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‘Cathedral of the Desert’: New Mexico Museum of Art celebrates 100 years in Santa Fe

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A faded amber program trumpets the 1917 opening of the “Temple of St. Francis and the Martyrs/The New Museum of Santa Fe” beneath a familiar image of its towers overlooking the Santa Fe Plaza.

It’s now known as the New Mexico Museum of Art; the longer title dissipated as this repository of some of the finest art in the state became known as the Art Gallery of the Museum of New Mexico. This linchpin of Santa Fe style is celebrating its 100th anniversary on Saturday, Nov. 25. The festivities will include the opening of three exhibitions, a major face-lift and a community birthday party scheduled for Thanksgiving weekend, as well as a yearlong series of public programs.

The New Mexico Museum of Art, circa 1917.

Dubbed “New Mexico’s Cathedral of the Desert” by a local newspaper, the building at Lincoln and Palace avenues was the culmination of a dream spawned by the state pavilion at the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego.

At the time, Santa Fe was still the Wild West, isolated from the rest of the country.

“Santa Fe was at a point where it was contemplating what its future was going to be,” museum Director Mary Kershaw said. “The community came together and decided to give the artists a place to exhibit their works in a view to make Santa Fe a world-class art destination.”

Colorado architects Isaac and William Rapp had designed the original New Mexico building in a hybrid of mission church and pueblo design, inadvertently creating a unique architectural style that came to be known as territorial revival. The New Mexico Legislature approved $30,000 for the project. Private donors provided an additional $30,000.

St. Francis Auditorium, inside the New Mexico Museum of Art, circa 1917.

“Picture yourself in 1915-16 on the Plaza looking around,” Kershaw said from her spacious second-floor office. The buildings “were all low except for the Cathedral” Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. “It basically mirrored the cathedral, so it was a really important statement on the role of culture in Santa Fe.”

The archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewett, critical to the formation of Bandelier National Monument and Chaco Culture National Historical Park, was its first director.

Hewett also encouraged the great San Ildefonso Pueblo potter Maria Martinez to reproduce the historic black-on-black ware discovered in archaeological digs. The results would reignite pueblo pottery making for decades.

“Probably more than any other person, Edgar Lee Hewett was responsible for what Santa Fe became,” Kershaw said. “His ashes are in the wall of our courtyard.”

At the time, the great New York artist Robert Henri – leader of the Ashcan School of American realism – was spending his summers in Santa Fe. Henri urged Hewett to adopt an “open-door” policy allowing any New Mexico artist to exhibit at the museum.

“It was basically anti-academy thinking,” Kershaw said.

The museum didn’t begin jurying artists until 1951.

Henri believed art critics had become a barrier between artists and the public.

He also persuaded fellow artists George Bellows, Leon Kroll, John Sloan and Randall Davey to come to Santa Fe.

In 1918, he was elected an associate member of the Taos Society of Artists.

The inaugural exhibition boasted works by Henri and fellow Ashcan School artist Bellows, as well as Gerald Cassidy, William Penhallow Henderson, E. Martin Hennings, Joseph Henry Sharp, Oscar Berninghaus, E. Irving Couse, Ernest Blumenschein, W. Herbert Dutton, Victor Higgins, Bert Phillips and Walter Ufer.

The museum’s genesis contrasted with most, such as New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art or the Guggenheim art museum.

“Most were built around a major collection,” Kershaw said. “This museum never had a founding collection. When it was built, it was for aesthetic purposes to show the art made here.”

Eventually, many of the artists began donating work to the fledgling institution. These donors included Cassidy, Henri, Sloan, Sharp, Blumenschein, Gustave Baumann, Joseph Bakos and the Georgia O’Keeffe estate, as well as more contemporary artists such as Fritz Scholder, Judy Chicago, Laura Gilpin, Eliot Porter and Miguel Gandert.

“It was of its time,” Kershaw said. “Some of it was kind of controversial. So this building was extremely contemporary, and the art was extremely contemporary. And now through the confluence of time, the collection is historic.”