The Art of Experiencing Santa Fe

Mar 17, 2022

For art world insiders, Santa Fe has long been a pilgrimage site. Now, the wider world is starting to get a sense of the local art cred thanks to a new British study—immediately reported in Travel + Leisure—that named Santa Fe not only the best gallery town on earth, but also the planet’s seventh-best art city overall, with everything from a thriving year-round exhibit scene and a trifecta of iconic markets: International Folk Art Market, Spanish Market and SWAIA Indian Market.

Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art Gallery

Another reason 2022 is a banner year for the local arts scene: A string of big anniversaries—the SWAIA Indian Market’s 100th, The Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian’s 85th and the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts’ 50th—means all manner of commemorative festivities and exhibits.

Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian

Clearly, New Mexico’s capital serves up a visual feast worth gorging on ASAP. And the stunning backdrop—all dramatic peaks, open steppe and heritage adobe—doesn’t hurt either. But before you pack your bags, read on for our guide to the city’s best art districts, so you can break down the immeasurable beauty into digestible bits, and follow in the footsteps of legends from Georgia O’Keeffe to Marsden Hartley for whom Santa Fe was both home and muse.

The Plaza and Downtown

Close your eyes and think of Santa Fe, and the Plaza is what most likely comes to mind, whether you’ve ever actually been there or not. Inspired by the architecture of the indigenous Pueblo people, the iconic neighborhood is a rhapsody in adobe, anchored by the 17th-century Palace of the Governors.

Palace of the Governors

Now a museum unto itself—albeit one that focuses on local history—the Palace of the Governors is the oldest European settler-built public building in continuous use in the continental US. Head into the palace portal, and you’ll find Native American Pueblo art and jewelry for sale through the Native American Artisans Portal Program.

Native American Artisan Portal Program at Palace of the Governors

Just across the street, another arts initiative—the Santa Fe Plaza Park Artist/Artisan Program—brings even more artisanship to the Plaza.

The area is also home to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, a celebration of the most emblematic of all Santa Fe artists. Among the masterpieces not to be missed is one of the collection’s largest and most extensively conserved paintings. Fresh off its painstaking repair, Spring is the centerpiece of a new installation that includes original correspondence between the artist and her personal conservator, as well as the objects that inspired the epic work (through Oct. 10, 2022).

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

At the nearby New Mexico Museum of Art, another icon who took frequent inspiration from the local landscapes is the subject of a can’t-miss exhibition. Ansel Adams: Pure Photography looks at the artist’s early years in ways that will change your understanding of his work (through May 22, 2022).

New Mexico Museum of Art

Just as likely to alter preconceived notions? Another neighborhood standout: The IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, the nation’s only museum focused on the collection, exhibition and interpretation of the most progressive work of contemporary Native artists. Try to catch Exposure: Native Art and Political Ecology, a stunning take on the effects of the nuclear energy industry on indigenous communities (through July 10, 2022).

IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Then there are the aforementioned annual art markets, which—with their pop-up tents, street performances and thousands of visitors—turn the city’s downtown into a beautifully buzzing hive of arts activity. Word to the wise: Book as soon as you decide you want to attend.

Museum Hill

Close to downtown, Museum Hill is another must-see. Among the highlights: Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, where a recently debuted exhibit explores the gorgeous iconography of ancestral Pueblo pottery (through March of 2023); the Museum of International Folk Art, home to an eye-catching and thought-provoking new display of traditional Scandinavian dress (through Feb. 19, 2023), and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, whose just-opened Abeyta | To’Hajiilee K’é is an innovative approach to showcasing a whole family of Navajo artists (through January 7, 2023).

Also be sure to check out the nature-inspired glass art exhibition at the Santa Fe Botanical Garden (through at least the end of 2022)—and the sweeping new Trails, Rails, and Highways: How Trade Transformed the Art of Spanish New Mexico exhibit at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art (through August 2022).

Canyon Road

Yes, Santa Fe’s museum scene is monumental, but the local gallery game is strong, too, whether you’re interested in painting, photography, sculpture, digital art or mixed media. For the highest concentration of evidence, head to Canyon Road—a half-mile stretch that packs 100+ galleries, many of them works of art unto themselves, thanks to their old adobe housing.

Canyon Road

Among the most anticipated local events of the year are the Spring Art Festival (May 7) and the 15th Annual Historic Canyon Road Paint and Sculpt Out (October 14-15), both of which are mass artist gatherings that invite you behind the scenes of the creative process, and even allow you to request live commissions.  

Then again, any day of gallery-hopping in the neighborhood feels epic—with refueling options to match. Some of Santa Fe’s most beloved restaurants are right here, from Geronimo (modern global in a 1756 adobe) to The Compound (home to the New Mexico Restaurant Association’s 2021 Chef of the Year).

The Railyard Arts District

Near the Santa Fe Depot, which is the end of the line for the New Mexico Rail Runner Express commuter rail service, you’ll find an impressive array of galleries and exhibits. This spring alone, the neighborhood will showcase the work of everyone from the iconic “last of the Surrealists,” Enrico Donati (LewAllen Gallery, June 10-July 16) to the celebrated Navajo-Chicana graffiti writer and muralist Nani Chacon (SITE Santa Fe, April 8-August 21).

Santa Fe Depot

Another beloved New Mexico graffiti writer and muralist whose work you’ll want to catch in the Railyard—particularly if you’re a Game of Thrones fan—is Joerael Numina. He’s the one who painted the famed dragon and wolf on the Santa Fe Southern Railway cars that were just repurposed as the new Sky Railway. As you may well know, the line’s co-owner and creative director is none other than George R.R. Martin, so these reimagined sigils of Houses Stark and Targaryen nod to Santa Fe’s Westerosi ties.

Sky Railway

Other must-dos in the neighborhood include the digital art pioneer Art Vault, the Saturday Santa Fe Artists Market—and the Sunday Railyard Artisan Market. So much the better if you’re a biker or urban hiker: This neighborhood is easily accessed from Santa Fe’s famed Rail Trail.

Siler Rufina Nexus

An arts neighborhood on the rise, the Siler Rufina Nexus—home to the 70-room immersive exhibit that is Meow Wolf’s fabled House of Eternal Return—is luring creative spirits of all kinds.

Meow Wolf Santa Fe

One of the most notable recent examples: a ceramics studio and gallery that had long been a beloved staple of the Railyard: Paseo Pottery. After checking out the gorgeous wares on display in the new digs, you may well want to try your hand at making your own, in which case, there’s a feel-good bonus: All net proceeds from the two-hour classes go to local charities.  

Meanwhile, photography fans shouldn’t miss the Photo-Eye Gallery, where the current exhibit is Beth Moon’s Baobab—a stunning visual journey through the old-growth forests of Madagascar, Botswana, South Africa and Senegal.

Traveling as a family? Don’t miss a Siler Rufina Nexus-adjacent spot: the Prescott Studio. Home to monumental kinetic sculptures of animals (lions and flamingoes and giraffes, oh my!), this is the kind of place that all but guarantees the next generation of art lovers. 

Ready to go? Check out Santa Fe's events calendar and plan your trip with this free visitor's guide.

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