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Arte Hispanico


September 20, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE WALL STREET JOURNAL. All rights reserved. 

Santa Fe, N.M. -- While about half of this city's population is Hispanic, and many residents proudly trace their heritage to 16th- and 17th-century Spanish colonists, the new Museum of Spanish Colonial Art owes its genesis to two Anglo Easterners who came here in the 1920s.

The writer Mary Austin and the artist Frank Applegate, enchanted by the religious wood carvings, fine textiles, furniture, tinwork and other crafts made by people of Hispanic ancestry, were concerned that those arts were waning and historic examples disappearing. They formed the Spanish Colonial Art Society to save them -- and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

For more than seven decades, the society has purchased historic and contemporary Spanish-colonial artworks and sponsored markets and competitions among living artists, fostering what has grown into a vibrant commercial market for traditional Spanish-colonial arts. Some 300 artists in New Mexico alone continue to make art like their ancestors did, and the price of a fine carved-and-painted wooden saint made by a leading contemporary artist can reach five figures. Many of the artists participate in the Art Society's annual Spanish Market, which drew about 70,000 colonial-art aficionados to Santa Fe's plaza earlier this summer.

And now the society has opened the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art in a newly restored and expanded historic adobe home to display its collection of 3,000 objects -- mainly from New Mexico, but including many fine examples from Mexico, Spain, the Philippines and other outposts of the former Spanish empire.

Baroque Influences

While the Spanish-colonial period stretches from 1492 to the independence of its various territories, its artistic influence lives on around the world. Though Spanish-colonial artworks are in the collections of many major museums, the Santa Fe museum is uniquely focused on illustrating the cultural connections among people of Spanish descent, showing, for example, how Baroque influences in style and artistic method traveled first from Spain to Mexico and then to New Mexico, as evidenced by florid garments depicted on a 19th-century carving of a saint.

A hallmark of Spanish-colonial art , old and new, is its Catholic iconography. Half of the new museum's collection comprises religious objects: crosses, crucifixes, saints, reliquaries, rosaries and the like. Most of the historic religious works initially were made for the village church or a home altar. The collection also includes furniture, clothing, tools, textiles, jewelry and other objects.

As might be expected, the Spanish Colonial Art Society has been closely, though not officially, linked to the church since it began. The society's first purchase, in 1928, was a 19th-century carved-and-painted wooden altar screen depicting eight saints. Its second purchase was a private adobe chapel in Chimayo, a village north of here. Society members deeded the church to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, and thousands of the devout still make an annual Holy Week pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayo. And during the Spanish Market each summer, many artists take their artworks to be blessed at a special Mass celebrated by Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan at the nearby St. Francis Cathedral. Archbishop Sheehan also sits on the museum's advisory board.

Virgin of Guadalupe

"Obviously the stewardship of this material includes a kind of reverence that mandates some, if a loose, connection to the church," says the museum's director, Stuart Ashman. The Museum of Spanish Colonial Art is unlikely ever to butt heads with the church the way its neighbor, the state-owned Museum of International Folk Art , did last year. An exhibit at the folk-art museum that included a contemporary digital rendering of the Virgin of Guadalupe wearing only scant garlands of roses incensed the archbishop and conservative Catholics and prompted an international protest. "I clearly saw both sides of that issue," Mr. Ashman offered diplomatically.

Close links to the church don't bother museum supporters or Spanish-colonial collectors, many of whom are not Roman Catholic. Among leading collectors of Spanish-colonial artwork are several Jewish families; the late department-store magnate Stanley Marcus and his wife Linda at one time amassed a significant holding.

"There are some people who object to religious images being in the possession of people who appreciate them only aesthetically and not religiously," said curator Donna Pierce. "It's a challenge for us as a museum to always exhibit this material in a culturally sensitive way -- sensitive to the original reason for its creation, as well as to the people who see these as spiritual objects." And this approach must be delicately balanced with the goal of exhibiting religious material in a way that's acceptable to the nonbeliever, she said.

"All artifacts that are at some point endowed with a spiritual significance elicit different reactions from different peoples. There is a saying in Spanish: 'Cada persona tiene sus propios ojos' -- every person has his own eyes."

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