Roswell has a history more vast than just UFOs

Roswell is home to an arts and cultural history beyond any supposed crash landings

Housed in the 100-plus-year-old James Phelps White family home, the Historical Center for Southwest New Mexico in Roswell features period pieces and architecture from a century ago. (Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southwest New Mexico)

When folks think of Roswell, one thing pops to mind.

The city in the hard-scrabble, southeastern New Mexico desert, has pretty much been known as a leading UFO center since the famous – or infamous, depending on who’s doing the talking – 1947 incident just outside of town.

So it might come as a quite a surprise that Roswell has quite the arts and cultural history, beyond any supposed alien crash landings.

The Roswell Museumk, dating 1937, counts some 9,000 works in its collection, executive director Caroline Brooks said.

It owes its original development to a Depression-era Works Progress Administration program and was initially a federally-funded site. It has now grown into a 50,000-square-foot facility with 12 galleries and a planetarium that was once the state’s largest.

It remained a small endeavor until 1947 when an anonymous donor worked with regional noted artist Peter Hurd to donate paintings and lithographs.

“That really bolstered the collected and got the community’s interest,” Brooks said.

The collection was further boosted by works from Georgia O’Keeffe and Henriette Wyeth.

The Roswell Museum contains an eclectic mix including many works from Peter Hurd, as well as examples from Georgia O’Keeffe and Henriette Wyeth, in addition to a wing dedicated to an extensive exhibit featuring Robert H. Goddard. (Courtesy of the Roswell Museum)

Later on, Robert Goddard’s widow began donating items from his career, and eventually a wing unto itself was needed to house the many items acknowledging his important work in American rocketry development, including a re-creation of his workshop.

“It’s kind of a dear collection … close to our hearts,” Brooks said.

The museum also houses the Aston Galleries, which cover life in the southwest and the convergence of the Native American, Spanish colonialism and Anglo expansion eras, with pieces ranging from a suit of armor from the 1500s to artwork from the 1950s.

The local art scene has been further enhanced by an artist-in-residency program that began in 1967. Six artists are given year-long stipends to live and work in Roswell, rotating two-month shows at the museum.

Known as RAIR for Roswell Artist-In-Residence, the selected artists live and work at a compound that includes the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art, where examples of their work are on display permanently, said director Nancy Fleming.

The Anderson Museum, founded by local oil man and long-time painter Donald B. Anderson, includes examples from the more than 260 RAIR members with some 500 pieces of all mediums spread across with 12 galleries.

“It includes an amazing survey of the last 54 years of contemporary art,” Fleming said. “Realistic to abstract. The artists come from all over the world, so it’s definitely eclectic. Narrative to unexplained. The work is hung salon style, but very harmonized.”

Although it is rare that the artists become big names, the work is still amazing, she said.

“For the most part, these artists are not household names, which is nice,” Fleming said. “It’s not a museum. You’re not going to go through and check off a list. But we have this high quality. People are just amazed that artists of this caliber are out there. They work tirelessly, but they also have day jobs. This residency is a year-long break from obligations. They get a stipend so they don’t have to work and they can follow their own vision.”

The Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art in Roswell houses examples of artwork from the more than 260 artists who have participated in the city’s artist in residency program. (Courtesy of the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art)

When it comes to eclectic, the fledgling Miniatures and Curious Museum, which Fleming also directs, has sprung up in the last several years to highlight the small – from dollhouses to pottery to furniture.

“My partner, Elaine Howe, she and I ended up with some miniatures that their makers had died, these miniatures didn’t have a place to go,” Fleming said. “Now, 4½ years later, we have this great old, iconic stationary and furniture store near downtown Roswell. We have rotating themed shows. We just finished a bird show that was awesome. It had craft folk art, birds in cages, birds in cabinets.”

The Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico, that is open by appointment, is located in the James Phelps White family home and is a throwback to the early 1900s. Completed in 1912, it is filled with period furniture pieces, said Amy McVay Tellez, executive director.

It has one of the first indoors commodes in Roswell. It was also wired for both gas and electricity, so the lighting is a mix of original candelabras and electric lighting. The home itself is mimics Frank Lloyd Wright architecture and it includes original stained glass, she said

“I do believe with all my heart that we are a hidden treasure,” Tellez said.

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