Discovering Native American Culture in Santa Fe’s Museums

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When arriving in Santa Fe, visitors who wish to experience Native American culture often ask, where do I begin? The exploration of greater Santa Fe’s rich cultural landscape and history might at first seem like an overwhelming endeavor, with such a wide range of exemplary choices, but that’s the good news!  As the third largest art market in the country, Santa Fe is chock-full of fine art galleries, shops, and cultural institutions that offer magnificent displays of the region’s art and culture and endless opportunities for learning and discovery.

 

Running Rabbit, Kevin Red Star, 1978, Collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art
Running Rabbit, Kevin Red Star, 1978, Collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art

A great way to get started is with a self-paced tour of Santa Fe’s world-class museums that house an outstanding array of art and artifacts, both in permanent collections and rotating exhibitions. Every museum in Santa Fe is visitor-friendly, with docent tours, lectures, storytelling and other year-round programming, some of which is tied to annual cultural celebrations and holidays.

I-Witness Culture – Eagle Dancer, Frank Buffalo Hyde, 2016, Museum of Indian Art and Culture
I-Witness Culture – Eagle Dancer, Frank Buffalo Hyde, 2016, Museum of Indian Art and Culture

The New Mexico Museum system offers a wide variety of choices throughout the state. In Santa Fe, we recommend visiting  the New Mexico Museum of Art, built in 1917, that features traditional, modern and contemporary art of the Southwest; the pristine New Mexico History Museum, a modern 30,000 square-foot complex, that tells the history of the region and offers first-rate special exhibitions, and; The Palace of the Governors, built in 1610, as the seat of the local government.

Portrait of Dieguito Roybal, San Ildefonso Pueblo, 1916, Robert Henri (1865–1929), New Mexico Museum of Art
Portrait of Dieguito Roybal, San Ildefonso Pueblo, 1916, Robert Henri (1865–1929), New Mexico Museum of Art

 

As the longest continuously occupied building in the United States, it remains one of Santa Fe’s biggest attractions, and features an outdoor area under the famous “Portal,” a cornerstone of the Plaza, where Native American artists sell authentic hand-made jewelry.

Starting with these museums is a wonderful plan for stepping into the enchanting cultural tapestry at the heart of historic Santa Fe. You also can take a break in-between museum visits, and enjoy lunch, specialty snacks, or drinks at the many eateries, outdoor cafes and food vendors. Locals and tourists alike love to people-watch, while enjoying take-out on the Plaza or dining at rooftop restaurant.

One walkable block away from the Plaza, across from the The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, you will find a world of cutting-edge art at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA), which is an arm of the world-famous Institute of American Indian Arts, a school from which countless gifted artists have emerged over the years, creating a legacy beyond compare.  From a sculpture garden to student and special exhibitions, as well as artist demonstrations and interactive displays, immerse yourself in some of the most progressive and thought-provoking Native American art in the country.

A short drive from downtown up the Santa Fe Trail to Museum Hill will bring you to a gorgeous vista with a mountain view and a campus of museums, including the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture (MIAC),  Laboratory of Anthropology and the Wheelright Museum of the American Indian.  Both offer a wealth of knowledge, art, and cultural history, particularly of Native Americans of the Southwest.

Raven's New Purse, Jonathan Thunder, 2016, MoCNA
Raven’s New Purse, Jonathan Thunder, 2016, MoCNA

For those in the mood to shop, it should be mentioned that all of the above museums offer expertly curated gift shops, filled to the brim with jewelry, textiles, pottery, art prints, books, novelty items and more. These are absolutely marvelous stores to browse for a memento for yourself or for your friends and family at home, as part of your museum tour.

Butterfly Dancers, Sakahaftewa Ishii, 1981, MoCNA
Butterfly Dancers, Sakahaftewa Ishii, 1981, MoCNA

 

Santa Fe also boasts of two more “best kept secrets” that we want to share with you — the exceptional museum-quality art collections at the New Mexico Capitol, and at the School for Advanced Research (SAR), a distinguished art, archaeology and anthropology center.

Displayed throughout the “Roundhouse” state capitol building, where lawmakers hold their annual legislative session, over 600 pieces of fine art, including breathtaking large scale Native American works, make up the New Mexico Capitol Art Collection. This is open to the public and informative tours are available.

 

Cui Bono?, Taos Pueblo Man, 1911, Gerald Cassidy (1869–1934), New Mexico Museum of Art
Cui Bono?, Taos Pueblo Man, 1911, Gerald Cassidy (1869–1934), New Mexico Museum of Art

At SAR, the one-of-a-kind Indian Arts Research Center’s Southwest Indian art collection is considered to be one of the most significant in world, and the storage vaults are a true treasure of Santa Fe.

Visitors can get a free guided tour by a Native American art expert every Friday at 2 p.m. This is an exceptional opportunity to see extraordinary works of pottery, textiles, paintings, and other cultural items, carefully preserved and organized by tribe and time period.

Your journey has just begun, but you are well on your way to understanding why Santa Fe is known to be one of the most vibrant and prolific Native arts communities in the world.

There is so much Native culture to see and experience during your stay in The City Different. Start planning your trip to Santa Fe by ordering the 2017 Santa Fe Travel Guide. While Santa Fe holds many secrets to be discovered, we want to share with you all the Deals and Specials our Santa Fe businesses have to offer you.

  • Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Indian art and Culture (MIAC)

Photo Credits:  Photos courtesy of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, New Mexico Museums and Monuments, The School for Advanced Research, the Museum of Contemporary Native  Art, and Rima Krisst. This blog was written in partnership with TOURISM Santa Fe and Rima Krisst, TOURISM Santa Fe Tribal Liaison.

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