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Canceling culture, or just plain worn out?

While the mural on the wall of the New Mexico Museum of Art’s Vladem Contemporary building will come down, it will be digitally recreated in the lobby of the museum. The mural by Gilberto Guzman and other artists was painted in 1980 and refurbished in 1993. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

The fate of the “Multicultural” mural by Gilberto Guzman has been sealed, but activists are now calling on the governor to preserve that bit of Santa Fe’s history.

The mural on the wall of the Halpin Building had its future thrust into the unknown when it was announced the building would be turning into the New Mexico Museum of Art’s Vladem Contemporary museum as part of a $10 million project. But now it’s clear that the mural by Gilberto Guzman and others, will be removed from the east-facing wall of the building.

The mural first went up in 1980 and was restored in 1993. It was painted directly on the building’s stucco, which degrades over time. It was also painted over several infilled windows, which are becoming unstable and pose a public safety risk, the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs said.

The mural depicts an indigenous woman spreading her arms across the wall of the building. Other New Mexican and indigenous elements are incorporated in the mural, including a train, a canyon and people of different races coming together.

“The governor was promoting (Joe) Biden and said New Mexico is a multicultural state. We were founded on multiculturalism from all these different entities,” Theresa Sanchez, a friend and advocate for Guzman, said. “Well, that still stands. Why do we want to erase our history?”

Sanchez said she’s met with the Department of Cultural Affairs, along with Guzman, and has gotten nowhere. The only way to save it, she said, is to call on Lujan Grisham to supersede the department.

“Governor, we need your help,” she said. “Governor, what’s multicultural New Mexico?”

When contacted by the Journal, the governor’s office directed inquiries to Cultural Affairs.

The museum

Despite its retirement from the outside wall of the building, the mural will live on with the museum. The lobby will have an area dedicated to preserving the history of the mural, along with other elements of the Halpin Building, Daniel Zillmann, marketing and communications manager for the Department of Cultural Affairs, said. Outside the building, there will also be a plaque on the mural wall to memorialize it.

The decision to remove the mural had been made for quite some time, Zillmann said.

The contemporary art museum is named after a Chicago family that has had its sole residence in Santa Fe for the past seven years; the family donated $4 million to help create the museum.

Robert Vladem said the decision to remove the mural was made before he and his wife’s donation. He said that, since his donation, they have experienced a lot of name-calling and bullying on social media.

“If anyone had told me this would be so controversial, I never would have made the gift,” Vladem said.

When he was first shown renderings of the future museum, the mural wasn’t included. It wasn’t until recently that he heard of the push to conserve it, and how some people were upset about its retirement.

“I’m sorry to see the mural go, but it’s a mural, not a Fresco,” he said.

Vladem also said he found it insulting that some people would insinuate he made removing the mural a condition of his donation – which he says isn’t true. He said he even hired people on his own dime to examine the building and the wall itself needed substantial work, not just the mural.

Santa Fe City Councilor Renee Villarreal said the mural represents an important part of Santa Fe’s history. Although it is in her district, the state-owned building is outside of her jurisdiction, she said.

Growing up in Santa Fe, Villarreal said the mural was always one of her favorites.

“Although I’ve expressed my concerns and my desire to try to preserve it in some way,” she said, “I realize there’s some structural issues with the wall.”

She said she would like to see the mural repainted on the wall, or a new multicultural mural created in that space.

Santa Fe City Councilor Signe Lindell, who also represents District 1, where the mural is located, said the mural had a good 40-year run. Murals aren’t meant to last forever, she said.

“One mural, or any number of murals … it is a representation of the culture, but we don’t erase a culture by removing a mural,” she said.

Lindell added the lifespan of the mural was decided long ago when the artist originally signed his contract.

The contract

Guzman originally signed on to paint the mural, along with other artists, on May 12, 1980, according to the original contract, which stated the artists were responsible for the upkeep of the mural.

The contract said that both sides – the state and the artist – have rights and responsibilities concerning the mural. Throughout the contract, there is reference to the mural’s “natural” or “normal” life, but there is no indication of what the natural lifespan of the mural would be.

“Property owner expresses its intent not to alter or paint over the mural during its normal life, but property owner acquires and retains all ownership rights in the mural on its completion,” the contract stated.

The contract stated it would also allow the artists access to the mural to maintain it during its “natural life.”

“There was an attempt to communicate with Gilberto that pretty much failed,” Zillmann said of the contract. “We did our due diligence and we tried to speak to him.”

Sanchez said she recognizes the mural needs to be redone, but doesn’t agree with the decision to remove it. She said that in her conversations with Guzman, he mentioned he would be happy to coordinate with other artists on a restoration.

She said she and Guzman have met with the department and Guzman proposed redoing the mural under the planned windows on the refurbished wall.

Part of the decision to retire the mural does come down to cost, Zillmann said. Advocates requested a cost estimate report to see how much money it would take to restore the mural. A cost estimate would also require money, Zillmann said, along with finding an independent, professional conservator to write the report.

“It would take a lot of funds to preserve the mural in any way,” he said. “Even that preservation of the mural wouldn’t last forever. This would be an ongoing and expensive process.”

The advocates

For Rick Martinez, who has been fighting to preserve this mural and others across town, the silence by elected officials on this matter is concerning.

“We kind of feel like our voice is completely gone. Four million (dollars) completely shuts us up,” Martinez said, referencing the Vladems’ donation.

Martinez said the mural’s advocates are still going to try to negotiate its preservation, but the most recent message they’ve received has the tone of “you shouldn’t keep bothering us, we made our decision.”

He said he understands the wall isn’t in good shape, but is disappointed there wasn’t any compromise.

Guzman’s mural connects to a broader era of muralism that took place in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. During that time, there was a “renaissance of muralism” and “Chicano muralism” in the Southwest, Alicia Inez Guzmán, who has a doctorate in visual and cultural studies, said.

More notably, this is one of the few murals downtown, if not in all of Santa Fe, that features an indigenous woman in the center of the artwork, Guzmán said.

“The fact of the matter is it’s a piece of cultural patrimony and it’s beloved,” Guzmán said. “Demolishing it is a larger issue of erasure and gentrification, as we see it.”

Back in February, local artist Hernan Gomez Chavez placed a sign in front of the mural reading “Do not erase our history. A Nation that forgets its past has no future.”

Gomez Chavez said the irony was clear because the mural is being taken down by a museum that is being created for the appreciation of contemporary art, but it ignores the contemporary importance of this mural. Art should have meaning beyond money and shouldn’t be whitewashed, he said.

For him, the next steps to try and save the mural would be to start a campaign to get the governor on his side, he said.

“We recognize the sentiment and we know that some individuals will not agree with our decision,” Zillmann said. “But the intention of this decision is not to erase culture.”