SANTA FE — New Mexico’s university art museums are an important forum for bringing together urban and rural communities that otherwise have little contact. Three university museum curators, vertically spanning the state, are determined to bridge cultural chasms through elaborate and generative work with artists and students. Behind the scenes, they toil amidst complex social and economic forces on campus and beyond. Every aspect of their work, from composing wall text to securing funding, is in flux.
Manuela Well-Off-Man, Ph.D., Chief Curator IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA), Santa Fe
“[Students] came from remote communities, and they were exposed to different cultures — other tribes they didn’t even know existed,” says Manuela Well-Off-Man, who recently completed an oral history project engaging early alumni of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), which owns and operates the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA). Her interview subjects graduated in the 1960s and ’70s, when the institution was a freewheeling high school.
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IAIA is now a 60-year-old university with accredited undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Its student body is even more diverse and can be tricky to engage. “Many of [the students] aren’t used to going to museums regularly,” Well-Off-Man says. “It takes a while to build that trust, even though we’re the leading museum in the country when it comes to contemporary Indigenous art.” Part of the problem is the museum’s location in downtown Santa Fe, about 10 miles away from IAIA’s campus.
Well-Off-Man is keenly aware of more profound reasons for the students’ elusiveness. She’s from Germany, and has witnessed European museums consistently maroon Native art in anthropological collections and exhibitions. Her path to MoCNA winds through Montana (where she met her husband, who is Chippewa Cree) and the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art. By the time she arrived in Santa Fe in 2016, she was fed up with the contemporary museum world’s largely cursory approach to Native art.
Well-Off-Man’s role at MoCNA has allowed her to focus on in-depth storytelling, but crafting didactics gets complicated when she factors in the museum’s other key demographic: tourists who often have little knowledge of contemporary Native culture. “There’s this big challenge not to dumb it down, but not to provide so much that it flies over people’s heads,” says Well-Off-Man. “Our mission is to promote and share the most challenging, progressive works of art.”
MoCNA’s recent successes have extended far beyond the museum’s walls. The 2021 group exhibition Action/Abstraction Redefined, which highlights 20th-century Indigenous artists who engaged with modernism, just launched a national tour with a showing at the Cahoon Museum of American Art on Cape Cod.
Currently, Well-Off-Man is preparing for Athena LaTocha: Mesabi (June 10-December 25, 2022), which includes the artist’s new series of poured molten iron abstract wall sculptures that respond to how mining operations change the landscape. And each year, Well-Off-Man works with student curators to produce a BFA exhibition of graduating IAIA students. “There’s so many different styles of art, personalities, stories, and we’re trying to make sense of it in a small gallery,” she says. “I try to teach the students to step back, to be there for the artists and let them speak. ‘Curator as expert’ is not at all what I do, my job is about listening.”
Marisa Sage, Director and Head Curator
New Mexico State University Art Museum (UAM), Las Cruces
“Las Cruces is in a Hispanic-majority region, so we are a Hispanic-serving institution,” says Marisa Sage. New Mexico State University (NMSU) is in the border town of Las Cruces, and the University Art Museum (UAM) holds the largest collection of Mexican retablos in the United States — approximately 4,200 in all, comprising over 60% of UAM’s holdings. The vast majority are unattributed, putting Sage in a peculiar position as director and head curator. “They’re anonymous artists, because it wasn’t about the artists, it was about devotion,” she says.
“A small fraction of the retablo artists are actually identified, so we’re starting to collect contemporary Hispanic and Latinx perspectives that allow us to expand that storytelling. It has to be done.”
Sage revised the museum’s mission statement in 2016 with blind spots like this in mind. Like many museum directors in recent years, she pledged to exhibit and collect significant works by underrepresented artists. The limiting factor was funding, which could boost the museum’s acquisitions and exhibitions budgets, and also allow Sage to hire additional staff to execute her ambitious vision.
Sage and her museum coordinator, Jasmine Herrera, are a full-time staff of two. They run UAM’s new 9,000-square-foot facility, which opened in 2020, and manage a seven-person crew of student workers and other part-time staff. Over the years, Sage has deputized this amateur workforce to help her reshape the institution. “The students are asking the best questions,” she says.
Sage responds to her student workers’ input with concrete action. She has enlisted the current collections manager, MA candidate Courtney Uldrich, to unearth rarely seen works by women artists from the institution’s archives and select new works by Black and Indigenous artists for exhibitions. For the forthcoming show Contemporary Ex-Votos: Devotion Beyond Medium, which commissions contemporary Latinx artists to study NMSU’s retablo collection and create site-specific works reflecting on the past and present significance of the form, guest curator Dr. Emmanuel Ortego of the University of Illinois Chicago is teaching an inter-institutional course with Sage. They’re engaging graduate and undergraduate students from both universities to interview Latinx artists for didactics, social media posts, and video content.
This grassroots-style approach to arts organizing harkens back to Sage’s early career in her home state of New York, when she founded a gallery called Like The Spice in Williamsburg. The commercial space operated from 2006 to 2012, and in that span Sage employed over 70 work-study students and interns.
Although harnessing the collective power of her student workers has been rewarding for Sage, she’s ready to expand UAM’s professional staff. Jockeying for additional funding from NMSU’s administration has been difficult. “We’re working with major galleries like Salon 94 and showing artists like Yoko Ono and Laurie Simmons,” says Sage. “But all of that doesn’t necessarily connect with the administrators in the same way, and agriculture and the sciences are asking for money too.”
Sage and Herrera have spent the COVID-19 pandemic applying for major grants, and it’s starting to pay off: this February, they secured $300,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the museum’s general operations. The money will allow Sage to hire two full-time curators and a part-time preparator. “At a university museum, you’re working within the institution, but you’re always bridging outside of it too,” Sage says.
Mary Statzer, Ph.D., Curator of Prints and Photographs
University of New Mexico Art Museum (UNMAM), Albuquerque
“I’m being informed by the people who are going to use this collection,” says Mary Statzer. Three years ago, Statzer convened a small group of professors and students to help her select artworks for the fledgling University of New Mexico Art Museum (UNMAM) Acquisitions Fund for Diversity and Inclusion. They were considering works by St. Louis photographer Jess T. Dugan, whose solo exhibition To Survive on This Shore was on view at the museum.
“The show was photographs and interviews with trans and gender nonconforming adults,” says Statzer. “I had done this rough cut of about 20 images, and it opened up a conversation about the need for representation of trans families. We chose a very bold photograph of a pregnant trans person.”
Statzer’s philosophy is that UNMAM’s collection of 30,000 objects — the largest fine art collection in New Mexico — belongs to the University of New Mexico (UNM) student body. She approaches that quite literally. “It’s not about my ego, or even my knowledge base, it’s about what is useful and meaningful to them,” Statzer says. Following this mandate can be a tall order, particularly because Statzer is the only curator on the museum’s seven-person staff. Though her area of expertise is prints and photographs — the museum holds the vast archives of Tamarind Institute, UNM’s legendary lithography center — she’s organized exhibitions of different media since arriving here in 2017.
“We have something of an encyclopedic collection so I have to be a generalist, which can be challenging,” says Statzer. She is guided by student and faculty engagement as she carves topical narratives from the mass, turning a rarified profession into something more egalitarian.
“Collaboration is a really strong through line for me,” says Statzer. After earning an MFA in printmaking from Arizona State University, she became a lead collaborating printer at Segura Publishing Company in Tempe,where she worked closely with artists to produce editioned artworks, then went on to be a curatorial assistant at the Phoenix Art Museum.
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Today she’s helping artists realize their ideas in venues that offer greater access, and is inspired by her work at UNMAM, particularly because the museum is sheltered under the university’s umbrella. Statzer says, “We don’t have to cater to tourists in the way other New Mexico museums do. We don’t have to make box office [sales], so while we may have serious restrictions on our budget, we can take big risks.”
For example, the museum is finalizing Fall 2022 dates for the traveling exhibition Art for the Future: Artists Call and Central American Solidarities, which focuses on the seminal 1980s activist campaign Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America, featuring work by luminaries such as Lucy Lippard and Daniel Flores y Ascenscio. And the museum’s new virtual project space will allow artists from around the world to engage with the UNM community. Last fall the initiative launched with a six-week program titled Seminar by sculptor and writer Rose B. Simpson of Santa Clara Pueblo. “Rose opened up, and students shared with her in this equally brave, personal way. It blew my mind,” says Statzer. “Afterwards, students said this was something their coursework didn’t cover. It really fulfilled a need.”
Statzer says pitching projects like this to UNM’s administration can be an uphill battle. “This idea that a curator would put so much time and energy and resources into something that wasn’t an exhibition is sadly kind of a remarkable thing in the museum world,” she says. “Physical exhibitions are always going to be important, but so are these opportunities for engagement that are hopefully really creative and inspiring. What else is a museum for?”