Yes, 2021 was Another. Challenging. Year.

You don’t need anyone to tell you that. 

Even with clouds, though, there were some rays of sunshine to be found. Under the auspices of New Mexico’s public health protocols tourists returned to Taos and the sidewalks were once again filled with visitors.   

So how did those in the arts and cultural communities — whose role it is to maintain and nurture the vibrancy of Taos as an internationally acclaimed art colony — really make out?

Some, such as the Couse-Sharp Historic Site, used the downtime to steam ahead with infrastructure improvements. The year 2021 saw the completion of its highly-anticipated Lunder Research Center, a museum facility dedicated to early Taos art and the contemporary artists who find inspiration in Taos, said Executive Director Davison Koenig.

For others, adaptability became the key stratagem of the year, with many museums, galleries and artists expanding their social media presences and offering an abundance of online events. Doing so created some unexpected outcomes.

The venerated Taos Fall Arts Festival went virtual in 2021 with a springtime festival which garnered national attention. “More people than ever then became interested in following Fall Arts, so it was our chance to invigorate interest in our community,” said artist Norlynne Coar, a member of the TFAF board and its marketing director. She noted attendance for the autumn show was unexpectedly robust.

High Road Artisans, who also host an annual fall arts festival, tapped into technology and created a free app that gave interested visitors a tool for planning their visit to the sprawling countryside. “We were stunned by the number of people— and from all over — who downloaded and used the app,” artist Nick Beason, and one of the event’s planners, recalled. 

And museums broadened their reach with special online markets and auctions, including virtual programming with artists via YouTube and Facebook Live channels. “In fact, in moving forward the only certainty for us is continuing hybrid events because the virtual components reached audiences all over the country,” said Greta Brunschwyler, executive director of Millicent Rogers Museum.

The Harwood Museum of Art likewise hosted online series and Zoom events: some as part of collaborative programming with other museums; others hosting performances with guests like Taos Chamber Music and the Taos Academy of Performing Arts; and curator-led interviews with real-time artist interaction leading the pack.

Regardless, “Creativity is key to our resilience, and art offers us moments of inspiration and reprieve from an otherwise unrelenting year. One thing we’ve recognized during this time is that art [has more] power when we bring people together to experience it communally. We look forward to sharing art, creativity and inspiration with everyone again: not in isolation, but hopefully together again in 2022,” said the Harwood’s director, Juniper Leherissey. Amen to that.

The attraction of Taos as a pandemic destination was heightened by its relative isolation and bounty of outdoor activities available to all ages and abilities, but it’s hard to imagine the burgeoning online presence of the town’s artisans didn’t factor into the enthusiasm of visitors.

“As part of the larger pandemic trend for folks to spend more on their homes and less on travel they have been investing in fine art. We have seen the historic market, including Taos Society of Artists, selling well,” observed Koenig.

“Happily, the arts in Taos seem to be rebounding. That's certainly been our experience at Taos Art Museum,” its executive director, Christy Coleman, said. “After we fully reopened, attendance not only exceeded our projections, but we're experiencing higher visitation than we did in 2019 before Covid hit the U.S.”

And gallery owners are feeling the positive effects, as well.

Rob Nightingale, owner of Wilder Nightingale Fine Art, categorized the year as “mind-blowing, in a positive way. Once the doors opened the people came in full force.” He also noted the gallery had, “a lot of first time buyers sprucing up their homes with art.”

Pat Pollard, an abstract painter who is one of nine artist-owners of Sage Fine Art Gallery on the plaza, said, “We had double the sales from our previous best year.” She credits that to the artists’ scheduling open hours as often as possible, and tourists, “thrilled to find us open and offering a friendly, customer-driven atmosphere.”

In a period of isolation and lack of contact with others, art became a balm for the soul: a connection to others through their work and the visions behind it, agreed artist and gallerist Gregory Farah.

“The desire to acquire pretty things is psychological medicine,” he mused. “With more people working from home, or moving and needing to feather their new nests, it’s not surprising that art became an important commodity. It’s a sharing of creative energy, which was sorely needed after extended isolation.”

However, for many Native artists the year was a struggle, due to the centuries-deep cultural difference in the manner in which most of them sell their work, Farah explained.

“The way Native artists have traditionally peddled their wares goes back to the trading post days and that remains true,” Farah said. “Few have affiliations with brick-and-mortar galleries. Instead, their livelihood depends upon selling from shops or booths on their ancestral lands; following the market and museum circuits; the festival and feast days; the pow wows.”

“It’s an old-school but very cool lifestyle,” he continued. “It’s a personal experience for the buyer and the seller and a chance for visitors to learn about the tribe. And tribal members get to travel and visit their families.”

But, while Taos Pueblo (and other pueblos) remain closed to the public and such events are paused, the ability of some Native artists to sell their art has been severely curtailed.

This week, silversmith Lyle Wright of Taos Pueblo is celebrating the opening of his new shop, Lyle’s Creations. Located on McCarthy Plaza, it’s a venue not just for his own contemporary jewelry but for other craftspersons from the Pueblo.

“I’ve done great the last couple of years but that’s due to years of business experience and just simple things like having a smart phone and online access,” he stated. “A lot of the little curio shops and food vendors from the Pueblo don’t have that,” making it difficult for them to transition in these times. “So many of them have given up and looked for other jobs to take care of their families.”

As his success grew, he was determined to help others. “It made me think: what can I do to help people who need it?” Opening his gallery and gathering other artists, Wright hopes, will bring a renewed audience for Pueblo artisans and their crafts.

Wright gratefully acknowledged the support for his quest throughout the larger art community, now hindered mainly by the continuing isolation of Taos Pueblo. But he’s hopeful that in 2022 things may begin to turn around.

And that is the best of this 2021 Taos art community retrospective: hands reaching out to lift up others. Because that is how our precious creative colony will continue to survive, grow, and thrive.

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