Southwestern Town's Art and Soul

Santa Fe has been changed by an influx of artists, movie stars, and gallery owners

THE conquering Spaniards who settled Santa Fe in 1609 named the foot trail "el camino de can" for the canyon a river had carved into pin-tufted foothills.

When five serious artists ("los cinco pintores") settled along "el camino de can" - now called Canyon Road - in the 1920s because of its unique mountain light and stark seclusion, they formed the foundation for what has burgeoned into one of the world's great art communities.

With that growth from obscurity have come several top museums - the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Indian Arts, and the Museum of International Folk Art - as well as a world-class opera, restaurants, galleries, and ... tourists. At the height of summer and winter tourist seasons, the town swells to about 2 to 3 times its normal size.

People flock here for a variety of attractions. The Santa Fe Opera season goes from June to August. In July comes the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. In August, the mammoth Indian Market represents North American tribes. Winter is time for skiing and a Santa Fe Symphony concert series.

"The more people we have, the more problems," grumbles Marc Simmons, a 40-year resident and author of several books on New Mexico. "The town is simply not yet equipped to deal with that many people."

Besides exacerbating the town's growing pains, this annual tourist frenzy has helped spread the word that Santa Fe is a great place for artists.

"We've got pristine, 7,000-foot mountain air, warm winters, cool summers, small-town atmosphere and seclusion," Mayor Sam Pick says.

And the town looks authentically Southwestern: A zoning ordinance enacted in 1957 ensures that only Spanish-style pueblo adobes will be erected in much of the city. Five stories is the limit.

Mr. Pick has made sure that all of his town's virtues are not lost on readers of such upscale magazines as The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, which feature paid advertisements for the "Santa Fe style." Now the worst - or best, depending on your perspective - has happened.

The readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine last month chose Santa Fe as the No. 1 travel destination in the world, edging out San Francisco; Vienna; Florence, Italy; Rome; Paris; and Venice. Two-hundred thousand questionnaires were mailed out for the survey; 34,000 responses came back, evaluating such qualities as culture, restaurants, environment, ambience, and people.

The magazine's executive editor, Tom Wallace, says the choice reflects a growing desire by world travelers to ensure their personal safety, avoid political instability, and see a pristine environment.

Those concerns are luring marquee-value celebrities, businessmen, and politicians to Sante Fe, making it a chic, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous hideaway.

Among the newcomers are movie stars Val Kilmer ("Willow," "The Doors,") and wife Joanne Whalley-Kilmer ("Scandal"); actor Brian Dennehy; talk-show host Oprah Winfrey; musician Herbie Mann; designers Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren; and Hope Rockefeller Aldrich, who has bought and runs the local weekly newspaper.

Meanwhile, the art world that started it all has grown well beyond its traditional base of cowboy and Indian art. Contemporary galleries such as Horwitch, Sena, Yares, Munson, and Lapides have attracted more buyers and artists. They have taken the Santa Fe name to larger fairs in Chicago, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, which in turn have bolstered the town's reputation.

"The whole thing has snowballed," says Arlene LewAllen, whose eponymous gallery is now one of between 150 and 250 art showcases in Santa Fe, depending on the definition one uses. "Because of the sheer number of galleries in one small place, buyers love to come. They can get personal contact with the owners, and the atmosphere is not as intimidating."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.