Is Indian Market Too Big or Too Small?

An examination of the various undercurrents that affect the Santa Fe Indian Art Market and its participants.
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The 96th Santa Fe Indian Art Market has come and gone with great anticipation for most and a little trepidation for some. Hosted by the Southwest Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) Indian Market is billed as the world’s largest outdoor juried show of Native American art, both traditional and contemporary forms. Participants, whether artists and their families, volunteers and staff, locals and visitors, will generally talk about good times and good feelings, the social atmosphere of visiting old friends and meeting new ones. Still over time there are and have been various undercurrents that do affect the Big Show and its participants.

Like everything Native, those terms Traditional and Contemporary become loaded if they are aimed at groups and individuals. Traditional artists were children taught by mothers, fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers. They were celebrated and respected and daily did their craft just as they were taught and passed it along to the next generations. Market artists today are proud that they also grew up under the tables, sleeping in booths, watching their parents and relatives work, learning how to engage the public and how to sell. When we talk about Going to Market and What We Bring to Market, and What Market Means, we are talking about that dynamic and those relationships.

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Today it seems Market has new and different connotations and we are still figuring them out. All over Indian country, Indians have been going to Market for far more than 100 years and people still travel even older trade routes to get to us. We are bringing the Big World to the Big Show and rather than be all inclusive and embracing, it seems the Big Show is Too Small to fit all the things we are bringing to Market.

SWAIA ran into controversy by getting rid of tenure and that meant all artists had to submit new images of current work and most applications are made online with digital images, and mailed or delivered on memory drives, no slides, photos or discs. SWAIA has been informing everybody of this change for the last couple years but when elders did not get their usual invitation letters that’s when it sunk in that 40-50-60 years of going to Market on the Plaza was done, at least for this year. It’s hard to get final numbers, some 300-350 artists did not get in, they were judged out due to bad quality images or some other mistake or issue with applications. About 150 of them were elders “grandfathered” in 1992 under a “Permanent Tenure” policy that would allow them to keep coming in honor of their contribution to creating Market. So tenure means these elders can keep coming as long as they had art to bring or were able to make the trip. You can see issues right there that younger vocal artists would have with tenure, and how long would they have to wait to get in.

The number of tenured artists was expected to keep winnowing out due to attrition but with the 100th Year Anniversary coming in 2022, there seemed to be a move to shake up the Plaza area where most of these elders had booths and to start to get ready for the Year 100 Celebration. That celebration may now be re-considered, even if SWAIA admits to it at all now. There has been a backlash, some elders threatened lawsuits and were let in (it was alleged), others got in on a wait list, and other Markets like SEEDS and IFAM and galleries like Zohi Gallery and True West and several others offered spaces to elders and artists.

The elders see themselves as Traditional artists and whole families who were disrespected after helping to create Indian Market in the first place. Several of them fully expect to be back at Market, on the Plaza next year. They heard SWAIA, or someone was wanting to collect stories about the early days of Market, ahead of the 100 Year Party and so these elders let people know that they expect to be at Market, and maybe the ones that caused the controversy will not be there.

Indian Market is a huge cash cow in Santa Fe as everyone in town seeks to make money that week and weekend. But pressures build, as SWAIA has expanded booth space as far as the City says it can and they have to shake out artists and issues every year or so. The City passes pain onto SWAIA and they have to pass it on to artists. Other pressures come from downtown merchants and a City Council that seems to cave to vocal minorities or moneyed interests. Artists do not seem to have a say unless a large number can react or maybe only certain artists or families that have influence. The collectors, gallery owners and downtown merchants donate and participate, most looking for angles to play, trickle-down economics or a payoff on investment.

Some young Native Artists said disrespectful things yet they won awards and made sales. Some called them too old and even dinosaurs, some said Market is Fine Arts and these old-timers make crafts, some just said, “It’s Our Market Now.” It’s time for some re-evaluation of what we all are bringing to Market and what we can expect or would like to anticipate. Market is big enough for all and sometimes it’s not just about money and prizes. Indian Market is not going away, people may go away, both old and young. It is those relationships we inherit and build and cherish, that should become special memories. What will you bring to Market next year?

Alex Jacobs, Mohawk, is a visual artist and poet living in Santa Fe.