Georgia O’Keeffe paintings are in dozens of major museums across the world, in New York, London, Paris and, of course, at the artist’s namesake museum n Santa Fe.
But it’s Rio Arriba County, among the desert mesas and mountaintops around Abiquiu, where “you can actually find yourself in an O’Keeffe painting,” says Georgia O’Keeffe Museum director Robert Kret.
“Georgia O’Keeffe selected that place, she made it her home, and she did it for a variety of reasons,” Kret said. “One of the things I observed is the richness of culture, rich culture of history (that) really resonated with her.”
O’Keeffe began traveling regularly to New Mexico in the 1930s before moving here permanently in 1949. She bought her first home at Ghost Ranch in 1940 and then, in 1945, a house not far away in Abiquiu.
Since 2006, the O’Keeffe Museum has operated daily tours of the Abiquiu home and studio, something the former O’Keeffe Foundation had been doing since the early ’90s.
The museum in Santa Fe also has used a ticket office left by the foundation, a less-than-1,000-square-foot former laundromat with enough space to check in for the tour and watch an introductory video.
But as visitation steadily increased – home and studio tours attracted a record 13,500 people in 2017 – so did the need for a larger facility. Kret said the historic site needed basic amenities like restrooms and places to sit, as well as presentation of historical information, to make it a base for a more “well-rounded” visitor experience.
Ground was broken on the O’Keeffe Welcome Center, a nearly 5,000-square-foot building, last fall, and it opened officially in mid-May. The center is officially the property of the Abiquiu Inn, which owns the land. The museum has a 20-year lease.
“It’s not just promoting the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum or the Abiquiu Home and Studio,” said Giustina Renzoni, the historic site manager hired in February to oversee the new facility.
“We really think of ourselves as ambassadors to the Rio Chama Valley. We want to facilitate visitors’ entire experience beyond the doors of the welcome center, and beyond the doors of the home and studio.”
Renzoni said that even if visitors can’t go on one of the home and studio tours, which are mostly scheduled weeks in advance, she still wants them to use the welcome center to learn about O’Keeffe and plan trips throughout the scenic area.
She said all the employees are locals, and some even knew O’Keeffe growing up. That helps when it comes to providing information on other nearby attractions like Ghost Ranch, which offers hiking and a couple of impressive small museums, and the Purple Adobe Lavender Farm.
“In some ways, the landscape of Rio Arriba County is under-appreciated,” compared to tourism hot spots like Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque, Kret said.
A digital kiosk in the welcome center’s lobby is designed to show visitors where O’Keeffe made specific paintings. Sites where she painted works like 1952’s “Lavender Hill with Green” and 1956’s “The Patio Door with Green Leaf,” and a series she made in the 1930s of “Gerald’s Tree” (which Renzoni noted is still standing today) are visitor-accessible.
The building’s main room includes a seating area, soon to be equipped with cellphone charging stations, and a shelf of O’Keeffe-related catalogues and books. On the walls are interpretive panels about O’Keeffe’s life in northern New Mexico and her homes.
Exhibits will change throughout the seasons and could cover local, pre-O’Keeffe history, like that of Spanish Colonial or Native American peoples, or regional geology.
Due to insurance and climate control issues, the welcome center doesn’t hold any actual O’Keeffe paintings, but it does display photographs of her taken in the area by friend Maria Chabot and photographer Todd Webb, along with rocks and animal bones from her personal collection.
The center includes a gift shop and a screening room in which Renzoni will show an eight-minute introductory clip, along with other films. There’s classroom space for education programs and which community members can reserve.
Renzoni and Kret both said the center was made for locals, as well as tourists, and the classroom is one way the museum hopes to be a community asset.
“We’re hoping people use it for yoga classes or film screenings, or maybe they want to give a short talk or lecture,” said education and interpretation curator Katrina Stacy.
The 2018 home and studio tour schedule will largely be the same as it has been in previous years, with seven tours a day Tuesday-Friday and five on Saturday.
Kret said he hopes to someday to also make O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch home publicly available. Renzoni said themes for future tours could also include local history, the landscape and local geology to show what inspired O’Keeffe decades ago.
“It’s not very often that you’re able to go to a museum an hour away (in Santa Fe), see all this artwork, then go to the home and studio to see where she lived and worked, and then go into the landscape where she painted and then go see the exact locations of the paintings,” said Renzoni.
“I honestly don’t think there’s another artist in the U.S. where you can have that experience.”