Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
The fight to preserve the “Multicultural” mural by Gilberto Guzman is not over.
The mural was set to be retired by the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs in preparation for the new Vladem Contemporary Art Museum, but the mural’s future isn’t dead yet.
Guzman recently filed a federal lawsuit over his mural’s preservation, claiming the department breached his artist’s contract and the Visual Artists Rights Act. His attorney, Penelope Quintero, did not return requests for comment.
Daniel Zillmann, director of communications and marketing for the Department of Cultural Affairs, previously told the Journal that the department doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
The litigation in federal court is still awaiting a formal hearing. Federal Judge Kea W. Riggs has already ruled that Guzman needs to formally serve the lawsuit’s defendants before requesting a temporary restraining order on the mural.
Now, the department has filed motions to dismiss the case due to lack of cause, claiming the issues raised in the lawsuit were moot because the Visual Artists Rights Act applies only to art created after June 1, 1991. Guzman first painted his mural in 1980 and it was restored in 1993.
In addition, one of the claims in the contract is over the mural’s “natural life,” which has been the subject of debate. The department says the 40-year-old mural’s natural life has passed, citing the lack of recent restoration and the building’s crumbling wall.
The department plans to pay homage to the mural at the new Vladem museum. The mural will be commemorated with a plaque on the wall where it used to be and will be digitally recreated in the lobby of the museum.
“Multicultural” depicts an Indigenous woman spreading her arms across the wall of the old Haplin Building, which is being remodeled to become the Vladem art museum. The mural also features other New Mexican elements, such as a train, a canyon and people from different races coming together.
State Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, had about $53,000 earmarked for the mural’s restoration during the 2018 legislative session.
Ortiz y Pino grew up in Santa Fe and said he knew Guzman in the 1970s when he was part of an activist group in town. He recalled meeting Guzman and seeing the murals the group had created around town.
Ortiz y Pino said he was approached by someone who knew Guzman and asked for funding. They reminded him he once knew Guzman and he was willing to help.
However, he said the Cultural Affairs Department later told him they didn’t think the mural could be restored because the wall was coming down as part of the remodeling.
“I thought it had been resolved. I thought they had accepted the reality of the fact that the mural, as it exists now, couldn’t be restored there and the building was still being constructed,” Ortiz y Pino said. “I don’t think the efforts to preserve the mural should block the museum’s plan.”
He said he thought the museum’s plan to digitize and recreate the mural was a pretty good idea. When push comes to shove, he said, this seems to be a battle about something other than the mural.
“I’m not in Santa Fe anymore; I left because I thought the culture war had been lost back in the ’70s,” he said. “I just don’t see much in the way of the Santa Fe that I knew growing up left in town … I’m afraid the changes are irreplaceable.”
Ortiz y Pino said he admires from afar the people fighting against those changes, but he doesn’t think they’re going to win. There’s a fight to hang on to the Hispanic traditions of Santa Fe, but the city seems less and less interested in doing so, he said.
“(It’s) an ongoing, but losing, battle to hang on to a romanticized image of what New Mexico was like,” he said.
Taylor Spence, postdoctoral teaching fellow in the history department at the University of New Mexico, said the cultural shift in Santa Fe is likely due to Santa Fe becoming richer and whiter over the years. Spence has painted murals himself. In addition to his doctoral degree in history, he has a master of fine arts degree in painting.
“I think it’s disturbing that an elite institution that frankly is probably largely funded by white, wealthy, privileged people seems so willing to just get rid of a piece of art like this with impunity,” he said.
Community art practices are looked down on by established art world figures, with the view that they’re not painted by “real professional artists.” He said it begs the question of what fine art is. The market underlying it? The fact that it’s in a museum?
“A public mural like Mr. Guzman’s, which is painted on the side of the building that will be degraded by the elements, contradicts all of those things,” he said. “It undermines the questions of value, the questions of fineness.”
Spence recently painted a mural in the University of New Mexico’s Information Technology building. His mural was inspired by the Pueblo Revolt.
It isn’t part of the outdoor tradition, he said. He is a fresco painter who values permanence. He painted his mural to be there forever and his artist’s contract for the mural, which took a year to negotiate, reflects that.
The mural took five months to paint, he said.
Guzman’s contract is a big part of the story. The problem with these contracts is someone has to enforce them, Spence said, and that costs money.
In Guzman’s contract, it uses the term “natural life,” which makes it more difficult to determine how long the mural is supposed to last.
“You’re just asking for trouble,” Spence said. “Because defining the natural life of an outdoor mural in New Mexico is quite a complicated question. It all depends on how much political will there is to refresh the mural and maintain it.”
Ray Hernández-Durán, professor of art history in the Department of Art at UNM, said the presence and history of murals in New Mexico has been a major topic of discussion lately.
The history of muralism goes back thousands of years to the ancient world, and it existed in the Americas in Indigenous communities, he said. The combination of Indigenous and European painting practices with the arrival of the Spanish created new, original forms of art in New Mexico, he said.
In New Mexico, mural art first arose in the churches to facilitate worship, rituals and instruction, he said.
Chicano murals, such as Guzman’s, typically reflect the community, its history and cultural traditions, Hernández-Durán said. Because the murals reflect life experience in the community, in a way, it belongs to everyone, he said.
“I think this is where one of the problems with the destruction of this kind of mural surfaces,” he said. “We have been seeing for the past two decades, just the wholesale destruction of Chicano, Latino, murals across the country.”
When murals are erased, the art isn’t just being destroyed. The memory and significance of the local community gets destroyed along with it, he said.
“When you touch it, or destroy it, there’s like a larger kind of comment being made here that has to do with the lack of representation of certain voices, the lack of inclusion of certain voices, the erasure of certain communities’ histories (and) the marginalization of certain communities,” he said.
Hernández-Durán said he doesn’t buy the Cultural Affairs Department’s stance that the mural couldn’t be saved or restored. There have been more ancient murals than this one that have been saved.
The idea of digitizing the mural also ignores the significance of this kind of work of art, he said. The power of this art is precisely in its form, he said. By having the mural in its prominent location, it also expresses and reinforces that community’s presence.
“I and my colleagues, who are trained art historians, were laughing at this. It’s preposterous,” he said. “If they can save (Leonardo) da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” a 500-year-old mural that was flakes on the floor … there’s just no way that this mural cannot be saved.”
Irene Vasquez, Chicana and Chicano Studies department chair at UNM, said that to remove the “Multicultural” mural is to diminish how artists reflect aspects of their culture and communities they find beautiful.
This fight to preserve the mural is reflective of the erasure of local Hispanic people from public arts and museums, she said, and the struggle is as real today as it was in the 1970s.
“It is confounding to me that there is widespread discussion about the value of the ‘Multicultural’ mural,” she said via email. “The move to take the mural down, regardless of how it is being couched, asserts a value judgment (that) it is not important within the context of development efforts in Sante Fe.”
Supporters of the mural feel overshadowed and overlooked in the decision-making process. The value of the mural is also being determined by the people who have the power and resources to make it go away, she said.
New mural planned
Despite the uncertain future for Guzman’s mural, there might still be a multicultural mural in Santa Fe – just by a different artist and at a different location.
The city of Santa Fe recently announced it is looking for an artist to paint a multicultural mural at the city’s Community Convention Center. The city has an all-inclusive budget of $50,000 for the mural, which would be located under the portal of the community gallery off Marcy Street.
Pauline Kanako Kamiyama, director of the arts and culture department at the city, said the city is reserving two finalist spots for Black, Indigenous and people of color, or people from traditionally underserved communities within the city.
The mural’s goal is to “activate and celebrate the people of Santa Fe,” according to the city. The application described the history of Santa Fe, from the Native Tewa communities to the Spanish occupation.
Kanako Kamiyama said the city is defining culture very broadly for this mural, which she said she thinks is a good idea.
“Murals are capturing our history at a certain point of time. It’s storytelling,” she said, adding that all public art has a story to tell and sometimes there are multiple stories,” she said.
While the new mural is intended to reflect Santa Fe’s multiculturalism, Kanako Kamiyama said it doesn’t have anything to do with Guzman’s mural.
Applications for artists interested in taking on the project are due by the end of business April 22. The hope is to have the mural completed by September.