and it was already crowded.
As we finished the exhibit we took a break in the large bookstore before heading out to see parts of the permanent collection on display. Much to our disappointment, that’s when we discovered the museum doesn’t have a permanent display. Special exhibitions are it. So while we really enjoyed the exhibit, it would’ve been nice to get a glimpse of some of O’Keeffe’s many Southwestern works. We’d have to find those elsewhere.
I won’t tell you to look up what exhibit is showing before you go. That doesn’t matter; just go. It’s well worth it. Just don’t expect to see more than the special exhibit.
New Mexico Museum of Art
After not seeing any Southwestern paintings at the O’Keeffe Museum, our hopes were high for our after-lunch visit to the New Mexico Museum of Art. And it didn’t disappoint. This museum isn’t large; it easily can be visited in an hour or less.
The oldest art museum in the state, it was built in 1917 to promote the region’s great art. The focus is on Taos and Santa Fe masters, but there is also plenty of contemporary art.
We walked through the interior courtyard to the main exhibition space, where we saw works from the likes of Agnes Martin and O’Keeffe. A long-term exhibition that since has ended, “It’s About Time: 14,000 Years of Art in New Mexico,” was a highlight of our visit. There are several exhibitions occurring at once.
It’s said that Santa Fe is home to more than 250 art galleries, 100 of which are on Canyon Road. You could spend days seeking out the galleries in Santa Fe, or just concentrate part of one walking Canyon Road and visiting its numerous art spaces.
A visit could be done by car or foot. You could explore by driving to a spot, getting out of the car, and checking out those adjacent galleries before getting back in and driving up a bit to find another parking space. I suggest finding one spot to park and walk the whole street if you have plenty of time and energy. The street is a slight uphill from west to east, so keep that in mind.
We visited two times. The first, I dropped my wife off along the road and she walked back down while my son and I went on a hike. The problem with this plan is all of the galleries closed at 5 and I didn’t get back down the mountain until close to 6. She found a restaurant to sit in while she waited, but it probably would have been easier for her if she had a car nearby.
The next day on a return visit, we parked up the road a bit where we visited some of the nearby galleries before moving the car farther up the hill to tour another spot.
If you’re looking for rest stops, there are a few restaurants along the road. I recommend having a drink, snack or dessert at The Teahouse. My son and I sat there for a while, giving my wife more gallery time without a child under foot. And if it’s near meal time, just to the west and across from The Teahouse is the fabulous El Farol Restaurant & Lounge.
I didn’t know it at the time but this is the city’s oldest restaurant. It is one of those fun, sexy and awesome spots that would be fun for a date or a group of friends. But it was also inviting for all three of us because it was pretty loud in there. So it worked well to have a child with us.
So I said I’d have a few other ways to explore the city’s art scene. Some highlights include the Loretto Chapel, Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi and the city’s architecture. There are several churches in the city, but the two we visited were the Cathedral Basilica and Loretto Chapel, both located just to the east and south of the Plaza.
The Cathedral Basilica has a history dating back to the city’s first church that was built on the current site in 1610, the year of the city’s founding. It would be replaced in 1630 by a larger structure, but was destroyed by the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680. The Spaniards returned to Santa Fe and later rebuilt the church in 1714.
The current cathedral was built around the original one, and, once complete in 1887, the older church was torn down.
The Loretto Chapel actually no longer serves as a church. But for architecture buffs, it’s worth a visit for its unique staircase.
The former Catholic church is now used for weddings and special events. But pop in (for a small donation) to see the staircase. The spiral staircase that leads to the choir loft 22 feet above is said to make two 360-degree turns with no visible means of support. It was built without nails, only using wooden pegs. I don’t know much about architecture, but if architects are amazed at the staircase, then I should be amazed.
Architecture: The architecture of the city’s buildings is worth a visit itself.
Walking around the historic Santa Fe Plaza, it’s cool to see newer construction mix well with the old adobe buildings. The codes in the city’s historic areas ensures that building designs remain consistent with the adjacent historic structures. Some might find the brownish buildings boring. But with a perfect blue sky overhead and a bright sun shining down, it works. Trust me.