If, like me, you happened to see USA Today’s Readers’ Choice online contest for travel that invited vistors to vote on the nation’s best art districts, you may have been surprised to see Santa Fe’s Railyard on the list as a contender. It isn’t that the area doesn’t merit visiting. Many would say, to the contrary, that there are always things worth checking out there. Overall, though, it isn’t a very happening scene. Farmers Market and Friday-night gallery openings aside, something is missing from the Railyard this time of year, and that something is people. Sure, it’s off-season. Sure, there’s more going on during the summer months. But even in the summer, foot traffic is so sparse that the area gets vibrant only when something major is happening at one of the bigger venues: at SITE Santa Fe, perhaps, or El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe. Unlike its neighbor Warehouse 21, El Museo has never had much of an identity of its own — even though, as host to the annual Currents festival, which showcases new-media artists each June, it’s where the season launches. The galleries are still locked in a perpetual shuffle, moving from this location to that — and for many of them there’s a dearth of shows from January through May, a pretty good chunk of the year. To be fair, a few Railyard galleries continue to do shows year-round, notably David Richard Gallery, which usually opens more than one exhibit on a near-monthly basis. Even SITE, a venue for more long-term, large-scale installation shows and biennials, provides something to see between major exhibits with SITElab, a small exhibition space in the lobby with no admission charge.
I’m not one to lament the recent closing of Flying Star Café on Market Street; I won’t miss the inflated prices and dirty glasses and silverware. But the internet hot spot did have its fans. For a brief moment, I thought its closing was a sign of the times and wouldn’t have been surprised if other venues followed suit. But the Railyard is no ghost town. Other restaurants and pubs do a steady business, even if traffic to the galleries is stagnant. Rents tend to get higher rather than lower, with galleries unable to make the cut closing up shop or moving. That seems to be what happened to several downtown and Canyon Road galleries in an exodus that saw Evoke Contemporary, LewAllen Galleries, Charlotte Jackson Fine Art, and David Richard Gallery all head to the Railyard. Some see it as a trend toward establishing a more cutting-edge, contemporary flavor to the area — a precedent set by SITE Santa Fe — but those moves followed in the wake of several Railyard galleries (that were no less contemporary) shutting down: Box Gallery, Gebert Contemporary (which still has a Canyon Road location), and Evo Gallery among them. TAI Gallery managed to hang on by merging with former Delgado Street art venue Eight Modern to become TAI Modern. The city has invested in the Railyard, sprucing it up over the years, and, while the crowds aren’t flocking there yet, it seems on the cusp of taking on a new life: There are signs of hope in the Railyard.
Violet Crown Cinema’s planned opening of its 11-screen theater and restaurant/bar complex at the start of May will bring competition for Santa Fe’s other movie theaters and will probably attract a lot of people, but its development has been a mixed blessing. Camino de la Familia, the theater’s location, is a construction zone that has negatively affected foot and auto traffic to the local venues. However, the cinema could revitalize the area when it opens. “The construction has been wearing, but we are really looking forward to this whole side of the tracks being completed,” said Avra Leodas, director of Santa Fe Clay, a resource center, studio, and exhibition space for ceramists on Camino de la Familia. “We’ve waited a long, long time. We can’t wait for the new road that’s going to be between what was Flying Star and the north side of the cinema. There’s a walkway between the cinema building and Santa Fe Clay that’s about to be completed.”
It’s just a matter of time before access to Camino de la Familia is no longer an issue. “The road will open at the end of this month,” said Gordon Lawrie, the owner of @508, a new pop-up space on Camino de la Familia and directly behind REI. “Then you’ll have a high-traffic area.” In the meantime, limited access is available from Manhattan Avenue. Lawrie, who also owns Eidos Contemporary Jewelry in the Sanbusco Center, negotiated a lease on the old adobe, which was extensively renovated to function as a live-in work and exhibit space available for short- or long-term rental. “It was almost a derelict property,” he said of @508. “It reflected on this whole area back here. It looked like a dump.” The formerly dilapidated building now has a fully furnished living room, kitchen, and bedroom as well as its own gallery. The new studio/gallery of Native artists Frank Buffalo Hyde and Courtney M. Leonard is adjacent to the property and shares its 508 street number.
@508 is poised to be a boon to artists without current gallery representation. Galleries typically take 50 percent or more when their artists’ works sell; @508 gives many more artists the opportunity to create and show their work by having them pay rent and cleaning costs but keep the money they make. If an artist wants to do something short-term, like a pop-up show, they can rent the space for, say, two days, hanging their pieces on one day and showing them on the next. “If you want to get into a gallery, invite the gallery over and show them your work — not in a studio setting, but on real walls,” Maria Levy, @508’s manager, said. The space is available for craftspeople as well. “A craftsperson has a cycle where they make work and have to be in the studio,” Lawrie said. “It’s nice if you can have a continuity, and in six weeks produce a body of work. But then — what do you do with it?” Artists who live out of state or overseas can arrange for longer rentals and, because of @508’s brand-new amenities, use it also for living quarters for the duration of their agreement. “You take it out of the art context. Let’s say you’re a chef, and you want to have a private dinner. You can prepare it here, serve it here, and charge whatever you charge,” Levy said. Artists can have their own private suite during the market season and host a reception, inviting their collectors.
One of the reasons local artists have been heading to the Siler Road area is to take advantage of its cheaper rents for live-in work studios. That isn’t an option in the Railyard. The average artist, or even the average small business owner, may not be able to afford to pay $20,000 in rent per year — the cost, according to Lawrie, for space in the area. (I suspect the owners of the REI building are asking even more.) A walk up Market Street is like being on a boulevard not of broken, but empty dreams: Its three large spaces in the REI complex are devoid of occupants. I doubt it’s for lack of interest. Business spaces along Market Street have sat empty for years in a district that gets national attention, which suggests that something fishy is going on. “The premises are empty for a very good reason,” Lawrie said, hinting at developer incompetence. Lawrie convinced the owners of the Sanbusco Center to open its back entrance, providing better flow to Camino de la Familia.
The needed influx of visitors to the Railyard may come this spring with the opening of the Violet Crown (just expect to pay for parking). In the meantime, it couldn’t hurt to cast your ballot for the district on USA Today’s website (www.10best.com/awards/travel/best-art-district/), where the voting continues through noon on March 2.
—Michael Abatemarco - Santa Fe New Mexican - February 20, 2015