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INTERVIEW: Thematic Residencies at SFAI

"Our location in Northern New Mexico situates us perfectly to work on topics that stem from local issues, yet have national and international pertinence. Using the unique geographic and cultural landscape of New Mexico as a launch pad, we saw an immense opportunity to use diverse creative practices to confront inherent social, cultural and economic problems in global food systems."

This September Santa Fe Art Institute (SFAI) launched their third thematic residency - a full year of collaborative work between artists-in-residence and leaders across fields in pursuit of a single issue. The Alliance spoke with SFAI residency director Nina Elder on exactly what goes into creating a hub for community engagement, how you look at impact beyond the closing party, and what's in store for the Institute in 2016.

What is Santa Fe Art Institute (SFAI)?

SFAI is the only artist residency program in Santa Fe, a town known as a world class center for art. People come from all over the world to engage the art here. Within this cultural center, SFAI is a multidisciplinary hub for using creativity to create positive social change. SFAI brings together a myriad of disciplines and people to work within our four programs: residency, education, social entrepreneurship, and community. It’s exciting, for example, when you see the centuries old Santo Domingo Pueblo engaging with designers, artists, and teenagers to address social problems. We create the opportunities for really innovative work to happen.

For the past two years Santa Fe Art Institute has hosted thematic residencies delving into issues from the Southwest and beyond. What spurred the shift a thematic program?

At SFAI, we ask how we can cultivate creative practices, engage with diverse communities, and address the most pressing social issues of our time. Recognizing the growing number of artists who desire to participate in a collaborative community of individuals seeking to address social issues, in 2014 the Santa Fe Art Institute (SFAI) initiated thematic residencies with Food Justice as the inaugural theme.

Our location in Northern New Mexico situates us perfectly to work on topics that stem from local issues, yet have national and international pertinence. Using the unique geographic and cultural landscape of New Mexico as a launch pad, we saw an immense opportunity to use diverse creative practices to confront inherent social, cultural and economic problems in global food systems.

Each thematic residency topic is developed out of artists’ work with the community; a resident’s passion may uncover a new realm of injustice and social need which helps define the subsequent thematic focus. Immigration / Emigration was an obvious next step. We look forward to bringing diverse communities together with local and global advocates, activists, and policy makers to explore alternative models, narratives, projects, and interventions relating to the journeys of migrants and their contributions to who we are as a collective community.

What are you hearing from the residents?

SFAI has learned that community engaged practices cannot be delimited by an opening date and a closing party; it is often process-oriented, which can take longer to develop than a traditional residency. Resulting from SFAI’s encouraging and collaborative environment, our residents are responding with confidence to hone their intentions and deeply connect with their topics and community, resulting in more dynamic relationships and meaningful projects. The outcome of these interactions is the development of a collaborative community made up of local, national and international practitioners who are committed to addressing both the thematic topic of the residency, and new issues arising out of shared concerns and practices.

The 2015 residency focus was Immigration/Emigration. Tell us about a couple projects.

We worked with over 50 artists and artist collectives from more than 20 countries of origin. Some projects that I find most exciting include:

  • Garth Amundson and Pierre Gour’s “Homo-Home Migration” explores bi-national queer identity as well as the universality and fragility of the collective dream of having a home.

  • Margarita Cabrera, who embroiders traditional Mexican patterns on sculptures of cactuses made of discarded border guard uniforms.

  • Judy Shintani will be researching SFAI’s physical location – the site of a WWII Japanese American Internment Camp, and the history of forced emigration.

  • Jami Porter Lara, who engages the ancient Mata Ortiz pottery tradition to create sculpture inspired by the most iconic and ubiquitous vessel of our time, one that litters the US/Mexico border: the plastic bottle.

How has the program changed SFAI's relationship with Santa Fe?

Santa Fe has more art exhibition venues per capita than any other place in the United States. It also has a reputation as a playground for wealthy tourists. We are changing our approach to Santa Fe by grounding our programming in real issues that effect real people, not assumptions about what Santa Fe is. We identify local issues that have national and international relevance and work with people who are passionately engaging those topics.

We understand that while we are devoting 9-12 months to each of these issues, for many people Food Justice, Immigration, or Water Rights is their life’s work. By working with devoted regional partners, and creating sustained opportunities for our artists in residence to develop knowledge and empathy with these communities, we are seeing lasting mutual impact. The most important element has been sustaining these interactions, while making sure they are custom fit. Working with a translator of Iranian poetry in a Spanish/English bilingual classroom is so different than introducing a Canadian community activist to traditional farmers in Northern New Mexico. Through creating an arch of these collaborations, we truly are seeing commitment to evolving dialogues around the role of creativity in forging a more just world.

Whats next?

SFAI is thrilled to announce our next residency and program theme: Water Rights. Northern New Mexico is comprised of many cultures that are distinct in their traditional and evolving relationship to water and water use. Additionally, New Mexico is at the forefront of water conservation, framed in the context of corporate, environmental, and cultural controversies. Because water is seen, now more than ever, as a contested resource, SFAI is committed to bringing together local, national, and global thinkers and creators to collectively expand and revise our knowledge of what we think we know about water rights. From September 2016 through June of 2017, SFAI and its community partners will explore several questions:

How do we describe and define the contested space around water? If water use is often parallel to culture, how can cultural activities result in greater models of equity in our water systems? How can diverse practices, from poetic to practical to political, create greater access to these and other parallel resources?

How can artists apply?

The deadline for applications is December 15, 2015.
For more information visit:

Nina Elder is the Residency Program Manager at Santa Fe Art Institute. She grew up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and New Mexico where she cultivated a curiosity about gravel pits, mines, and lumber mills. In addition to being Residency Program Manager at SFAI, she is a practicing artist. Nina’s work examines the visual evidence of land use in the American West and its cycles of production, consumption, and waste. She has exhibited nationally, and her work has been included in publications such as Art in America and New American Paintings in addition to numerous collections. After earning her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, Nina returned to northern New Mexico where she co-founded an off-the-grid artist residency program called PLAND: Practice Liberating Art through Necessary Dislocation.