A new Indian market will challenge the old in Santa Fe
Late in March, John Torres Nez resigned from his position as chief operating officer of the Southwest Association of Indian Arts, the powerful not-for-profit that presents the annual Santa Fe (N.M.) Indian Market.
To an outsider, his resignation might seem like a small thing, just one of the transitions that occur in organizations. But it led to a cultural revolution among Native artists and the birth of a new market designed to showcase their more cutting-edge efforts.
News of the resignation spread quickly among Native artists in the Four Corners region. “It seemed abrupt,” said Ed Singer, Diné, a resident of Cortez, Colo., and a 2014 Artist in Residence at Mesa Verde. “The news was all over my Facebook within hours, and the Native conversations about the stability of Indian Market were intense, mostly focused on the money we had already paid to apply for admission, the risk we would be taking on behalf of Indian Market without John’s leadership.”
Venaya Yazzie, Diné, who just completed an artist’s residency at Mesa Verde, said she had worked with Torres Nez and appreciated him. “I did the SWAIA market show in 2008 and really enjoyed it, loved the support Mr. Nez gave. He was good on pushing the younger artists to shine. Great advice came from his mouth. The work he did on a person-to-person level was a good way of creating community.”
An expensive admission
Taking part in the Indian Market – scheduled for Aug. 23-24 this year – is a big gamble for most artists. Singer served as an SWAIA awards juror in the late ’70s, showed once in the market in the ’80s, and has had many shows in Santa Fe galleries during the market over the years. Even as an experienced pro, he knew there were no guarantees when he applied and paid his fees. When he learned that he was admitted to the 2014 market exhibit, Singer looked forward to showing with friends in August. “It was such a jolt to watch this story unfold, such as disappointment in SWAIA again.”
The association’s market accepts 1,100 Native artists to the exhibition tents on Santa Fe’s famed central plaza for the two-day market. They are expected to donate art to the association’s gala fundraiser and enter their art work in competitions.
This year, booth fees escalated from $470 in 2013 to $620 for a 5-by-10-foot tent in the plaza. That cost and the additional city license fee and application fees on the front end, plus food, lodging, transportation and shipping expenses can total $1,500 to $4,000 per artist for the show.
Santa Fe swells during the Indian Market. Tourists, buyers, collectors, gallery owners and museum curators join the artists and their families. Attendance can top 150,000. The audience is wealthy, largely white and older, people with income to spend on Native art work. Factoring in lodging and restaurant income, other services, and gallery sales outside the market, it is estimated that $1.5 million changes hands during the event.
SWAIA waited two days before it officially announced Torres Nez’s resignation. It briefly thanked him, wished him “the best in all his new endeavors,” and added that “SWAIA supports all our artists near and far, and as we continue to plan for a terrific Santa Fe Indian Market in 2014, we appreciate more than ever the continued support of all our artists, members and sponsors.”
But the resignation triggered a social-media firestorm demanding explanations and Nez’s reinstatement. Instead, the association announced a new website designed to answer any questions about SWAIA and the 93rd Santa Fe Indian Market. The site stated that all was well and the search was under way for an interim director.
Successful Indian Market artists produce work that fits traditional expectations, while trending, contemporary artists allege their work is marginalized. Turquoise jewelry sells well; concho belts, beaded bags, paintings of Southwest canyons, portraits of cowboys and stoic Indians.
Monty Singer, an award-winning pastel artist and the son of Ed Singer, returned to Cortez in April to meet with area artists, and his father, about the SWAIA situation. The younger Singer’s subject matter challenges the traditional imagery. After he showed in 2009 and 2010, he left, vowing to never do it again because it was obvious “that I was going to be treated like an outsider by the SWAIA establishment.”
“When John took over as director, he convinced me to come back because he said he was going to change things,” Monty Singer said. “I believed him and I started to see that change and came back to market in 2013. When I heard the news I was stunned. Devastated. He was the only ally I had there. I’ve never felt welcomed by SWAIA from the first time I was there.”
According to the elder Singer, “It’s a tent city set up to display itinerant Indian vendors. SWAIA promotes that status by awarding coveted prizes to stereotypical artwork and increasing booth and miscellaneous fees at the expense of artist support and sales.”
Part of the recent fiscal challenges facing Torres Nez at SWAIA stemmed from a line-item veto by Gov. Susana Martinez of $25,000 earmarked for Indian Market advertising. News of this loss came only a few weeks prior to his resignation.
Following that, the association’s website announced a furlough to a four-day week, loss of benefits to the staff and a 20 percent cut in pay to balance the budget in the leanest part of the year until they could secure a line of credit with a bank.
An on-line petition in support of Torres Nez circulated among Southwest Native artists, describing a lingering conflict between the structure of the board and its operating by-laws and representation of the Native artists it serves. It also alleged that a prickly working relationship between Torres Nez and the chief development officer contributed to the resignation.
“The SWAIA board culture has been unstable for years,” the petition states. “There have been seven directors in the 15 years prior to 2007, when Bruce Bernstein was made director. He hired John as director of artist services and as deputy director, and they instituted many positive changes. That positivity continued to evolve under John’s leadership in 2012. So what does that say about the SWAIA Board to let its most promising Chief Operating Officer, who rose within the organization, resign after 18 months?”
Diné silversmith Nanibaa Beck, the petition’s author, told the Free Press, “It did not make sense to me when I saw John’s resignation letter. I knew from my own experience as an intern there how efficiently the staff worked. I was shocked, confused.”
Beck circulated the petition after talking with friends who knew Torres Nez. Five hundred people signed within days.
Hip-hop and turquoise
In early April two more key personnel resigned from the SWAIA staff: marketing director Tailinh Agoyo, Narragansett / Blackfeet, marketing director, and artist services manager Paula Rivera, Taos Pueblo.
The stability of the 93rd Santa Fe Indian Market was coming under scrutiny at the same time 1,100 artists received their juried acceptance letters to this year’s market. The mood among the artists varied from sorrow at the loss of Torres Nez’s leadership to anger at the association’s board and fear of financial loss if the market folded. A good dose of paranoia surfaced as well, as artists feared jeopardizing their future relationship with SWAIA by speaking out for change.
Torres Nez, Diné, from Hana’dli (Huerfano) Chapter near Farmington, N.M., was the curator for the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture before accepting positions at SWAIA under then-director Bernstein in 2007. He has also worked as an environmental project manager and Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act coordinator for the U.S. Air Force, and as a director of the Navajo Nation Archaeology Department. He holds a master’s in anthropology, a doctorate in ethnic studies. His association with SWAIA over the past seven years provided him with experience at one of the largest and longest-running art markets in North America.
His resignation letter stated he had “chosen to leave an organization he loves.” Media said the association board was surprised by the resignation and did not ask him back or address the issues causing his resignation. That measured response threw open the door for the possibility of competition. Artists began to consider founding a new market “for the people, by the people.”
It was time, said Monty Singer, at a meeting in Cortez. “SWAIA, and Santa Fe in general, lost its original message and thus lost its potential as a force for social change. It is a business. Ultimately, it favors what sells. “Well, universal truth is not measured in mass appeal. And truth in the Native American experience expressed in art lost out to an industry more concerned with selling pretty images of Native American iconography that matches the Italian silk sofas of the ruling aristocracy.”
Disenfranchised artists talked about founding a new market more fit for modern Native culture. Torres Nez was planning to find another job when the group came to him for advice and help.
“What happened seemed so natural,” said Torres Nez in a telephone interview with the Free Press. “I was considering going back to the museum, and other options, but by then a couple of dozen artists from all over the Southwest came to me. Their energy was positive and they wanted a new market that was much more about art and Native people in the 21st century. Yes, we listen to Iron Maiden and hip-hop and, yes, we make turquoise jewelry and beadwork. We are both.”
With Torres Nez at the helm, the group sought to define a new, progressive identity – and the Indigenous Fine Art Market, IFAM, was born. It launched April 27, just four weeks after his resignation. It will be held in Santa Fe at the Railyard during the same week as the SWAIA Market, but it begins one day earlier, Thursday through Saturday, Aug. 21-23.
Even though artists sparred over the merits of each market, debating which was the best fit and best financial bet for their work, the IFAM Facebook page “likes” soared to 1,000 a week, and 12 percent of accepted 2014 SWAIA Indian Art Market artists soon joined the fledgling group.
For the artists and their families it is a critical economic and career decision. For some it also sparked cultural discourse. Beck remembers a 2013 Torres Nez interview with Indian Country Today when he said that for indigenous people, “the concept of selling is modern; sharing is ancient. But we are both today and the IFAM market represents that consciousness,” she said.
“Like other grassroots movements against old kleptocratic power structures, IFAM is a movement whose time has come, like Arab Spring,” explained the younger Singer. “Well, get ready for Indian Summer.”
IFAM comes from a balanced energy, said Torres Nez. “The energy came from the artists. It is about what the artists see and want and what they know they are capable of accomplishing. I listened and knew I had an obligation to them. That includes envisioning an expanding future for IFAM, possibly IFAM in the northwest; IFAM in Tokyo.”
Yazzie believes Torres Nez is practicing a type of decolonization. He didn’t agree with how he was being treated by SWAIA, so he forged his own path. “It’s a brilliant step, really,”
Yazzie said, “and that he supported the art people is even stronger. He is perpetuating the Diné way of nataani. The Navajo man in the 21st century must find ways to be a survivor in our society. It gives them meaning. IFAM is very inspirational.”
According to Agoyo, the IFAM model is an opportunity for artists everywhere to move out from under oppressive organizations and stereotypes. “We are presenting a market that’s accountable to the artists. We know the greater good. We know what global diversity we represent.”
The new market is now a reality. Torres Nez was installed as president by a vote of the membership. Agoyo is director of marketing and creative services, while Rivera accepted the position of director of program operations to complete the IFAM staff. The event will take place at the Railyard, a hip location surrounded by the Railyard Art District, within walking distance of the SWAIA market.
Sponsorship and the artist-based membership numbers at IFAM grow daily. Santa Fe locals have dubbed IFAM “the cool market.”
Meanwhile, the SWAIA board has moved forward, appointing Dallin Maybee, Northern Arapaho/Seneca, as interim chief operations officer. Both organizations are working toward a successful experience for artists and patrons this year although they will compete during the same week this summer.
Yanua Morgan, Diné, a potter from Ismay/ Cahone Mesa, is positive.
“Art is like air. People need it, but artists and markets need competition,” Morgan said. “If there is only one market the artists and organization get stuck in their ways. IFAM broadens the chance for everyone and will improve both markets, the success of more artists. I have been on a brief respite from my pottery-making, but the young people’s achievement with this concept, and the reduced booth fees, is exhilarating. Now, I’m on my way back to market next year.”