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Trying to find common ground in mural debate

This sign was erected recently on Guadalupe Street by an advocate for retaining Gilberto Guzman’s Multi-Cultural mural on a building that is to house a new state museum for modern art. (Monica Roman Gagnier/Albuquerque Journal)

When Santa Feans were debating what to do with the Railyard after the city purchased it in the 1990s – in part to save it from commercial development – art galleries were not part of the discussion.

Santa Fe already had its Canyon Road, and a lot more space for galleries on and around the Plaza. The Railyard was envisioned, more or less, as new urban center for locals, since the Plaza (and Canyon Road) had become so dominated, for better or worse, by the tourist trade.

It’s been slow to develop, but the Railyard is getting closer to the original vision. The Violet Crown cinema and a locally owned brew pub are thriving. The Farmers Market is beloved community institution and its indoor space is used for quinceañeras and weddings. The Railyard plaza under the iconic water tower hosts numerous and diverse free concerts over the summer that attract thousands.

After a major stumble with the first residential project in the Railyard – condos that only the wealthy could afford, definitely not something the general public was calling out for on public land – apartments have been added. The units don’t meet city standards for affordable housing, but they’re not so expensive that they’re considered exclusive, either.

And more local businesses are expected soon, now that bankruptcy issues for the centerpiece Market Station building have been resolved.

But, yes, upscale art galleries also have become part of the Railyard mix. It’s apparently inevitable, again for better or worse, that if there’s attractive space in Santa Fe, galleries will find and fill it. In this case, it could be argued the galleries represent gentrification of a once ramshackle area, although they didn’t replace older homes or businesses.

Now, on the edge of the Railyard, state government is converting the old state archives building into a new modern art museum, in part thanks to $4 million from donors after whom the museum will be named.

The Vladem Contemporary museum is a great idea. This will be a public place. A top-notch museum for modern art is a next step in Santa Fe’s growth as a major arts center. And it’s good that the state Department of Cultural Affairs fought off efforts to squelch a distinctive, modern design for the building itself.

But there’s a rub. The building design calls for the removal of Multi-Cultural, the large-scale mural that Gilberto Guzman, leading an all-star team of local artists, created in the 1980s on a wall of the archives building facing Guadalupe Street. Guzman and several dozen others gathered outside the building last weekend to call for saving the mural, which is more than 100 feet long and 18 feet tall.

Those who want to save the artwork say removal amounts to more gentrification and would continue a trend toward wiping out key pieces of local culture and history.

Probably underlying the controversy is the question of whether the new museum will feature New Mexico-centric art like Guzman’s or will cater more to the coastal tastemakers of the modern art world. But it would be bad, and probably racist, to suggest a modern art museum, per se, is somehow incompatible with local culture. We do after all have the Contemporary Spanish Market, featuring modern art and crafts, every summer.

State officials say Guzman’s mural is in bad shape, would be costly to restore and needs to come down. It can be commemorated, they say, with a scaled-down recreation inside the new museum or pieces of the original. A projection of the mural has also been discussed. A new mural wouldn’t last more than 10 years, the state says.

Interestingly, both sides agree that outdoor murals like Guzman’s aren’t intended to be permanent. Multi-Cultural has been around for more than three decades and was last updated in the 1990s.

So there may be room for compromise here, with some help from the city or the Railyard management.

Commemorate Multi-Cultural with panels, a projection or giant photographs inside the new museum. But find another prominent spot for a new mural that likewise honors Santa Fe’s traditional cultures, as in Guzman’s work, or even more impressively, the more flamboyant mural by Federico Vigil in the Santa Fe County Commission’s chambers.

In the Railyard, a big mural developed as a community project with the help of serious artists could provide a wonderful offset to the simple, industrial architectural style that has developed there.

Multi-Cultural has had its run and it shouldn’t be forgotten. But maybe something new and just as beloved can come out of the debate over its pending demise.

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