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Folk art director brings global perspective

SANTA FE, N.M. — Shawn McQueen-Ruggeiro believes in banishing borderlines.

When the California native attended the 2012 Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, she was thinking of duplicating it in San Diego.

Justifying the mountain of purchases she took home as holiday gifts, she realized the collection of hand-made items from across the globe were too precious to give away. She also knew bringing this miniature United Nations and all of the market’s complexities to California would be daunting at best.

“I thought, ‘I can’t do it; it’s too big,” she said from the market’s Santa Fe headquarters.

But last September, the Santa Fe travel agent who had arranged her business trips called and told her about a job opening. In December, McQueen-Ruggeiro became the new executive director of the mammoth market on Museum Hill.

Her background in art history and an interest in developing countries, women’s issues and nonprofits finally coalesced into a dream job.

“To have it all culminate here is a real gift,” she said. “Saving traditions and cultures is a big deal to me. It’s the joy of realizing we can really change lives.”

McQueen-Ruggeiro discovered that fire at an early age. She still remembers the impact a Greenpeace film and a family trip to Mexico left on her perception of the world when she was 9 years old.

Just before the journey, her father had shown her a Greenpeace film about the clubbing of harp seals and the slaughter of whaling. A close family friend was the organization’s president.

“I had never seen what it meant to be an advocate,” she said, “what it meant to put myself in harm’s way for a cause greater than me.

When her family crossed the border into Tijuana, a massive rain had flooded the area.

“There were cardboard houses falling over,” she said, the disbelief still registering in her eyes. “I had never seen people picking through the trash.

“That haunted me for probably my whole life,” she explained. “Why do I have access and they don’t have anything? It was an awakening.”

The birth of a passion that would lead her to Santa Fe. Her inquisitiveness would lead her across oceans. In high school, she was an American Field Service exchange student who signed up to travel to South Africa.

“I wanted to know, ‘What’s this apartheid thing about?'”

After the U.S. boycotted the country, her itinerary detoured to New Zealand. It was beautiful and tranquil, but it left her wondering about South Africa for decades.

It was the start of her growing independence and a ferocious curiosity about cultures other than her own.

As a young adult, she was a South Central Los Angeles field representative for the American Red Cross. She worked during and after the Rodney King beatings and subsequent riots.

“The night it was happening and everybody flew out, we drove in,” she said. “I never understood that that area didn’t have a grocery store. We set up shelters for the locals who needed to evacuate their homes.”

Her next position would find be fund-raising for the local hospital.

In 2004, she took a job as development director for Project Concern International, a health and development organization.

“PCI was really where my heart was because it was the developing world – people and women living on the margins.”

The impoverished women she met would become her mentors. At home, she had always resented doing the laundry. Then she flew to Guatemala.

“The women were doing laundry in a muddy pool,” she said. “Their fingers were cracked from the lye soap. They had walked for miles.

“I felt so ashamed of myself,” she continued. “I took a picture of them that hangs in my laundry room. Before we even bother getting up, they’re up getting water and doling out portions of rice for the day.”

She rose to become the executive director of PCI. After eight years on the job, she felt she had reached a glass ceiling. Then she attended the Santa Fe market.

“I was completely overwhelmed,” she said. “It was so much grander than I had envisioned. Some of the booths were so crowded I didn’t see them. I’d never been to a market where the artists were there. The good news is, my husband wasn’t there.”

The early deaths of two friends propelled her forward.

“I wanted to do more,” she said. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to waste one more day.’ ”

When she accepted the position, both her husband Phillip (a bond trader) and their two daughters Josefina, 11, and Gabriella, 13, moved with her.

She’s still climbing the steep learning curve of responsibility to the biggest market of its kind in the world.

“Imagine how these artists feel when all these people come to see them,” she said. “We have volunteers in Albuquerque welcoming them to the U.S. It’s about saying, ‘You really matter. And you have a place in this world.’ People are fighting over their goods; imagine how that changes you.”

She plans no immediate changes to the market itself other than nurturing its continued growth. The market already boasts annual wholesale outreach through the Dallas Market Center. Folk art veterans are selling their work through both Macy’s and Pottery Barn. McQueen-Ruggeiro wants to start an online, ongoing market by the end of the year. That means more artist training in areas such as packing and shipping and quality control.

“They each understand that there’s no bargaining,” she said with a smile. “From certain countries, it’s completely against their nature to have just one price.”

She doubts that a similar event would work anywhere other than Santa Fe, long prepared by both its Spanish and Indian markets.

“Where else are we going to find 1,500 volunteers?” she asked. “Santa Fe is a very unique place.”

Folk art is the second largest income source in the developing world, lagging behind only agriculture. Last fall, the Aspen Institute and the U.S. State Department responded by launching Alliance for Artisan Enterprise, a platform enabling companies, nonprofits, governments and international organizations to collaborate and support artisan enterprise. The director of South Africa’s Department of Art and Culture will be in Santa Fe for the organization’s first meeting.

“I will get to meet them,” McQueen-Ruggeiro said. “I feel like my life is coming full circle.”

She also has some shopping to do. This time, she doesn’t have to travel.

“This year is ceramics,” she said. “Doesn’t a girl always need dishes?”

Launched 10 years ago as a one-time event, today the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market generates $2.4 million in 24 hours, averaging about $1,000 per visitor. Last year, it drew more than 22,000 visitors. Ninety percent of its sales went home with the artists. This year’s market runs July 12-14.