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Filling in the Blanks

Vokoun with his piece Structure of a Sunset (2017), oil on panel, right, at a Vital Spaces group show.

Nonprofit Vital Spaces fosters Santa Fe’s contemporary art scene with affordable studio space and more

Art Matters
BY ASHLEY M. BIGGERS

After 18 years of living and working as an artist in New Mexico, John Vokoun was ready to leave the state. As many mid-career artists do, he’d seen sales of his Information Age–inspired contemporary paintings lag. With the price of studio spaces in Santa Fe double what they’d once been, he could no longer afford to stay. “I had one foot out the door,” he says. Then he discovered Vital Spaces.

The nonprofit organization occupies vacant buildings across the City Different to provide affordable studio space to an array of underrepresented artists. Vital Spaces also aims to enhance Santa Fe’s cultural scene by allowing artists space to create, show their work, collaborate, and teach. With three physical spaces across Santa Fe, it has also pivoted during COVID-19 to engage the public with art and provide paid opportunities to artists.

Jonathan Boyd, a furniture maker with a background in real estate investing, founded Vital Spaces. As his fine furniture business grew, he noticed that downtown Santa Fe studio space was exorbitantly expensive. “It was prohibitive to a young creative wanting to start a business and have their work seen in the world,” he says. At the same time, however, every time he would walk around the plaza, he would notice the throng of storefronts and offices standing vacant. “I had this idea to fill the vacancies with temporary space for creatives, which would serve emerging artists and serve the city as a whole.”

After Boyd’s brainstorm, he discovered a similar organization already existed. Anita Durst’s Chashama does comparable work in New York City. Durst was “essential in me moving forward so quickly,” Boyd says. She mentored Boyd during Vital Space’s start-up phase, and the legal frameworks she shared allowed Boyd to fast-track the opening. In March 2019 he debuted the first of now three Vital Spaces annexes at 220 Otero Street. The 8,000-square-foot space is walking distance from the plaza and was awaiting redevelopment to become luxury condos. In fall 2019, Vital Spaces took over a corner retail space at 1604 St. Michael’s Drive, where artists such as RJ Ward, Israel Haros Lopez and John Paul Granillo from the Alas de Agua Art Collective, and Sarah Stolar have mounted short-term displays. In February 2020, it leased a space in Santa Fe’s Midtown that was formerly part of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design.

Vital Spaces has signed agreements with 25 artists. It accepts new artists via rolling applications, which a curatorial committee reviews. Committee members include Amber-Dawn Bear Robe, faculty member, Institute of American Indian Arts; Joanne Lefrak, director of education and curator of public practice at SITE Santa Fe; Bess Murphy, curator at the Ralph T. Coe Center for the Arts; and Ariel Plotek, curator of fine arts at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. “We’re trying to help the populations that are underrepresented in any way you take that word,” Boyd says. The committee hopes to support Indigenous and Latinx artists, as well as those in underrepresented mediums, like performance art. Rent is set at a standard $100 per month; some who are unable to afford that fee help out more, and those who can pay more do.

As artists like Vokoun attest, access to affordable studio space can make or break creative careers and programming. Musician, poet, DJ, and event mastermind Raashan Ahmad’s critically acclaimed albums have taken him to performances all over the world, but as an artist (and dad) working from home, it was difficult to be prolific. “Literally there was a before and after I got that space,” he says. “My productivity went through the roof.”

In December 2019, Ana Gallegos y Reinhardt, longtime Warehouse 21 Executive Director, helped the youth-focused arts nonprofit move out of the Santa Fe Railyard after 22 years. Now serving as a consultant, she helped W21 establish a hub site at Vital Spaces. There, they set up a recording studio, where it has recorded interviews with teens talking about the arts and plans to produce podcasts in the future. “Vital Spaces brings visions to reality for artists. A lot of the artists wouldn’t be producing at the level they are without it, especially due to the affordable studio rental fee. It’s such a huge relief,” she says.

With diverse artists working side by side, Vital Spaces has become fertile creative ground. “There’s something about the small occurrences of interactions,” Vokoun says. “It’s pretty inspirational for me on a personal level. And a lot of the artists here are asking my opinions of their work. I’ll be working on sculptures this year as a result of those conversations.” Vokoun is planning to collaborate with Justin Skillstad, whose work focuses on the internal human narrative and whose mediums range from glass to cardboard, and Patience Pollock, an interdisciplinary artist who often uses found materials.

“In so many ways, it’s just about being inspired by beautiful things,” Ahmad says. “I walk in and there’s a huge quilt being made, or someone is prepping for a show with huge paintings laid out on the ground. It’s so inspiring to be in a place where so much creativity is happening.”

Creativity is indeed happening. With its artists taking the lead, Vital Spaces has mounted gallery shows, held workshops, thrown dance parties, and more. “I’ve tried to use every inch of that building,” Ahmad says. “I’ve thrown a couple different youth workshops there. I held a storytelling event there. They are very open for us to be artists and do whatever we want to do creatively.”

Setting up artists to explore and evolve is at the heart of Vital Spaces’ mission and its far-reaching effects. “Santa Fe has this reputation as an arts town,” Boyd says. “To be perfectly honest, I believe it’s riding the coattails of that reputation. It’s working with a model of collecting and art engagement that’s dated. It’s essential to make a way for Santa Fe to be an art destination in the future.”

For a time, Meow Wolf represented the leading edge of art employment and engagement for young and emerging artists. However, that role seems to be evolving. “Meow Wolf is working to provide careers and a youthful vibrancy to this city, which I believe is an essential ingredient in Santa Fe’s success,” Boyd says. “But with the success of Meow Wolf has come higher rents in what was a more affordable part of this city, making studio space even harder to come by.” Vital Spaces is working with engaged, studio-practice-based artists and making sure they have time and space to explore their work.

As the new coronavirus hit in the spring of 2020, what it meant to support artists within and beyond Vital Spaces changed rapidly. Santa Fe Public Schools commissioned Vital Spaces’ artists to record at-home, educational art projects to share with students. It also drafted off similar initiatives happening across the country to create #NMTwinning. It invited the public to reinterpret works from five New Mexico institutions: Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Ralph T. Coe Center for the Arts, IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Museum of International Folk Art, and New Mexico Museum of Art. It also sent out prize money to the community—five randomly selected $200 prizes each week in May, and three top prizes of $300.

In May, Vital Spaces partnered with 516 ARTS in Albuquerque and The Paseo Project in Taos in an open call for submissions for Windows on the Future. The show, installed July 1 and up for a month, featured 60 different artists or organizations who mounted displays in vacant storefront windows in the three host cities. Each participant received a $500 stipend for the installation. “We wanted to get desperately needed money out to the artistic community. And we saw it as an opportunity to invite the public to safely engage with vibrant art installations that are very much of this moment but look to the future,” Boyd says. In Santa Fe, selected projects included one from W21 featuring work by students. What It Feels Like to Be Free featured portraits of migrant children that have died in southern border detention camps. Sean Paul Gallegos from Albuquerque installed Yes, Strings Attached! featuring hand-sewn anatomical hearts with strings stretching between them to represent the invisible lines connecting humanity. And, in another project, Santa Fe artist Daniel Forest installed an assemblage of ceramic forms that mimicked a coral reef.

Perhaps these window installations will give viewers a taste of what the Vital Spaces’ artists experience in their space. “We can reflect on the meaning of aesthetics and the role of art in our lives,” Vokoun says. “A huge part of it for people like myself is having the time and space to dream and ponder.”