New Mexico has been a cultural crossroads and a fierce battleground for centuries, with its population divided into three main groups, whites of European descent, Spanish-speaking New Mexicans, and American Indians.
The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, which began as a collection more than 80 years ago, has been trying to bridge any gaps between them and it now has its first real home on the outskirts of Santa Fe.
The original intent of its parent organisation, the Spanish Colonial Arts Society, was to foster the preservation of local traditions, first by collecting locally made objects in the 1920s, when the loss of artisanal traditions was feared.
By 1953, the collection (now 2500 objects) had outgrown the homes of society members, and an accord was reached to keep and conserve the works in the Museum of International Folk Art near the present museum's site.
The International Folk Art Museum got access to the collection for exhibitions. A museum of colonial art lacked in its own building because the society lacked the funds.
In 1998, the prospect of an actual museum took shape after an anonymous donor gave the society a house designed by the New Mexican architect John Gaw Meem and a tract of land near the compound of the Museums of New Mexico, State-supported institutions devoted to American Indian culture and folk art.
“We want to be in some way encyclopaedic about Spanish Colonial art and somehow maintain New Mexico as the centre of that universe,” said Stuart Ashmann, the museum's director, a Cuban-American with grandparents from Lithuania.
Mr Ashmann has previously been director of the Museum of Fine Arts of Santa Fe, which shows everything from American Indian pottery to contemporary art. “Some overlap is going to be inevitable,” he says, recognising Santa Fe's abundance of museums already, many of which draw on the heavy tourist traffic there and on the same traditions.
Also in the mix is the National Hispanic Cultural Center of New Mexico some 50 miles away in Alburquerque, with its own new building and a mandate to represent Hispanic activity in the New World from pre-Colombian times to the present.
“I think our strength is going to be in the artistic production of Mexican artists with parallel works from the rest of the Spanish diaspora,"” Mr Ashmann says.
The museum expects to increase its endowment from $1.4 million to $7 million in the next six years. Its operating budget is about $1 million.
Among the things on show are Colonial painting and sculpture, New Mexican metalwork and religious objects, and traditional carvings of such figures as San Isidro, the pious farmer whose devotion was rewarded when God sent angels to pull his plough.
All these works are documented in its inaugural publication, Spanish New Mexico. On site near the galleries is a 700 square feet wooden Mexican house in a style unrelated to New Mexico, a gift transplanted from the Denver Art Museum. Mr Ashmann hopes local artists might add a chapel or an adobe structure to the site, to reflect Spanish influences on indigenous cultures.
Few museums in the US outside New Mexico have focused on Spanish Colonial art, despite the chiaroscuro installation of a Brazilian baroque altar in the Guggenheim's Fifth Avenue rotunda for the exhibition, “Body and Soul”, last spring. According to Donna Pierce, a curator from the Denver Museum of Art who oversees exhibitions at the new museum in Santa Fe, institutions have feared celebrating art that, in this age of political correctness, carries the stigma of the Spanish Conquest. “Much of the art is Catholic religious, so non-Catholics in the US often don't respond really well to it—never mind that Italian Renaissance art is basically the same imagery; somehow there seems to be a disconnection there. So much Spanish Colonial art has been in such poor condition, and has required some major investment in conservation to bring it to its original glory, partly because so much of it was in churches for centuries, and has become dirty with candle soot, so paintings are often quite dark prior to treatment,” she says.
Few museums besides Denver and, now, the Spanish Colonial Art Museum have been willing to make that commitment.
Denver took the initiative in showing Spanish Colonial art thanks to the leadership of Robert Stroessner, a curator of Pre-Colombian and Latin American Art there during the 1980s. A relative of Alfredo Stroessner, the notorious dictator of Paraguay (viewed by many as the embodiment of the Conquest's worst horrors), Mr Stroessner organised shows of Spanish Colonial art in Denver, and mounted a show of similar works at the Epcot Center of Disney World in Florida from 1886 to 1994, suggesting that the public for this art is broader than once imagined.
Ms Pierce, Mr Stroessner's successor at Denver, acknowledges that Santa Fe's new museum has two subjects to address. “The concept then and now is to put the regional art in the context of the bigger picture in which it was created—not to look at the Southwestern art as an isolated, aberrant example, but as the end of a long tradition of Spanish Colonial art.” Unlike the Denver Museum, a creation of the “Anglo” population, the Spanish Colonial Arts Society has always had Spanish- and English-speaking members.
“I hope that the pendulum is swinging toward looking at the other 250 years of the colonial period—the post-Conquest era. It's very rich, culturally, ethnically and artistically in every way. I hope that we can get beyond the difficulties and trauma of the Conquest and look at the rich culture that evolved after that. It's been my hope for 25 years”, she jokes
There are indeed signs which may demonstrate a growing awareness on the part of museums of Spanish-speaking constituencies. The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston presented its first show of Colonial art, “The Grandeur of Viceregal Mexico: Treasures from the Museo Franz Mayer” from March to August last year.
Meanwhile, The Denver Art Museum is planning its own survey of Spanish Colonial painting (sometime in 2004).
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Time to stop being ashamed of those Conquistadores'