"Love and Death in the Desert" by Alison Green
Things could have gone a very different way at 516 Central SW in 2002.
The owners at the time were looking at selling the building, which housed Magnifico art space. The director back then, Suzanne Sbarge, recalled a strip club owner coming in to look over the space, possibly to put in a bid.
“They were walking around our offices looking where to put the stripper booths,” she recalled.
Instead, the Historic District Improvement Co., or HDIC, bought it. At the time, Sbarge was a consultant for the McCune Charitable Foundation , founder of HDIC, and looked for arts organizations to take over the space after the closure of Magnifico. McCune surprised her, she said, by asking her to take on that project herself. In December 2006, 516 ARTS opened with Sbarge at its head.
“When it opened, I just thought of it as a two-year project,” Sbarge said. “I didn’t know it would be an ongoing organization. I wanted to suffuse some life into Downtown and see how it went. The response has been so overwhelmingly positive.”
Over the past five years, 516 has become one of the flagship institutions for contemporary art in New Mexico, breaking ground in many ways, including the shows it has mounted and its focus on collaboration with other arts organizations and institutions inside and outside New Mexico, as well as local governments and educational institutions.
Its LAND/ART show in 2009 was one of the largest explorations ever mounted of land-based art. It involved more than 25 arts organizations in Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Mountainair, and was one of the biggest artistic collaborations the state has ever seen. It garnered national and international press for the city.
Its 2010 show, “Street Arts: A Celebration of Hip Hop Culture & Free Expression,” got the jump on another landmark show devoted to street art in Los Angeles in 2011, and created great opportunities for dialog around that controversial genre.
I still remember going to that opening, which was absolutely packed. And it was probably the most diverse crowd I’ve ever seen in one place in Albuquerque: old, young, Anglo, Hispanic, Native American, hip hop devotees mixing with people who probably never listened to hip-hop.
That show also resulted in a slew of new murals around downtown Albuquerque.
Sbarge’s approach to collaboration and shared marketing was groundbreaking when 516 opened, and it has served 516 well as the economy tanked. The idea of collaboration is now a common theme for many nonprofits and arts organizations struggling to survive in tough economic times.
“It makes a much bigger impact than us working alone,” she said.”It filled a real need in community collaboration.”
The organization has had steady support over the years from McCune and other sources, including a fund at the Albuquerque Community Foundation , and last year it landed a two-year $70,000 grant from the Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. It also garnered support early on from the business community.
Sbarge said the ability of 516 to be small and agile also helped it survive and fill a niche, when larger institutions didn’t have that kind of freedom.
“We’re able to jump in and make things happen quickly,” she said.
This year promises to be the biggest yet for 516, which is one of the lead organizations bringing the ISEA International (formerly the Inter-Society for the Electronic Arts) show and symposium to the city this fall. Albuquerque joins the list of world-class cities such as Singapore, Munich, Istanbul and Chicago in hosting ISEA. Universities, national laboratories, nonprofits and technology firms will sponsor 22 special projects and artist residencies.
But before the world comes to Albuquerque, 516 will celebrate its fifth anniversary with a show devoted to New Mexico artists. The New Mexico Showcase opens Feb. 4 and features 80 emerging and established artists from around the state. It’s the biggest show yet of New Mexico art mounted at 516.
Slideshow: Images from New Mexico Showcase
“When we opened, it was an invitational exhibition of New Mexico artists and we thought it would be nice to open it up to all New Mexico artists and to find artists we don’t know much about and have a broader look at work being done in New Mexico,” Sbarge said. “The other reason is, we’ll focus so much on international artists later in the year, we thought it would be a good way to celebrate local artists and look at the talent in our home state.”
About 279 artists submitted 1,018 works. Juror Peter Frank selected one piece by 73 of the artists and added in one piece each from seven other artists he wanted to honor. Frank is an acclaimed curator and art critic based in Los Angeles. He is associate editor of Fabrik magazine and art critic forThe Huffington Post . He comes to New Mexico often, Sbarge said, and also has an international perspective. He has written reviews on 516 shows for the Huffington Post. Frank wrote about the show 516 did in 2009 that featured Albuquerque and Los Angeles artists, which was mounted at 516 and in L.A.
“He wanted to highlight the abundance of local talent here,” Sbarge said. “It’s a showcase of what is happening now.”
Frank said in a news release that given New Mexico’s reputation as a locus for artistic talent, he was not surprised to be deluged with serious and even surprising work from all over the state.
“It was a delight, not a chore, to sift through the submissions, never knowing what was coming next, but reasonably sure it wouldn’t be the same old, same old,” he said in the release. “The hard part was winnowing the submissions down to a selection that could fit into 516’s space. As capacious as it is, New Mexico’s worthy art could fill it many times over.”
The exhibit will include a talk on March 17 about New Mexico women artists as part of the Women & Creativity series organized by the National Hispanic Cultural Center, and a poetry showcase on April 28.