The Seeds of a Taos Cultural Renaissance

By: Bill Whaley
21 November, 2013

An Observer’s Epiphany

This morning it occurred to me that local community leaders, political, institutional, and volunteers, in Taos today are building a bridge, secured by its foundations in local history, which recognizes the relationships of art, literature, scholarship and the reciprocal influences of the tri-cultural paradigm.

Below I underscore few examples of the way the community is changing and preserving its own history and culture, an antidote to the crass commodification of just about everything in the world out there. Just as medieval monks in isolated monasteries saved the sacred and profane texts of the past and contributed to the Renaissance, so a variety of institutions and Taosenos, more interested in passion than profits, have produced the seeds that will lead to cultural rebirth. (Mabel and Dennis would be proud.)

Despite its small size, 5000 residents in the Town and 32,000 in the County, there’s an enormous appetite for engagement with the spirit of the humanities just as there is with the preservation of the land and water i.e. Rio Grande del Norte Monument, Valle Vidal, Wild Rivers, etc. Here, in no particular order are some remarkable events and works in progress that serve as examples.

The community should congratulate the Taos County Historical Society for the publication of Taos A Topical History (Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe 2013). Although I haven’t done more than dip into the table of contents, skimmed articles and end notes, the book, edited by Corina A. Santistevan and Julia Moore, looks delicious and features a variety of native and New Mexico writers with a passion for place and people as well as an interest in scholarship.

The Harwood Museum of Art has recently received a grant of about $100,000 to help defray a $433,000 exhibition, Mabel Dodge Luhan & Company: American Moderns And The West, which will be co-curated by scholars Lois Rudnick and Malin Wilson-Powell for exhibition in the May-September period of 2016. The Harwood, as organizing institution, will offer the show to other institutions, as it did the Diebenkorn in New Mexico (2007) and Agnes Martin: The New York—Taos Connection (1947—1957) (2012). A book length catalogue will be published to accompany the show.

Further the Mabel Dodge show will be available via Internet for scholars and viewers from around the world as well as offering seminars and exhibits related to Mabel’s salon and affect on American Modernism, feminism, literature, art, patronage, and influence, whether benign or pernicious on ethnic culture and community. The Harwood, through its education department, is inviting K-12, community college, and university participation, while featuring art, artifacts, audio and video portrayals, live readings, and theatre, all based on Mabel and her connections.

The Town of Taos, as fiscal agent, sponsored and received a grant to hire architect David Henry to study, design, and produce plans for renovating the County’s old Courthouse. The old Courthouse, a treasure of adobe and viga construction, includes the courtroom with its 1935 murals, the old Easy Rider jail, and a few community shops, including a Taos County exhibition of WPA photographs. Henry has presented a detailed 200-page study to both the Town and County. Now all the pieces are in place for raising the money to begin restoring the courthouse and the Plaza, which looks more neglected than cared for but which is drawing attention from a variety of community groups as the cornerstone of the Arts and Cultural District, a project recently taken over by Taos County.

The number of books written about Taos et al is amazing. During this semester I have been teaching a UHON 300 course at UNM Upper Division and graduate program called Myth, Identity, and Experience in Taos, mostly focused on the 20th Century, including the merest smidgen of books* written about or referring to the place of Taos and its people in the history of the Southwest. One can’t forget the influence of Mabel Dodge Luhan and her connections, Frank Waters or John Collier, say, who did so much to defeat the Bursum Bill and preserve Taos Pueblo or help with the victorious take-back of Blue Lake. For an epic political thriller, see R.C. McCutcheon’s Taos Indians and the Battle for Blue Lake.

Certainly Mabel’s connections (See Lois Rudnick’s Utopian Visions) helped focus attention on Taos per the WPA Roosevelt programs that did much to focus attention on preserving the villages and Hispanic culture of Taos. In turn, the Blue Lake triumph not only ignited a resurgence of justice for Native Americans across the country but also alerted local parciantes to the “possibilities” and the stunning accomplishment of the $150 million Abeyta-Taos Pueblo Water Settlement. Sylvia Rodriguez’s documentation of local acequia practice in her book Acequia: Water Sharing, Sanctity, and Place is a testimony to virtually anonymous parciantes (except to their vecinos and families) who endure and but can no longer be considered as George Sanchez wrote, The Forgotten People.

Currently, the Taos County Art and Artifacts Committee is putting the final touches on RFPs for sculpture project in the courtyard of the new Complex and will soon be accepting donated art for the new Complex. The Commissioners are paying for the project with money saved from the construction budget. Commissioners have already paid for printing, framing, and displaying 14 magnificent WPA photographs that hang in the Chambers, an idea that will be extended to the rest of the complex, old courthouse, senior and community centers once the committee raises the money. You might say the Commissioners and the Committee are filling a gap, wherein the Forgotten People are being remembered. Over at Town Hall the Taos Arts Council has exhibited two shows.

By presenting art on public wall space, elected representatives at both the Town and County are helping close the historic gap between the art and political communities just as the museums are making every effort to become more inclusive with their programming.

And don’t forget to visit Anita Murphy at the Southwest Research Center on Civic Plaza Drive behind UNM’s branch in-town offices if you want to learn more about family history, etc. Or Las Pistoleras in El Prado…Here’s a brief list of recommended books.

*Hassrick and Cunningham’s “In Contemporary Rhythm: The Art of Ernest L. Blumenshein” (University of Oklahoma Press); Elsie Clews Parsons’ “Taos Tales” (Dover); Frank Waters’ The Man Who Killed the Deer (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press); George I. Sanchez’s Forgotten People (Used on Amazon, etc.); Sylvia Rodriguez’s “Art, Tourism, and Race Relations in Taos: Toward a Sociology of the art Colony (Journal of Anthropological Research, Vol. 45, No.1. Spring 1988, pp. 77-99); R.C. Gordon-McCutchan’s Taos Indians and the Battle for Blue Lake (UNM Press); Sylvia Rodriguez’s Acequia: Water Sharing, Sanctity, and Place (School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe, NM).

Other books from past syllabi for UNM include: David Stuart’s Anasazi America (UNM Press), Hampton Sides’s Blood and Thunder (Doubleday), Frank Waters’ To Possess the Land (Ohio University press), Suzanne Forrest’s The Preservation of the Village (UNM Press), Flannery Burke’s From Greenwich Village to Taos (University Press of Kansas), Lois Rudnick’s “Utopian Vision,” (UNM Press). “Taos Artists and Their Patrons,” 1898—1950 (Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame); David Witt’s “Modernists in Taos” and “Taos Moderns (Red Crane/UNM Press.

In a course on John Nichols: The Milagro Beanfield War, The Magic Journey, The Nirvana Blues (Ballantine). Selections from nonfiction works If Mountains Die, The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn, On the Mesa, and Dancing on the Stones.

Yours Truly also edited Paul O’Connor’s Taos Portraits, an oversize coffee table book that features photos of outlaws and artists plus outlandish and touching anecdotes from friends and family about members of the art community.

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