An Art Lover’s Guide to Santa Fe

Deep in New Mexico lies Santa Fe—one of the most art-centered cities in the United States. From indigenous masterpieces to modern gems, the city is an art-lovers paradise.

Feb 12, 2024By Matt Dursum, BA Geography and GIS Systems
art lover guide santa fe

 

Santa Fe is a small city with around 90,000 people. It’s also one of the oldest cities in the United States, with a rich indigenous, Spanish, and Mexican heritage. Throughout its history, this rugged high-desert city has inspired and attracted local and international artists to its old streets. From the multicolored sunsets to the desert blooms, colonial facades, and clouds of burning mesquite and ponderosa pine, there are infinite inspirations for artists to draw from.

 

Visiting Santa Fe: The Art Capital of the West

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Basilica in Santa Fe. Photo by Nick Castelli. Source: Unsplash

 

Santa Fe boasts over 200 art galleries and almost two dozen world-class museums. Recognizing its unique contributions to art and culture, UNESCO named it the first Creative City in the United States. Magazines like Travel & Leisure and USA Today ranked the city amongst the world’s top destinations for art lovers. And as soon as you arrive, it’s easy to see why.

 

Entire city blocks dedicated to art are radiating out from the Palace of Governors and Santa Fe Plaza. Every day artists set up along the 17th century walkways to sell everything from Native American artisanal crafts to painstakingly detailed portraits. No matter what you’re looking for, you’ll find it here.

 

Standing kitty-corner to the historic Palace of Governors is the celebrated New Mexico Museum of Art. This popular museum sits inside a renovated Puebloan building. The museum’s galleries feature a continuum of 14,000 years’ worth of local art. Starting with the earliest Indigenous Clovis-culture carvings, the galleries take you on a journey through the region’s long history of artistic expression.

 

Museum Hill

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Turquoise Gemstone from the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture’s exhibition Turquoise Water & Sky. Source: Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, Santa Fe.

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Just a few minutes south of the historic downtown lies Museum Hill. Here, you can visit four world-renowned art museums, a folk art market, a botanical garden, and a beautiful cafe, all within walking distance of each other.  Just across the street from the botanical garden is the Museum of International Folk Art. Today magazine called it the ninth-best art museum in the country in 2022. It houses a revolving collection of folk art from around the world, with an emphasis on indigenous cultures of the Americas. Nearby is the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. Inside these institutions, you can experience galleries showcasing the priceless art pieces of Santa Fe’s rich history.

 

Downtown’s Museums

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New Mexico History Museum Entrance. Source: Kirk Gittings

 

Downtown Santa Fe is a treasure trove of museums and galleries that feature some of the state’s most renowned artists. Museums like the New Mexico History Museum feature artworks from the city’s past that span its indigenous origins through its history as part of Spain, Mexico, and the United States. The New Mexico History Museum’s Telling New Mexico exhibit takes you through 500 years of the state’s history through art, photographs, and artifacts.

 

One of the most celebrated artists to call Santa Fe home was Georgia O’Keeffe. The painter spent most of her later career at her ranch an hour north in Abiquiu, aptly named Ghost Ranch. Here, she took the beautiful yet brutal New Mexican landscapes as inspiration and created some of the most influential paintings by an American artist. You can experience her legacy at downtown’s Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. The museum houses hundreds of her oil paintings and drawings, as well as other works and depictions of the artist.

 

Experience Native American Art Like Nowhere Else

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Blackbird by Kevin Red Star, 1966. Source: IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe.

 

Santa Fe’s ties to its indigenous history can be felt throughout the city and in its food, culture, architecture, and, most of all, in its art. One of the most significant contributors and preservers of Native American Art in Santa Fe is the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). This institution, founded in 1962, provides art and cultural education to Native American artists and supports events, workshops, and educational programs that help deepen Native American and Alaskan Native traditions.

 

IAIA runs the award-winning IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) in downtown Santa Fe. This large museum houses and showcases over 10,000 works by contemporary Native American artists such as Linda Lomahaftewa, Tony Abeyta, George Morrison, and many others. The museum showcases works in various types of media, including pottery, textiles, paintings, video, and audio. If you walk through downtown, starting in Santa Fe Plaza, you’ll get the chance to find hand-painted, handwoven, and hand-carved Native American art, much of which is sold by members of the local Native American community.

 

The Wonders of the Santa Fe Railway Arts District

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The Mystery, Part 5, Francis Di Fronzo. Source: Evoke Contemporary

 

Just a short drive or walk southwest of Santa Fe’s historic downtown is its popular Railway Arts District. Throughout the expansive former railway depot are artisanal stores, art galleries, cafes, and other charming small businesses. In the center of the plaza is the famous water tower with the city’s name emblazoned on it, which has become a quintessential Santa Fe landmark.

 

Aside from popular galleries like the city’s newly opened The Art Vault and Evoke Contemporary, there is the world-famous SITE Santa Fe. This modern art gallery opened its doors in 1995 as the country’s first international art biennial. It features some of the most diverse and thought-provoking collections in the city. From avant-garde mobiles to video and audio displays that tackle social and environmental issues, the entire building is a creative space that’s set up to both challenge and inspire you. Thanks to donations and funding, SITE Santa Fe is free for all guests.

 

Throughout the year, Santa Fe Railway Park hosts fun events, art festivals, and concerts that bring local and visiting artists to show their work. The green space is curated with lively works of outdoor art and native flora that make it both charming and beautiful. When there’s nothing going on, the space attracts artists, musicians, and creatives who use the space to create and meet other artists.

 

Canyon Road

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NAMBE by John Nieto. Source: Ventana Fine Art

 

Santa Fe’s outdoor spaces provide an inspiring open canvas for artists. In the southeast corner of the city is the half-mile-long Canyon Road, one of the most charming areas in the city. It features over a hundred art galleries, each with unique collections, many of which are for sale. If you’re a collector looking for a small piece of Santa Fe to bring home, this is the place to be.

 

Walk up and down the tree-lined road and you’ll pass sculptures, art vendors, and several adobe-style buildings, each with unique art stores, galleries, and art workshops. Hidden works of art come alive in manicured gardens along the street. After you finish visiting the galleries, you can stop in one of Canyon Road’s cafes, wine bars, or restaurants. In the parks and gallery spaces, you’ll often find live music and performances, especially on weekends. People come to dance to live music while sipping on local wine and enjoying an endless array of artwork.

 

The All Immersive Psychedelia of Meow Wolf

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Artwork by Mr. Melty / Kevin Vigil. Source: MEOW WOLF, Santa Fe

 

In the southwest outskirts of the city is MEOW Wolf Santa Fe, one of four centers in the United States dedicated to immersive, multi-textured, vivid, and mind-expanding art. Once you step foot into the 20,000-square-foot building, you’re transported into another world where art and storytelling converge into a space that’s like nothing else on Earth.

 

Here, you’ll find the artist’s wildest dreams—and sometimes nightmares—come alive. Santa Fe’s location, known as the House of Eternal Return, opened its doors in 2008 as the country’s flagship MEOW Wolf space. It was started by a local art collective that wished to bring an alternative art space to the city. Since it opened its doors, it’s become a global phenomenon, allowing the team to open MEOW Wolf centers in Denver, Los Vegas, and Grapevine, TX.

 

Inside you’ll find 70 rooms, each containing dazzling interactive exhibits that engulf you and your imagination. At night, the space becomes a music and performance art venue where people can come to experience a visual and sonic treat for their senses. To add to the spaces’ credentials, the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) credited each MEOW Wolf space as a certified Autism Center.

 

An Art Lover’s Journey Outside Santa Fe

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Photo by Maddy Baker. Source: Unsplash

 

The endless deserts outside the city are home to several unique art centers, galleries, and creative spaces that make taking a short drive into the New Mexican countryside well worth it. As you drive into the vast wilderness, you’ll quickly see that artistic expression is ingrained in the entire region’s culture.

 

Take Highway 14 south towards Albuquerque and you’ll find yourself on the famous Turquoise Trail. As you drive, the tranquil desert vistas and colorful arid landscapes will open up to communities that thrive off of art. You’ll pass centuries-old mining towns like Golden, Madrid, and Cerrillos, each with its own galleries, shops, and installations like ORIGAMI INTHE GARDEN, an open sculpture garden in the middle of the desert.

 

For the people and artists who call it home, Santa Fe provides endless inspiration with its endless natural beauty and history. As you venture outside the city into the great unknown of the New Mexican wilderness, you’ll find some kind of art in almost every village, town, or ranch that you pass. Santa Fe is truly a unique destination and a global hotspot for any art-lover.

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By Matt DursumBA Geography and GIS SystemsMatt is a freelance writer and journalist from Michigan who’s currently living in South America. When he’s not writing, Matt is studying languages — so far Japanese, Spanish, Portuguese, and French — visiting museums, surfing, and traveling.