Visiting Artist, Santa Fe

Rodney Pygoya Chang

April 2006 for


      Some say you’re not a real artist unless you make the pilgrimage to Santa Fe and New York City.  Well, OK, maybe the Big Apple.  But not known to the  majority of wannabes out there (financial support from one's artwork), Santa Fe claims to sell the most art after New York.  OK, some experts claim the Southwestern small town (population of only 60,000 folks) is also behind Los Angeles.  Two of the competing locations fighting for bragging rights as best art markets of America have populations in the millions. Versus Santa Fe, again, with a miniscule 60,000 residents.   When I found out just how major a presence the town has on the art world (Windows desktop design of turquoise window, stucco wall, pottery, and red chili peppers hung out to dry portrays Santa Fe!), I just had to split and go check out the art scene (and opportunity) of that desert town in northern New Mexico.  I told my foreign-born wife not to be concerned about a visa, that N. Mexico was a part of the U.S.A.  Funny how many Americans don't know it is located between Arizona and Texas.

      I took off by myself with much excitement.  I had never set foot in the state of New Mexico.  I grew up with the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and I read Billy the Kid had spent time in the local jail.  I anticipated immersing myself in its famous and highly marketed special "light" (spiritual, for photographic results, for visual arts inspiration, and most generous in foot candles).  I wanted to see the action of an all-year-round marketplace for art.  I sought to understand a governing body that could keep tourists coming back and buying art - by maintaining homogenous urban design anchored in the past, tied together by multiple cultures.   And through that, turn the location into dollars –  the economy’s major source of profits is from the art market.  I read 1 in 8 is employed in the art industry.  Along with the temperate weather (compared to Maine), and creating the ambience of an Old West Southwest town where Hispanic, Indian,  Anglo (anybody not Indian) cultures coexist and blend, comes the supply for the arts demand. 

      I was amazed at the assortment of art things to buy as a visiting tourist turned collector.  Large ceramic pots with colorful glazes in Indian designs, metal and wooden sculptures, art glass, Western art, fine jewelry, ethnic as well as stylish contemporary wardrobe, Modernist paintings, New Mexican landscape, antiques or digital abstract prints, - so much is for sale!  I read there exist about 250 art galleries and 10 museums – all in a small town of 60,000.  I saw one gallery for sale on where-the-action-is Cannon Road for $800,000.  It didn't include the existing inventory.  

      Something makes this place special where people come from around the world to experience and bring back art for their homes. Today the old Santa Fe Trail ends at a major art market for Baby Boomers.

     My touch down was very brief and minimal, so that’s all this blog can deliver.  I was there for 2 days since that was all the time I could take off from my day job.   Here is what I perceived as artist-thinking-about-eventually-relocating-

     I dropped out of the sky in mid-March and its not the warm, sunny weather that the Chamber of Commerce promotes on the Internet.  For this Hawaiian, stepping out of 85F and into 45F (with the wind chill factor) for a morning walk and 15F at night for dinner was an abrupt change of comfort level.  

     But it was worth it!   


Santa Fe fantasy


    It was great running my palms on the exterior wall of a real adobe house!  I had read in preparation for my trip about the history of the present “Santa Fe Style” derived from former Pueblo Indian and Spanish  architectural styles dating back to the 1600s.  Viewing first hand the Pueblo adobe design made consistent throughout the town was not disappointing.  There was a harmony of shape, form and color of an urban municipality that I had never seen anyplace else in the world.  The town’s look and therefore character starts with descendents of the original adobe bricks’ makeup – dirt and water (= mud) with straw, a formula based upon what the Pueblo natives had available in the arid desert.   All the buildings and houses, new or old, big or small, have (required by building code) exterior walls with rounded corners and stucco painted raw sienna, brown, light magenta, tan or pink.  Projecting ends of roof risers echo the ancient design of Pueblo adobes, multi-dwelling communities constructed with mud and straw and made by hand..  Walking about, starting at the Plaza which has been the center of town for over 400 years, it almost feels like I am in a Disney-like Frontierland.  


The famous Plaza


But Southwestern Mexican, not Western Texan, Arizonan, or Californian.  The natural colors of their building during a summer/autumn sunset, all change into shades of golden red-oranges that seem to almost glow.  Captured in print and circulated on the Internet, more around the globe are beckoned to trek to Santa Fe to see and feel the natural light and cultural riches for themselves.  Many are also lured by its long and multi-national history.  Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the Spanish had established Santa Fe as the first "capital" in North America.


Santa Fe Style

    Things did seem slow this time of the year (March 22-23).  No major cultural event was scheduled during the week that I was there.  Shakepeare was during the summer.  Galleries were all over the place, some right next to the edge of the Plaza.  I cannot imagine what the galleries' monthly rents are to be smack-dab in the center of location-location-location, how much art they have to move to cover operating costs and make a living.  

     Most galleries didn’t open up till past 9 a.m. The museums, including the Indian, the Museum of Fine Arts. and the Georgia O’ Keefe, opened at 10 a.m.   So at 7:30 a.m. I waited to view artwork by having a hearty breakfast in the café on the Plaza, and later read The Santa Fe New Mexican, "the West's oldest newspaper," while enjoying my potent Starbucks coffee.


downtown Santa Fe

     Home prices have zoomed up in the last few years. The smallest fixer-upper old house in town is priced at are $500,000! Lucky if you get a 3,000 square foot lot.  Don't expect sidewalks at this price and no one has a green lawn - there's an extended drought going on.  Prices are even higher in the most desired northeastern section of town.  But a house in the southwestern suburbs can still be had in the low $300,000s.  Further south 1-5 acre lots in the desert with a nice 3/2 home lists at about $500,000 to $650,000.  One such nice desert community is Eldorado, about 13 miles from downtown.  But no matter where in Santa Fe, water supply is an issue.  Then there are the ubiquitous American urban problems of graffiti, DUI, public school academic standards, and drugs.  There were also public demonstrations at Capital High School and at the Plaza last week to demonstrate against proposed immigration legislation in Congress.  Latinos make up one of the major ethnic groups of Santa Fe.  Like other resort areas, there seems to be a dearth of higher paying jobs for the working class.  One Web site states that the local economy is based upon "tourism, art, real estate, and construction."

     I want to invest in property there to have a bed when in town and a place to store some art.  I don't want to commute from the fringes.  So I am focusing on condo conversion projects by developers involved in urban renewal "fill" areas of town central.  This is the only way a new artist can live close to the downtown galleries at an affordable price.  Downtown parking is difficult and walking the gallery-lined streets makes sense.  1 bedrooms run around $170,000 and 2 bedrooms $210,000.  The rent for a 1 bedroom is about $800 and a 2-bedroom hovers around $1000.  One year ago the 170K could have been had for $140K.  So rents lag behind the appreciation rate of property values.  According to a sales rep of a condominium project, most buyers are "out-of-towners" and "must rent at what working locals can afford."  


suburbia, Santa Fe style

      Besides the expected prevailing regional representational art and Indian folk art is a growing presence of contemporary art for sale.  I read ten years ago the market was 90% New Mexican and 10% contemporary.  Today contemporary is 40% according to one researcher.  This is good news for contemporary artists abroad to know.  Galleries there do offer international contemporary art to visiting collectors.  Effort is being made to educate the collector and develop this sales niche.  Fresh digital art hangs for sale in a gallery I visited.   Even as I walked  in a place that strives to preserve the past, this is the new Santa Fe.


Pygoya 2006

    But success may only appear skin deep.  One artist there said “Santa Fe has been in a down art market since the 90s.  Many artists I know have given up trying to live on their art and have moved to a more affordable place to live...Sometimes nobody’s selling, except for the galleries with dealers working the phones all day...Galleries come and go on Cannon Road (the main art district of Santa Fe).  It's a very risky business.”

    So moving there as an artist may not reap overnight financial success.  It takes time to ready the portfolios, network at parties, go to the receptions, meet people, promote your art, assimilate into the art scene and community. But here there are scores of galleries all in each other’s face (it’s a small town and the tourist all concentrate and walk in one congested area) so you know there is a viable market of buyers out here to support such a scale of enterprise. I read there are many second or vacation homeowners from New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Houston.   Wealthy folks that buy art.  If the talent is there, I think the talented new artist’s work won’t get lost among the native craft and traditional art, more indigenous to the local and established art market.


Pygoya 2006

     If you’re looking to buy property, go before the summer’s buyer rush. “Buy before May.”  Also be prepared to face the harsh realty that if you come at this time of year, there’s not much traffic flow yet in the commercial retail areas, including the galleries.  "Things pick up around here when the summer weather returns.”  This year's colder than usual for this time of the year.  Geeky me regretted not bringing gloves and an overcoat - it even snowed a bit - and had to down some won-ton soup in the local Ying and Yang on Cerrillos Road to warm the tummy.  But it was a good opportunity to experience the other season (some claim there's only two seasons all year there), the one that keeps tourist inflow rates depressed November through April.

    "Pygoya Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.”   Ah, I can only dream.  I wasn’t disappointed and plan to plant roots there some day. 

     Check Santa Fe out.  Can't make the trip? Then take my photo tour.  The awesome place and light has inspired my art.

     For you artists who read this far, here's a tip:  There's small spaces available on the second floor at The Design Center.  I believe the 250-400 sq. feet spaces go for around $1000 a month.  There are antique shops, a graphic artist, several galleries, some dress shops, and a food court downstairs.  It's on Cerrillos Road and within walking distance to the Plaza.  Hey, if somebody out there can provide the leadership and set up a co-op gallery, give me a jingle via and count me in!

Two published photographs from my visit in the Free New Mexican


Message from friendp

Hi Rodney,

I am familiar with the design center. Businesses come and go. I am not so sure it
would be a good place for a gallery although I have seen a couple. Not sure they
are still there. I think  an arts and craft shop may do better there. Actually the
times I was there it was kind of depressing....

There is a larger more upscale place in town called Sanbusco Plaza. It’s very
nice but the rents must be really high. It’s amazing there are no galleries there.
Mostly upscale clothing shops, a large bookstore etc. Did you see it?

Coop galleries start once in a while but they all fold sooner or later. Either way
you would really need to be here to run it.

Take care of your knees, there must be another sport you could substitute
other than running?