Spotlight on the
Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art,
Roswell, New Mexico
Pygoya Rodney Chang
July 7, 2006
Pygoya, alien art investigator
Like most other tourists that visit the remote town of Roswell in the unforgiving New Mexico desert, The International UFO Museum & Research Center is the reason why we come. After venturing into the acclaimed ground zero of UFO interests and activity, I came away more mesmerized by the subject, attending lectures by leading UFO and ET researchers - and with a bagful of alien dolls, t-shirts, pins, mugs, and other UFO souvenirs. It may seem bizarre but now I proudly wear my "Roswell, New Mexico" baseball cap around Honolulu. This may not be so far fetched when I recall the numerous UFO sightings here in Hawaii, including the one in November, 2005, complete with photographs, that I dropped off at the museum's research center for a friend of mine.
I admittedly went for the thrill of the strange but also to research the art scene of Roswell. I wanted to answer the burning question as to whether fine arts could co-exist with UFO phenomena commercialization or be lost along with the abductees? Online I discovered Roswell's several art museums and the local art gallery. All in a small town of 50,000? In the middle of nowhere, with the closest city 200 miles away? A local resident told me, "People die here who don't respect the desert. Forget to fill your tank or bring bottled water before you travel out of town into the desert and it could get you killed. Some tourists don't have common sense. They get lost, wander in a circle, and eventually succumb to dehydration and heatstroke. I know, I am a volunteer for the fire department."
To make a long story short, I am amazed how the arts strive in Roswell, although overshadowed by the "Roswell Incident" and because the town is globally renown as the place where a spacecraft (possibly) crashed and aliens (maybe) captured. This event is thought to have occurred in July, 1947. It was so reported to the town's newspaper by the military, before the next day's rebuttal stating it was instead a downed weather balloon, not flying saucer. But still yet the town continues to prosper and grow as the world continues to visit to see for itself in order to decide for oneself. As for me I had another goal for my trip's agenda, to have an "encounter of the third kind," but with art, not aliens.
Of all the arts establishments I was most impressed with The Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art. Here's the scoop-
It was founded in the mid-1990s, around the same time as the UFO museum. Were they competing for visitors, or for the town's cultural soul? I'm not sure, but know each went in different directions in growth and vision. I emailed the administration of the Anderson before I arrived, stating that I would like to visit as a person considering establishing a UFO art gallery in town. The staff person wrote back, "We have no association with the UFO museum; we just happen to be in the same town." I found the result of this attitude to affect attendance of the art museum during Roswell's most busy tourist weekend of the year, that of the annual UFO Festival in July. How lucky for the town's economy - schools out for the summer, it's always the 4th of July holiday weekend, and this is when the hypothetical UFO spacecraft crashed outside of town. This all equates to the annual swarming of tourists to Roswell, with fat wallets to seek out ET souvenirs and events. I estimate about 40,000 visitors this weekend; I couldn't get a motel room without the inside assistance of a realtor. Yet the Anderson on the Sunday of this busy weekend had only about 25 visitors. Only the skeletal crew of one individual manned the museum, opened to the public, sitting there in silence, twelve blocks away from the hoopla at the UFO museum. They weren't expecting crowds to show up, maybe this is how they choose to operate. There is no admission fee, no gift shop. Financial support of the museum does not seem to a problem.
But for this article, forget the UFO stuff. Let's visit the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art!
It was established in 1994 at 409 E. College Blvd. by multi-millionaire Donald Anderson "who made his money in oil." His large landscapes are front and center in the museum. He is, and deserves to be, the patron of his own life's work. I appreciate the scale, geometry, strong colors, and illusion of depth of his mountainous scapes. Here is a man who took control, didn't need the outside art world to tell him his works are deserving of a museum presence. At the age of 83, he does not need to worry about the preservation of his cultural gifts for posterity. His works are worth seeing. He captures for us grand mountainous vistas of the world with his unique eye for color and form and the grandiosity of nature.
"Winter Range," Donald B. Anderson, 1986, acrylic on canvas, 60"x84"
What shocked me is that two of his early works (dated 1960s) hang in the men's restroom, one over the urinal! How trusting - and humble - is that? After zippering up I just had to look upwards if there was a ceiling video camera, er, on his paintings. I was relieved in more than one way when I found none. Just as amazing was the fact that the original paintings had not been vandalized with graffiti. These precious works would not remain unscathed if they were in a public restroom in New York City! This proves Anderson is indeed a respected man in town.
Most exciting, however, about the museum and what it brings to this desert town, is Anderson's visionary "Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program," founded in 1967. The seven galleries of 17,000 square feet of exhibition space (and expanding) feature gifts and acquisitions of works by former "residents" from around the world. The Board of Directors that grants all expenses paid year-long art residences has been successful in selecting and attracting from among the best of emerging talent of the world over the last 39 years. Evidently other than to provide museum exhibition space for his own works, Anderson wanted to build a world collection of artists invited to create in Roswell. A museum sign reads "...great art from around the world, except Antarctica."
"Desert Oasis," oil on canvas, 57"x84", Brian Myers, 1994
I found the works exemplary, as intriguing as that which I find in the museums of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In fact, I found the art more exciting than those which I view in the "modern art" gallery of our own Honolulu Academy of Arts. The Anderson Museum for sure is a treasured resource for Roswell and the surrounding community.
"Jardin de la Memoria," oil on canvas, 66"x84", Cristina Gonzalez, 2001
It may swim in the desert air, suspended by wires, but Robbie Barker's "White-Great White Shark" rules the collection, highlighted in ads, making it the most famous artwork of the museum. Partially assembled from golf bags, its harsh black and white contrasting lines make it just as menacing as the real thing.
"Great White Shark," golf bag, wood, 27"x94"x22"; Robbie Barker, 1992
In another gallery the late Luis Jimenez's fiber glass painted motorcycle seem to be rumbling about. In another room his huge sculpture depicts a struggle between cowboy, horse and lassoed bull. Jimenez was unfortunately killed by one of his huge metal works that fell upon him last month. The museum is planning a tribute for the artist with a special exhibition of his works between July 25th through October 1, 2006.
"Cycle," Fiberglass, 50"x80"x30", Luis Jimenez, 1969
Only one Space related artwork hangs in the museum. Kelly Newcomer's "Sporty Satellite" seems lost among the other contemporary but not UFO or ET thematic works. But at least, for this investigator seeking such art, there was the sighting of this one piece.
The most dramatic work is the 128"x192" epic mural painting "Exhaust" by Scott Greene. Anywhere else outside of such a small town museum and this particular work would claim masterpiece status through its dramatic epic scale and masterful rendering. Standing next to it is overpowering.
"Exhaust," oil on canvas, 128"x192", Scott Greene, 1992-94
Not as grand but informative as to how artists, invited to Roswell to work for a year, are thankful is suggested in the following two exhibits-
There is the knitted sweater, "Roswell 1984" by Astrid Furnival. It is worn by a mannequin, thereby becoming part of the figurative assemblage. Text knitted in the sweater states "Roswell, 1984 A Good Year for making Colors, Friends, Chutney, Dough, Discoveries... Fun-art, Art-fun... Very Good Year!"
Yoshiko Kanai, on the wall next to her ceramic self-portrait bust, writes the following on the American Dream-
"America is a dreaming country; I wonder how many people brought their dreams to this country? Perhaps dreams which cannot be realized become brighter when seen in the distance; like a far mountain, and life in the real world is in shadow." Obviously, the artist is grateful to have been given the opportunity to come and chase the American dream herself, all expenses paid, here in Roswell. She seems to be sensing just how difficult it is to achieve the dream. It's more than just setting foot in America, even with extraordinary talent.
It seemed to me, spending time in mystery laden Roswell, I existed in a surrealistic dream. I was relieved to later once again, wake up in my own bed, to the chirping birds, welcoming the glorious morning sunrise.
If in Roswell be sure not to miss the Anderson Museum if you love art. There is more cultural enrichment in Roswell than just the hoopla surrounding the "Roswell Incident." I could not help but wonder how many artists who came to Roswell to create undisturbed, freed from real life's demands, later made it big. Here is the listing of residents for you to search if so inclined. Many of the now notorious have works here in Roswell representing their formulative years. All this cannot help but make the community - especially its children - aware of the range of art exploration from among the most talented around the planet. They are endowed with great art, channeled to them through the stellar museum program. For this, besides his own spiritually uplifting artworks, Donald Anderson, maverick artist, entrepreneur, visionary, and patron of the arts, should be commended. Even now, as you read, seven lucky artists work inspired and undisturbed in Roswell.