An alternative Indian market in Santa Fe

August 19, 2018

By midafternoon Saturday, organizer Gregory Schaaf estimated about 2,500 people had strolled through the doors of the Scottish Rite Center to get a glimpse of the first Free Indian Art Market — an alternative to the well-known and highly attended Santa Fe Indian Market on surrounding blocks.

Lining the walls of the Masonic center ballroom were nearly 70 Native American artists. There were potters and jewelry makers, weavers and painters.

Some are so celebrated that they had pieces in Smithsonian museums, and had won best of show and other awards from the Santa Fe Indian Market.

On a wall above the entrance was a sign that read “Hall of Honor.”

Shaaf, a retired professor of Native American history spearheaded and put up the initial funds for the Free Indian Market. He didn’t pick the name of the ballroom when he reserved the space, he said, but the placement seemed appropriate.

“Isn’t it perfect?” he said. “It’s the most appropriate name for this hall you could ever imagine.”

Schaaf started the Free Indian Art Market to serve Native artists who weren’t invited to the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts market, particularly elder artists who had attended for decades but were not invited back in recent years following the controversial end to the market’s tenure policy that had granted long-term artists a booth at the show.

Santa Fe Indian Market directors have called the decision a way to level the playing field for artists, all of whom have to go through a blind jury process to qualify for the show. Ira Wilson, appointed as the SWAIA executive director earlier this year, has said he’s considering new ways to preserve space for traditional artists.

For some artists, being turned down for the first time felt like a blind-sided punch.

Lloyd Suina son of Cochiti Pueblo potter Ada Suina, said the decision was difficult for his mother, whose application for the market was rejected for the first time this year.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, how many ribbons you won, what your accomplishments are,” Suina said of his mother. “It think it’s more of heartbreak for her that someone else thinks her art isn’t up to the standards.”

Both Lloyd and his mother showed their work at the Free Indian Market on Saturday. By midafternoon, he thought sales were strong. His mother had already sold out, he said.

For other venerated artists in the room, the atmosphere was what stood out.

“As I look around, [there’s] love and support here. And the opportunity to share our traditions, share our stories that are passed on from one generation to the next,” said Sheryl Susunkewa, a Hopi painter from Arizona. “This is our way of life.”

Sheryl Susunkewa was at Saturday’s free market with her parents, Manfred, who makes kachina dolls, and Norma, who makes baskets. The family has been in the SWAIA market since the late 1970s, Sheryl Susunkewa said, and had their applications denied for the first time this year.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for the elders who didn’t get accepted and their families to be here,” Sheryl Susunkewa said. “… There are award-winning artists, lifetime achievement winners as well. They have stories to tell.”

Former Santa Fe Indian Market best of show winner and potter Lonnie Vigil of Nambé Pueblo said sales were somewhat slow for him Saturday morning. But, he added, sales on market weekend have been slow for him since about 2011.

Vigil says he wasn’t denied entry to the market this year, but that new technological standards for entering the SWAIA market created a barrier for him. He was waiting for a paper application and missed the deadline to apply for the market online.

Afterward, Vigil said, he trusted a new opportunity would arise. Then, he heard about Schaaf’s show.

“I’m very happy to be here,” Vigil said. “It feels like a reunion, or almost sort of like a feast day gathering when you see people that you haven’t seen over the course of the year. It’s almost a celebration.”

Schaaf said he was happy with Saturday’s turnout. He didn’t need overflow crowds to declare a success, just the kinds of dedicated buyers that he said were circling around the silent auction tables for the better part of the afternoon.

After Schaaf started to advertise the market, he said, sponsors came out of the woodwork. The Scottish Rite Temple gave the market a discount on their daily rental rates, galleries around town offered to pay for sponsorship spots and individuals and artists donated money and art to sell at a silent auction.

All of the money, he said, will go to paying for the cost to rent the space and put on the show that was free for artists and the public to attend. Any extra funds, he said, will help rent space for next year’s show.

Even before he knew the turnout over the course of the weekend, before he knew how much money the artists made or whether he had covered the costs of the show, Schaaf said he was certain he would have a show in 2019 if he needs to.

“As long as there is a need for a Free Indian Market, for the elders and their children and grandchildren to have a space to show, we will show,” Schaaf said. “If all of a sudden [the Santa Fe Indian Market] brings back the elders, and they give them back their booth space and there’s no more need for the show, then I’ll go back to retirement.”

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