In SITE The museum’s mission and function
SITE SANTA FE’S MISSION AND FUNCTION
WE wanted SITE to feel more welcoming than in the past. Too many people had no idea what this place was, because if you stood outside, you didn’t know what went on inside. So, we pushed the building closer to the sidewalk and essentially flipped the front off of it so that you can see in,” Irene Hofmann, Phillips Director and Chief Curator of SITE Santa Fe, said in the weeks before the reopening of the museum’s newly expanded facility in the Railyard.
The renovation is a concrete-and-steel manifestation of deeply held philosophical ideas about SITE’s long-term mission. As an institution, SITE is based on the European model of the kunsthalle — a German word meaning “art hall” — a noncollecting institution that presents art on loan from other museums or collections. Kunsthalles began emerging in the United States about 35 years ago. Examples include the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Built in a formerly windowless beer warehouse, SITE opened in the summer of 1995 with Longing and Belonging: From the Faraway
Nearby. It was the first international biennial of contemporary art in the United States, Hofmann said, and instantly marked SITE as a vital art-world travel destination. It also represented a new era for Santa Fe, which was already a top art market but not known for cutting-edge contemporary work.
In the years since — even as many other noncollecting museums have closed or changed their missions — SITE has stayed the course, organizing biennials and other exhibitions, public programs, and educational initiatives. But its biennial ceased to be a unique event some time ago. “There are around 200 biennials in the world now. After a while, they all started to look the same — the same curators and the same artists,” Hofmann said.
When she joined SITE in 2010 — after five years as executive director and curator of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore and previous positions at the Art Institute of Chicago, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York — Hofmann worked with SITE staff and an international group of curators and museum professionals to radically rethink SITE’s biennial. The result was a new direction that fused an international scope with a regional focus. Since 2014, the organizing theme has been art of the Americas, and has included an eclectic array of artists from different countries and regions under one umbrella. Hofmann said that often, indigenous artists and artists of color from North and South America are exhibited in the United States in ethnically or culturally specific shows. She wanted to break through that structure while at the same time giving voice to the important role culture plays in one’s art-making. A curatorial team brings multiple perspectives to the selection and installation of works, paying close attention to how artists who choose to work with local communities understand Santa Fe’s culture and history. “There is a lot about contemporary art and contemporary art museums that can come off as elitist. My hope was that once the biennial started to reflect our community, our audience would become more diverse. The building is a major next step in this process.”
New temperature and environmental controls mean Hofmann can protect a broader array of artworks in different mediums from Santa Fe’s rapidly shifting humidity and pressure systems. The expanded front area of SITE features a store, a coffee and snack bar, and a new gallery space, called SITElab, which is open to the public every day with no admission fee. There is also a mezzanine where visitors are free to eat lunch or relax in the sunshine. The SITE staff welcomes young visitors as well, and they hope teenagers feel invited to enjoy the new spaces. Admission to the entire facility is free on Fridays and until noon on
Saturdays — and it’s free every day for anyone under eighteen. Exhibition tours are always available from guides stationed throughout the building; SITE guides are trained to discuss the art in a way that allows visitors to develop and trust their own observations about the work.
There is more to SITE than biennials and other formal art exhibitions. There are public programs and lectures, including artist talks, performances, and film screenings. Joanne Lefrak, director of education and curator of public practice, considers public programming an art medium unto itself, and has several new ideas in the works, including Digest This!, which pairs contemporary art with avant-garde cuisine. Educational programs include internship and professional development for high school, undergraduate, and graduate students in curatorial work and other museum careers. SITE provides a slate of programs for Santa Fe public school students in elementary, middle, and high school, and with the Adelante program for students experiencing homelessness and the Bridge Academy for students under long-term suspension. They also work with incarcerated teenagers in the Santa Fe County Youth Development Program.
SITE educators aim to fill in gaps in instruction rather than imposing ideas from the outside. They work closely with teachers to make any school visit or project at SITE relevant to Common Core standards and a teacher’s individual lesson plans. Five hundred to 800 elementary students from Title One schools (an economic marker determined by the number of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) participate in Railyard Students Days each year, a collaboration between SITE and the Railyard Park Conservancy that combines science and art education. A more extended experience can be found in the Zine Program, in which middle and high school students work with an artist in residence to create small magazines organized around a theme. “An upcoming zine project is with [R.] Luke Dubois,” Lefrak said. “He makes these word-based images drawn from presidential State of the Union addresses. He’ll be connecting with history classes.” Lefrak added that the program is flexible enough to accommodate media other than print. When students from a health class worked with artist-in-residence Linda Mary Montano, they conducted video interviews about body image.
The goal of SITE education programs is to inspire participants to think creatively and critically about ideas, rather than simply experimenting with traditional mediums like painting or sculpture. Though art-making is a strong component of the experience, just as crucial is the connection SITE educators and artists in residence make with students. Matthew Contos, the school programs manager, has a background in social services, drug and alcohol counseling, and trauma-informed care. His first priorities are making sure that the most at-risk students know they can rely on the museum staff and artists showing up every week, and that they are offering programs of sufficient length and depth. Significant effort goes into working with schools and organizations to create successful, sustainable programs, including building budgets around stipends, gas cards, and meals for student artists, such as when the young mothers of Adelante did an artist-in-residence project with New York-based industrial design artist Xenobia Bailey at the Santa Fe Botanical Gardens in the summer of 2017. They made line drawings and puppets with their young sons, discussing cultural equity issues with Bailey. She urged them to observe their culture in their environment — pointing out, for instance, that the color palette of her life in New York is very different from the color palette of their lives in New Mexico. “The puppets reflected their culture, which was different depending on who it was,” Contos said. The line drawings are being reproduced and bound as coloring books that will be sold at the SITE store as well as by Adelante participants.
Ultimately, SITE’s goal is to be a gathering place for locals and visitors, art experts and art makers, and people who might have never before set foot in an art museum. “If we have a more conceptual or challenging exhibition in the main space, SITElab is going to have something that’s maybe more accessible or a different kind of entry point,” Hofmann said. “There can be something for everyone, or anyone, at any time.”
“I think SITE would do a billion more things if we had all the money in the world,” Contos said. “Santa Fe is small, and I run into kids I work with around town. They tell me they never realized an art museum would care and show up. If showing up matters, we want to show up for the next 10 years. Everyone is invited to come and join us, or we’ll come to you.”
THERE IS A LOT ABOUT CONTEMPORARY ART AND CONTEMPORARY ART MUSEUMS THAT CAN COME OFF AS ELITIST. MY HOPE WAS THAT ONCE THE BIENNIAL STARTED TO REFLECT OUR COMMUNITY, OUR AUDIENCE WOULD BECOME MORE DIVERSE. THE BUILDING IS A MAJOR NEXT STEP IN THIS PROCESS.
— CHIEF CURATOR IRENE HOFMANN
Phillips Director and Chief Curator Irene Hofmann; photos Gabriela Campos /
Schools program manager Matthew Contos and director of education Joanne Lefrak