The state Department of Cultural Affairs is losing the public argument over whether artist Gilberto Guzmán’s mural “Multicultural” should remain on the old building where a new modern art museum is planned.
The huge mural, originally installed in 1980 along a wall facing Guadalupe Street, has become the latest cultural flashpoint in Santa Fe.
Cultural Affairs plans a world-class, $12 million contemporary art museum in what’s known as the Halpin Building, with the help of a $4 million donation from Robert and Ellen Vladem. But state officials say the building’s existing piece of modern art – Guzmán’s mural, restored in 1993 – has to go. They say the mural, and the stucco and wall it’s painted on are crumbling, and that “Multicultural,” as an outdoor mural, in any case wasn’t meant to last forever. There’s a reference in the contract under which Guzmán undertook the mural to the outdoor artwork’s “natural life.”
But supporters of saving the mural say its removal would be just the latest case of the erosion of Santa Fe’s traditional, Hispanic culture and another example of gentrification by the well-heeled.
The Journal North has supported the museum’s contemporary design over those who wanted something in the old adobe look. And we have said in the past that, given the condition of the mural and its wall, and the fact that Guzmán’s image has had a good 40-year run, perhaps a new mural somewhere else in the Railyard area was the way to go.
But, in recent months, the value of Guzmán’s big piece of public art has been driven home by protesters and others. Now, Cultural Affairs needs to come up with a response that’s better, or at least more detailed, than saying that saving the mural just can’t be done.
The mural depicts an Indigenous woman spreading her arms across the wall of the building. Other New Mexican and Indigenous elements are incorporated, including a train, a canyon and people of different races coming together.
Irene Vasquez, Chicana and Chicano Studies department chair at UNM, told Journal North’s Isabella Alves that to remove the mural is to diminish how artists reflect aspects of their culture.
“It is confounding to me that there is widespread discussion about the value of the ‘Multicultural’ mural,” she said. “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.”
Ray Hernández-Durán, professor of art history in the Department of Art at UNM, emphasized the importance of murals in Spanish and Indigenous cultures.
“We have been seeing for the past two decades, just the wholesale destruction of Chicano, Latino, murals across the country,” 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 also doesn’t buy the Cultural Affairs Department’s stance that the mural couldn’t be saved or restored. “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.”
Artist Guzmán himself said: “The fact of the matter is it’s a piece of cultural patrimony and it’s beloved. Demolishing it is a larger issue of erasure and gentrification, as we see it.”
Cultural Affairs says the mural would be honored at the new museum with a plaque outside and projection of an image of the mural inside.
The department’s argument against keeping the existing mural intact seems simple. It would be too costly, officials say.
But, at this point, with the mural becoming a symbol of cultural division, state officials should prove that assertion as best they can. How much would a restoration cost? What would have to be given up in the new museum to save Guzmán’s mural for another decade or two?
Daniel Zillmann, director of communications and marketing at Cultural Affairs, says a cost estimate itself would require money and an independent, professional conservator to write the report would have to be found.
“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.”
Caught in the middle of this culture clash are the Vladems, whose big donation for the modern art museum has drawn fire. Yes, no good deed goes unpunished.
Robert Vladem said the decision to remove the mural was made before the donation. Since the 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,” 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.
The mural’s demise seemed all but certain a few weeks ago, and it remains likely. But, now, Guzmán has filed a federal court lawsuit to try to save it.
Regardless of the outcome of the litigation, Cultural Affairs should elaborate on why it believes the mural must be taken down. Removing the mural may be the only way to fix the wall of the old warehouse building, but we need to know about the potential costs and other details, including options for a restoration. The controversy over the mural has attracted national attention. Maybe funds could be raised to save the mural.
The museum project shouldn’t proceed with many in the community left to believe that the state just doesn’t want “Multicultural” to be part of New Mexico’s next landmark museum. Too many people are invested in saving the mural for halfway explanations.