Some Elders not included? End of tenure program at Indian Market sparks debate

Some say the tenure program ensured elder artists remained, others say it was an unfair advantage

Santa Fe, NM – There's a growing controversy between Santa Fe Indian Market officials and Native artists who have long been involved with showing their artwork. Due to the cancellation of a pre-existing tenure program and new submission process, many artists -- who say they depend on the event as a large part of their annual income -- did not get accepted to this year's market.

Indian Market officials at the SWAIA, the acronym for Southwestern Association for Indian Arts say the tenure program was never meant to be permanent. The tenure program has previously allowed artists to automatically get a booth without going through the jury process, yet physical space around the Santa Fe Plaza is limited, so bringing in new artists has meant that some artists are losing their booth space due to a more selective selection process.

Artists who have been part of the Indian Market say the tenure program kept distinguished and respected artists at the Indian Market. Yet elder artists might struggle if they do not have access to today’s technology, and fall short during the submission process.

Vanessa Paukeigope Jennings, Kiowa Tribe, who was named a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Washington D.C. and honored as a “Living American Treasure” by the U.S. Congress and is a multiple award-winner at Indian Market, was told she wouldn’t get a booth at this year’s event.

“I make Kiowa cradleboards,” says Jennings. “Santa Fe’s Indian Market is the only place that an aging and dying dinosaur like me can possibly sell these beautiful and significant sculptural pieces,” she said.

“I make Kiowa cradleboards,” says Jennings. “Santa Fe’s Indian Market is the only place that an aging and dying dinosaur like me can possibly sell these beautiful and significant sculptural pieces,” she said. Courtesy photo

Jennings said she was also shocked when Dr. Linda Lomaheftewa, a Hopi and Choctaw printmaker, painter, and educator who was born in 1947 and lives in Santa Fe was not accepted to this year’s market. “I was absolutely stunned when I found out that Dr. Linda Lomaheftewa, who I have always admired and idolized, and so many other important artists were not accepted by the Indian Market officials.”

“Yes it’s true that art evolves,” said Jennings. “However, artists like Dr. Lomaheftewa should not be wadded up and tossed away as if trash. Tradition, evolution and continuation of our traditional art should be treated with reverence, dignity and respect.”

The new requirement for artists to supply high resolution photographs with their application is presenting problems, especially for older people living in remote areas. The images and descriptions are all that the jurors see in order to score the artists’ work. There is no consideration of the artists’ history of awards, or family legacy. A number of artists learned they didn’t make the cut because the photos they submitted of their artwork were not professional-quality images.

Elizabeth Kirk, Isleta Pueblo and Navajo, who has been the chair of the board of directors for SWAIA for the past two years and a member of the board since 2014, says the tenure program was never meant to be permanent.

“The tenure program was only to be temporary,” said Kirk. “It was to give New Mexico artists, in particular, some insurance. Prior to 1992 iIt wasn’t a juried show – it was invitation only. Whoever was in charge of the invitations would just pick and choose who was invited to the show and they would just give them a booth. But as the show grew because of the interest from all around, (we) decided it needed to be juried to get the best of the best. We thought there was no other way to let in more new artists.”

Don Owen, the executive director of SWAIA in 1992 when the tenure program was launched, who is also a former jewelry judge at the Indian Market calls foul on the new decision.

“This whole thing about a two-year tenure program is pretty ridiculous, I don’t think (the board of directors) knows what tenure means,” said Owen. “It was surprising that decision was made (to end the tenure program) since that was never meant to happen. I don’t know where they got the idea they could do that. I have no idea what chain of action was taken. I think it was just some people re-writing the history of the organization to benefit their agendas.”

Kathleen Wall, an award-winning artist from Jemez Pueblo who has been a clay potter for 24 years, specializing in Koshare clown figures, says the tenure program wasn’t fair.

Kathleen Wall from Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico has been selling her art at Indian Market since 1995. She is widely known for her clay Koshare clown figures. She believes some Native artists rely too much on Indian Market and need to expand their vision of the Indian art market to stay competitive. Courtesy photo

“Ultimately the tenure program was not fair to artists who have no tenure. To me it was unethical. It was supposed to be taken off the grid. It is a lot of work to fill out the application and pay for photographs to ensure that you’re competitive. When it actually came down to competing with all the other artists, that’s when the tenured artists didn’t make it. It really is a bummer”

“Some of the people who don’t go to other markets and see how hard it is don’t understand. It’s kind of enabling. I think some amazing artists didn’t reach their full potential because they only did Indian Market. It’s a competitive world in every aspect,” said Wall.

Kirk explained that it’s not just a war of words, she says people get hostile. “We get threats of violence for not letting people in. There are people that come into the offices that are upset and they are rude, they’re abrasive and it’s beyond me why anyone would think that’s acceptable.”

The Santa Fe Indian Market will take place August 18-19. It is the largest juried Native art market in the world.

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