SANTA FE, N.M. — Even with a growing presence of contemporary art in Santa Fe – with the New Mexico Museum of Art purchasing space to show contemporary works and the soon-to-be-opened expansion of SITE Santa Fe – Center for Contemporary Art executive director Stuart Ashman says his group isn’t in a competitive arms race with the other organizations.
The different institutions all seemingly have their own “niche” for art and audiences, he says.
Not to mention, the others’ growth further establishes Santa Fe as a premier contemporary art scene, a reputation the city has not always had.
When Ashman first came in the 1970s, he said, people thought of Santa Fe art as “Western Art with a modern twist” or, as he put it, “a coyote with a kerchief.”
“It’s not just New York, Chicago, LA or Berlin (anymore),” he said about major contemporary art cities. “There are some very serious world-class artists here.”
Highlighting contemporary work “for and from New Mexico” was just one of the goals set by Ashman, who will mark his first year leading the CCA next week.
Holding a position that has had a lot of turnover in the past, New Mexico’s former state Cultural Affairs secretary thinks he has been successful, with an “energized” board completing and pursuing ongoing goals. When Ashman took the CCA post, returning to New Mexico after about five years as president of Long Beach’s Museum of Latin American Art, his main interests included making the center an easier place for locals to come together and to put greater emphasis on CCA’s visual arts beyond its well-established Cinematheque art-house movie theater.
“When I say I work at CCA, people say, ‘I love the movies there,’ ” Ashman said. “That’s what it’s known for. That’s great, but we also want it to be known for great exhibits.”
His first Santa Fe job was in 1978 at the Armory for the Arts, a year before the CCA was founded. He has also been head of the New Mexico Museum of Art and the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art. The New York native grew up in Cuba before moving back to the U.S. as a kid.
An example of his effort to alter that image is the CCA’s latest show, “Tom Joyce: Everything at Hand.” The donor-funded exhibition from the famous iron-worker artist opened last week and will display until December.
Ashman is currently working on scheduling exhibits for the next several years that he hopes will match what Joyce has brought to the gallery, so far CCA’s most popular since 2011’s “The Due Return,” Meow Wolf’s first large-scale art installation.
“(The gallery) has had its ups and downs … . The idea is to keep it going so you get a regular cadre of people,” he said.
Ashman doesn’t want to take attention away from the Cinematheque, but rather use increased interest in the gallery to promote both and do collaborative programs.
As the movie theater’s attendance grows annually, Cinematheque director Jason Silverman said he and Ashman want the same things – to bring more attention to the gallery and other CCA offerings, and make the center a communal gathering spot.
“In this moment where we’re being taught to be on one side or the other and we’re being trained to be more divisive, it’s nice to have somewhere to connect in person,” said Silverman. “Santa Fe doesn’t have enough of those.”
In addition to adding board members and more full-time employees, Silverman also said there has been necessary “physical improvements.” Over the past year, Ashman oversaw changes to the Munoz Waxman Gallery and Tank Garage spaces by adding the “Living Room,” which can be used for lectures or discussions. Both are currently being used for Joyce’s exhibition. Renovations to the building’s front, parking lot and drainage system also occurred during his first year.
These changes didn’t bust the nonprofit’s approximately $1 million annual budget, Ashman said, thanks to donors and grants. He said memberships also increased about 10 percent over the past year to a total of some 500.
The CCA has tinkered on the verge of financial disaster in the not-too-distant past. But Silverman said the organization paid off about $900,000 worth of debt over seven years before Ashman was hired.
“That was a big turning point for us,” said Silverman. “We were able to start investing more and growing the place.”
And changes won’t stop anytime soon. Ashman has a long wish list for the future, including better equipment for the Cinematheque and gallery, expanding the movie theater’s second, smaller screening room or adding a third to meet current demand, expanding the lobby, and adding to the CCA’s Sculpture Garden.
“I see my role as creating the magnet to make a place attractive so people will want to invest in it,” said Ashman. “That’s part of the infrastructure we’ve done, and now this (Joyce) exhibit. You look outside and the place looks legitimate.”
After “Everything at Hand,” the CCA will host some scheduled exhibitions, including one with works by late Santa Fe artist Ciel Bergman in February and a “surprise” show next summer that is still being negotiated.