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Modern muse: Michelle Laflamme-Childs takes her passion with her to a new position as executive director of New Mexico Arts

Michelle Laflamme-Childs

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Michelle Laflamme-Childs, appointed last month as executive director of New Mexico Arts, the state’s art agency, recalls in vivid detail a time in 2013 when she was presenting a slide show of artwork at the Ena Mitchell Senior Center in Lordsburg, a town of about 3,000 people in the southwest corner of the state.

Back then, Laflamme-Childs had just taken over as program director for New Mexico’s 1% for Art in Public Places Program.

“They had a few thousand dollars to buy art they would select from a pool of works,” Laflamme-Childs said during a phone interview from Santa Fe. “I was showing slides to the people who would make the decision, but it was a public meeting and the seniors started to stream in.”

Laflamme-Childs had hundreds of slides, and the Lordsburg senior citizens, delighted at what they were watching, wanted to see them all.

It was a new experience for Laflamme-Childs, who had come to the public art program from management and marketing positions at the Santa Fe Art Institute, a private education facility that proclaims the power of art to change society.

“Inside/Out,” a wall of lighted panels by artist Ivan Toth DePena, is a product of New Mexico Arts’ 1 for Art in Public Places Program.

“At the Art Institute, I was focused on art as a means of social justice, environmental responsibility and cultural freedom,” she said. “But that was an ‘aha’ moment for me (at the senior center). Public art is a different animal. It has an affect on people’s everyday lives. It is not as much a push for social change. It is more of an every-single-day introduction of beauty and humanity into people’s lives.”

Rural focus

The Lordsburg senior center obtained several pieces of art it could hang on its walls, and Laflamme-Childs came away from that encounter with a determination to devote as much of her time as possible to bringing art to small towns.

That remains her mission as head of New Mexico Arts, a division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs.

New Mexico Arts administers the 1% public art program for the state and oversees other projects such as the Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts, New Mexico Arts and Cultural Districts, New Mexico Art Trails, Folk Arts, arts grants and the Poetry Out Loud recitation competition for state high school students.

“I expect to really support the governor in focusing on our rural communities,” Laflamme-Childs, 53, said. “With a relatively small division, 15 when fully staffed, we are going to make the biggest impact we can across the state.”

Laflamme-Childs comes by her affection for small towns naturally. She grew up in North Adams, Massachusetts, which she described as a blue-collar, depressed mill town of about 15,000 people. But her childhood house was filled with art.

“There was art of all kinds on the wall, a lot of prints, a few original works,” she said. “There was an Ezra Pound poem in the bathroom. If (my parents) thought it was beautiful, we had it.”

Laflamme-Childs’ mother served as a community development director and also as a city councilwoman and was instrumental in the development in North Adams of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), one of the largest centers for contemporary visual art and performance art in the country.

“My mother recognized how important that would be in a small town, and it fueled in me a passion for supporting rural communities in states where much of the resources are in urban communities,” Laflamme-Childs said. “We have a lot of those communities in New Mexico, and I love them. They feel familiar. I want to be there and do exciting things.”

Right brain, left brain

After earning a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Laflamme-Childs moved to Santa Fe to do graduate work in St. John’s College’s Great Books curriculum.

“The Mountain West was appealing to me, and when I found St. John’s I decided that’s where I wanted to go,” she said. “I just wanted that sort of broad, deep, win-at-Trivial Pursuit kind of education.”

Laflamme-Childs said she is about as evenly divided between right brain and left brain as a person can get. She started off as a physics major at Massachusetts Amherst and her favorite reading at St. John’s was Euclid, the ancient mathematician known as the father of geometry. But she was drawn as a child to poetry, still writes it when she can and has self-published some of her work.

“I was inspired by E. E. Cummings,” she said. “That was the first time I saw poetry without real form or shape, poetry where you can just go crazy. My own poetry can be real out there.”

She discovered she had a gift for radio while voicing promotional spots for the Santa Fe Art Institute and has been working for more than 10 years as an on-air personality at KBAC 98.1 Radio Free Santa Fe, an adult album alternative station with an eclectic playlist. More recently she has taken on radio host jobs at 101.5 The Cat, Santa Fe’s Community Jazz Station; and at 107.5, Santa Fe’s Outlaw Country Station.

“You can hear me from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday,” she said. “I’m Michelle at KBAC, Che on The Cat and Michelle West on The Outlaw. ‘Today’s best country and yesterday’s favorites.’

“When I was a teenager, 45s (records) were still a thing. My favorite thing was to buy a record, go over to a friend’s house and share it. On radio, it feels like I get to do that with everybody. ‘Here’s this cool new thing I just heard.’ ”

Getting it done

Laflamme-Childs, who is married and the mother of two daughters, 19 and 13, intends to continue her radio work, write a poem whenever she gets a chance and fulfill her obligations as New Mexico Arts chief.

“I’m passionate about working in our many diverse communities and creating access to arts opportunities for all New Mexicans,” she said. “I could not be more excited to do this work.”

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