The day after the 2012 Santa Fe Indian Market ended, the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) made a shocking, though not unexpected, anouncement: The organization’s controversial executive director, Bruce Bernstein, was out. In October, John Torres-Nez, was named head of SWAIA; the 2013 Santa Fe Indian Market is the first with him at the helm. Alex Jacobs caught up with him to ask how he’s faring, and what he’s got planned.
What is your title, Chief Operating Officer? Executive Director? Are you involved in fund-raising, grant writing or is it mostly structure, day to day operations and the big picture?
Yes, I’m the new Chief Operating Officer which is virtually the same position as Bruce Bernstein’s but with a different name. Part of the reorganization of SWAIA was to better allocate the Executive Director’s old duties. As a result, I’m still doing all of my old duties at Deputy Director with the addition of administrative ones. The board also added local, state, and national lobbying and tribal fundraising to my plate. Additionally, we created a new, parallel position that focuses specifically on development, long and short-range. Her name is Charlene Porsild. Together we will manage the organization. In my opinion, what has hurt the organization in the past — I’ve been involved with SWAIA for 12 years , six as a volunteer and six as staff — has been the lack of continuity. Every time someone would leave, they would take all of their knowledge with them. Since I took over, I’ve been building redundancies at every position, including at the top. We can now build institutional knowledge. If someone chooses to move on, we know what they did and how they did it. It also helps create a better understanding and appreciation for everybody’s position within the organization and this builds trust and morale among the staff. We are a small organization and we must work well together. I don’t know if SWAIA has had a better team than it does right now.
In addition to the redundancy aspect of 2 leaders, the reality is much bigger than that. In the Indigenous Liberal Studies Dept. at IAIA, we talk about an “Indigenous way of knowing.” Well, I’m trying to implement that as business model. When I first proposed a leadership team with two heads, many people couldn’t understand how that could work — a top-down hierarchy model is how business works in the modern Western world. Inside my Navajo head it made perfect sense, however. “Hero-twins” have brought balance and prosperity in the past and it seemed like a perfectly reasonable model to emulate. I’m not saying we are planning on saving the world by slaying monsters, but it is a model. It is very different and I understand that it is an experiment in context of a non-profit, but it is based on non-western, indigenous way of governance and I am grateful to be given the opportunity try it. I learned, and prefer, to work horizontally, peer-to-peer, as a team working for a common good. That is what we are building here.
You are not the first Native Director of SWAIA, but it does it feel that way sometimes?
I’m not the first Native, I think Paul Rainbird is thought of as the first, but Ramona Sakiestewa was appointed interim for a while and she was technically the first Native person to head the organization. So, I guess that makes me third. But I’m the only one to work my way through the SWAIA ranks though and I think that makes a big difference.
It’s been one year, what’s it like heading up another potentially big and successful Indian Market?
It feels great. There are many constituents that make up Market, but for me, number one is still the artists. I feel like I have the trust of the artists and thats very important to me.
The City of Santa Fe has been coming up with last minute issues the last few years, but from here everything seems nice and quiet this year — is it? Last year, did the city really say Indian Market is bringing in too many people? What was the context?
I’m from Farmington, a very small town and I’ve been in Santa Fe for only 13 years but it feels like my town, my community now. It’s taken a few years, but I think Santa Feans know that SWAIA is a member of that community including the folks at City Hall. I’m not the scary guy who wants to take over Santa Fe for the weekend and leave. My relationships with the city are strong and positive. I feel like I can pop into the Mayor’s or City Manager’s office and get heard. I have coffee with the Parking Manager or grab lunch at the counter at Tia’s with folks who keep the parks watered. We are all members of the Santa Fe community. Everybody understands now that issues will come up, but we can work together to solve the problem as members of the same community and not as adversaries.
So tell us what you and your staff expect this year? Any surprises, new policies, changes in categories?
In some ways there are really no major changes but the reality is everything has changed. I have been watching and studying how art markets are changing and how art collectors now collect. The days where someone buys only one thing for 40 years, is gone. As we head towards our 100th year — this is our 92nd — we have rolled out the new leaner, meaner, hipper, cooler Indian Market. It’s time to adapt to meet the needs of the next-generation collector by having events and art that engages them. That’s film, launch parties, performance art, music, and, of course, great art — all kinds of art. I think our Indian Market Magazine that we did with Native Peoples represents that. We worked hard on those stories and they are not all about art, but they are all about Natives and about getting readers to want to come to Market. It’s our job to bring the buyers and the artists to make the sales.
Are you planning any entertainment, musicians, bands, etc? What about writers, poets, speakers?
A lot of non-gallery art is part of our SWAIA 360 programming. This program features our literary, spoken word, and musical artists. It is still in its early stages, but we will build upon it more in the upcoming years. We have both Emergence Productions and Canyon Records programming our stages for Indian Market itself.
How are your programs, such as fellowships and residencies, going?
Fellowship programs are going well for both adults and youth. We are building our youth programing now featuring our NextGen SWAIA programs where we hire adult artists to teach young artists various media and techniques.
Classification X, Film: Has this been the biggest surprise, has it been popular with visitors, artists? Are there more submissions?
Our Classification X film program has grown every year thus far since we started in 2010. Storytelling, in the form of filmmaking, in Native America is very alive and well.
In your position, what do you see coming up for Indian Market, for Contemporary Native Arts, not to predict the future but seeing any new trends, hopes, possibilities, or developments?
I have always argued that there really is no such thing as contemporary Native art. The concept of sellable art is a modern idea but making art is ancient. Innovation is traditional and making art as an expression of one’s heritage or experiences is Native. It’s the artists that makes it Native American art not the medium. So, if you are a Pueblo person who digs their clay and fires outside or if you buy porcelain clay and fire in a kiln, you are still a Pueblo potter. I always wonder what the residence of Pueblo Bonito thought when that first Chacoan that made his or her first black-on-white pot. Apparently, they liked it because within a few short years they were all making them. I certainly don’t think they thought it was “contemporary Chacoan pottery” — just innovative.
I’m going to give a nice present with a big bow! I once conceptualized (with IAIA sculpture professor Carl Ponca) a documentary film about Indian Market, following artists, staff and people around in the building intensity and craziness, then using time lapse video to film the actual Market and Features, as they are built up and organized, then the camera slows down to real time as the sun rises into that Saturday morning Market buzz. Has this idea ever come up with your staff? And aside from it costing way too much money, what other promotional projects or events have your staff members discussed?
I don’t know if they have [discussed a project like that], but I have. In fact, I want to start on the morning of August 19th at our offices and follow Market from Day 1 and end at sunrise on day 364. Follow 4 artists from that day through apps, jurying, acceptance or not, and Market build-up. Same with the staffers in PR, Development, Artist Services. I want the world to see that IM does take a whole to plan and how we do it.
Alex Jacobs, Mohawk, is a visual artist and poet living in Santa Fe.