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Masterpiece theater: ABQ Museum plans a party to celebrate 50 years showcasing art and artifacts

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Our Lady of Angels School, Old Town, 1943. (Courtesy of the Albuquerque Museum)

Fifty years ago this month, the Albuquerque Museum emerged out of a collection in a former Old Town school, a hidden gem wrapped in adobe.

Established in 1967, it moved into the old Albuquerque Municipal Airport, its nexus a confluence of time travel between the old and the new world, between history and art.

Now back in Old Town, the museum is throwing itself a 50th anniversary party on Thursday, Sept. 7. For a day, admission will revert to the original charge of 25 cents.

The museum’s fledgling collection included the Taos Society of Artists founding member Ernest Blumenschein’s masterpiece “Star Road and White Sun,” 1920, as well as a Union Civil War uniform.

Rio Grande glazed jar, circa 1450-1600, with rain motifs, from Sandoval County Pre-Colombian Tonque Pueblo.

The Albuquerque Historical Society donated its entire collection comprising more than 900 artifacts, works of art, books, photographs and documents to the nascent museum. The Albuquerque Historical Society donated Victorian silk finery transformed into flapper dresses as the styles shifted across the decades.

That same year, the Albuquerque Archaeological Society added a jar from the pre-Columbian Tonque Pueblo in Sandoval County. Rain symbols orbit the circumference.

“Gray Cross With Blue” by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1929, oil on canvas. (Courtesy of the Albuquerque Museum)

Today, the museum’s holdings span 10,000 works of art and 27,000 historic artifacts ranging from pre-Columbian pottery to Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Gray Cross With Blue,” one of her first works completed after she visited New Mexico in 1929. Its treasures encompass pottery by Maria Martinez as well as examples of abstract expressionism.

Museum director Cathy Wright says plans for the future include an education center featuring interactive exhibits for both children and adults. No timeline or cost projections are available yet.

“We have ideas of what we want and need, but we haven’t done the schematics,” she said.

Collection guides on history, the photo archives and art are also in the works.

Making an impact

In 1979, the museum moved into its familiar $1.8 million Old Town building, abutting the old Navajo Freight Building. It was designed by local architect Antoine Predock.

To this day, the treasures keep coming.

Repostero, 1620-1640, silk, linen, metallic threads. Gift of the 18th Duke and Duchess of Alburquerque, Spain, via the city of Albuquerque Public Art Program.

In 1983, the 18th Duke of Alburquerque donated a 12-by-12-foot repostero, a tapestry with the Cueva family coat of arms dating to 1620-1640. Woven and embroidered from silk, linen and metallic threads, its borders frame it in war trophies, including helmets, swords and battle axes. A dragon based on a family legend helms its central symbol.

“You would hang this in your castle,” history curator Deb Slaney said.

Local architect Bainbridge Bunting discovered an extremely rare circa 1850 Navajo serape in an abandoned New York building. Donated to the museum in 1974, curators consider it among the rarest of Classic Period Navajo blankets. It features a center slit for the head to be worn as a poncho.

Drivers and runners regularly pass by one of the museum’s most compelling sculptures along Mountain Road without even noticing it, curator Andrew Connors said.

Created by Nora Noranjo Morse in 2004, the earthwork “Numbe Whageh (Our Center Place),” spirals down into the ground.

“As you walk through the spiral, you descend into the earth and at the bottom there’s a little trickle of water,” Connors said.

“It is so subtle,” he continued. “So often we expect great art to shake us by the lapels.”

Lasting impressions

“Star Road and White Sun” by Ernest L. Blumenschein, oil on canvas, 1920.

Blumenschein’s bracing portrait of two defiant Taos Pueblo natives demonstrates a master’s use of color.

“Blumenschein really knew how to push the paint around,” Connors said. “Compositionally, it’s got great symmetry. The subject of the younger Native American and indigenous culture being more in-your-face and sort of eclipsing White Sun is very powerful.”

Jack Garver’s “Cat” exemplifies Albuquerque’s contribution in the 1950s as a vortex of abstract expressionism, a circle that included Raymond Jonson, Richard Diebenkorn and Elaine DeKooning.

“(Garver) and his wife Alice were among the most experimental and avant garde,” Connors said. “Had he been in New York City, he would have been one of the household names. That sense of Albuquerque as a center of innovation is something we still need to pound.”

Luis Jiménez’s horse and rider “Progress I” guards the museum’s back doors in glistening folds of fiberglass muscle.

The artist chose paint more frequently found on low rider cars than on canvas.

“He used commercial materials, which is not a designated material for sculptors,” Connors said. “His work is so aggressive and so in-your-face and so many people hate it because of that. It’s made of plastic and glitter, but what better material to tell the story of American progress?”