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An amphitheater’s legacy: Abandoned Paolo Soleri serves as inspiration in SITE show

SANTA FE, N.M. — When visitors first enter SITE Santa Fe’s latest biennial dedicated to contemporary art from the Americas, they will see a wall-size photo of the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater with a curved bench placed in front of it.

An interpretive model of the amphitheater made out of micaceous clay by Eliza Naranjo Morse adds a three-dimensional view, while Soleri’s notebook scribblings are on display to give some idea of the process he went through to arrive at the design.

Articles about theatrical pieces staged by the Institute of American Indian Arts students in the amphitheater will be available, along with documents from the Native American Theater Ensemble in New York, whose 16 founding members included seven IAIA graduates.

So what does an abandoned amphitheater in Santa Fe Indian School’s back yard off Cerrillos Road have to do with an art exhibition?

It is one of the main curatorial inspirations for the show, together with El Corno Emplumado/The Plumed Horn, a poetry quarterly based in Mexico City and co-founded by current Albuquerque resident Margaret Randall that published writers with a provocative, revolutionary voice.

The quarterly and the amphitheater provided the basis for discussions and concepts that helped five curators bring together work from 35 artists in 16 countries, together with 11 new commissions for “SITElines.2016: Much Wider Than a Line.” The show is described as focusing on shared experiences through the Americas, including “recognition of colonial legacies, expressions of the vernacular, the influence of indigenous understandings, and our relationship to the land.”

The amphitheater, note Irene Hofmann and Candice Hopkins of the SITE Santa Fe team producing SITElines, in the exhibition catalog, is on property that dates back to 1890 and the Santa Fe Indian School’s mission to assimilate Native American children into the dominant white culture. In contrast, the amphitheater was designed to incorporate Native American traditions, while offering a site to develop contemporary theater and dance programs.

The structure, then, embodies both “collaborative cross-cultural processes” and “the geopolitical tensions” in the Americas.

By incorporating multiple perspectives, the amphitheater also represents “a conceptual space where opposition can be performed and negotiated,” wrote Pablo León de la Barra, one of the five-member curatorial team for the show.

Up close and personal

To Conrad Skinner, a Santa Fe-based architect who helped with the research and design for the opening room of the exhibition, and for many people currently living in Santa Fe, the amphitheater was a place to go hear concerts.

When he first heard that SFIS was considering its demolition, Skinner said he felt some “righteous indignation” that anyone would want to destroy a structure created by the famed Italian architect.

He initially thought of it a little bit as “hippie architecture.”

But then one day he read an article by Bruce King, an Oneida artist, playwright and actor who attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in the ’60s, when it had taken over the SFIS campus, that explained how the space actually was designed as an innovative theater specifically intended to provide a new architectural form derived from Native American traditions, but translated to contemporary needs. In 2010, Skinner worked on a digital imaging project with the Santa Fe Complex, a group that provided a sort of think tank on new technological applications. He spent two days climbing in and around the theater, and developed a deep appreciation for its various levels, passageways and pillars that contributed to the stagecraft for the school’s performances.

Noting that he worked for five years doing design work for the Santa Fe Opera, Skinner said the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater “just blew it away in offering something completely new.”

Skinner said he had a chance to visit Soleri at Arcosanti, his urban laboratory for human habitats in Scottsdale, Ariz., and he asked the architectural master if he drew on the European avant-garde in designing the IAIA amphitheater. “He laughed and said, ‘I gave them an Elizabethan stage,'” Skinner said. “I was dumbfounded.”

But that “Elizabethan stage” included two levels, and was surrounded by pillars, a bridge and underground tunnels that allowed for various entrances, exits and locations for the action, while a hill behind the amphitheater gave the option either of locating theatrical action or a viewing audience there.

Skinner, who is hoping to write a book about the structure and its creation, has explored archives both at Arcosanti and IAIA, tracing the evolution of the plan and learning about Native American iconography included in the structure.

Roland Meinholtz, IAIA drama department head at the time, and Rosalie Jones, dancer and choreographer, researched contemporary and historical ceremonial sites from Southwest, Plains and Northwest Indian cultures, and “abstracted them as ideas for forms of theater,” Skinner said, adding that IAIA wanted to “invent contemporary Indian theater.”

Soleri listened to their ideas, their needs and their research, and created his own interpretation, with ongoing back-and-forth throughout the design process.

“He didn’t just take a theater and put Indian gee-gaws on it,” Skinner said. “They thought they were making something that was part of architectural history … . They were consciously inventing a Native American building type.”

Bad blood

So why isn’t there more action to save it?

The answer might stem from bad blood between IAIA and SFIS, he said.

SFIS, made up mainly of Pueblo and other New Mexico tribes, occupied the site on Cerrillos Road for many years before the IAIA elbowed it out in the ’60s, with its students ending up in other locations, such as the Albuquerque Indian School. IAIA, meanwhile, took a different educational approach, bringing in students from tribes across the country and teaching a style of art that veered from the traditional, tribal-specific approach honored by SFIS.

With the help of Congress, though, SFIS was able to re-establish itself at the site in 1980, while IAIA moved to what was then the College of Santa Fe campus before moving to its current site south of Santa Fe, where it now offers a college curriculum.

Without a theater program of its own to use the amphitheater regularly, Pueblo officials overseeing SFIS used it for poetry readings and graduation ceremonies, then decided to rent it out for concerts, but then shut it down to save on maintenance costs and avoid the disruptions caused by concert-goers.

Intervention at the time by then-Rep. Tom Udall and Sen. Jeff Bingaman prevented the theater’s demolition, but did nothing to put it to use, Skinner wrote in the exhibition’s catalogue notes.

“It now stands unused, forgotten, mothballed in chain-link, its concrete slowly spalling away in New Mexico’s mercurial climate.”