Nearly 4,000 students have graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts, but no two individuals have had the same experience. Located about 12 miles southwest of the Santa Fe Plaza, IAIA is the only fine arts institution in the nation that offers four-year degrees in Native American and Alaska Native art. Here, in one of the most vibrantly artistic cities in America, students can immerse themselves in studio or cinematic arts, creative writing or indigenous or museum studies.
On any given day, students can be found painting, sculpting, dancing or working in a state-of-the-art fabrication lab, said IAIA President Robert Martin, who is Cherokee. The institute’s mission, to empower creativity and leadership in Native arts and cultures, means artists determine what to study and how.
“We know how important art is to all the indigenous cultures,” Martin said. “So we encourage students to bring their traditions, heritage and culture and to build on that with their own originality and creativity, and to take it to the next level.”
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About 500 students per year call this 140-acre campus home, Martin said. As many as 112 tribes are represented on campus any given year—with about 80 percent of all students coming from indigenous communities across the country.
Although this historically Native school is also open to non-Natives, all students receive an education steeped in Native culture.
“We have students from Canada, China, Japan, England and Australia,” Martin said. “You do not have to be indigenous to attend, but our mission is to create leadership in American Indian cultures, so whether they’re Native or not, it will be presented from a Native perspective.”
Much of what is offered at IAIA now comes from a long legacy of Native arts in the Southwest, Martin said. Established in 1962, during the administration of President John F. Kennedy, the institute opened on the campus of the Santa Fe Indian School.
In 1975, the institute became a two-year college offering degrees in studio arts, creative writing and museum studies. Congress in 1986 established the Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development, making IAIA one of only three congressionally chartered colleges.
The campus quickly earned a reputation for being the only national center of scholarship for American Indian arts, but still it lacked the kind of campus and facilities necessary for its educational goals, Martin said.
“The first 24 years of existence, we were BIA-operated and funded,” he said. “And during all that time, we never had our own campus.”
Then Congress enacted legislation that “essentially said that Native arts and culture are the only ones that are indigenous to this country, and they needed to be supported and researched,” Martin said. “It recognized that IAIA is the birthplace of contemporary Native art. It recognized how important art is to all these cultures.”
During the 1990s, the institute began designing a campus that is, in itself, a work of art. From an aerial view, the campus is laid out along the solstice lines with nods to the four sacred directions.
“The primary element is the central plaza,” said Dyron Murphy, Navajo, and principle of Dyron Murphy Architects. Murphy was an intern during the 1990s and helped design IAIA’s master plan. IAIA opened its doors at its new location in 2000.
“Everything radiates from that central point,” Murphy said. “The four directions were really viewed as the defining principles of what would be the layout of the entire campus, and the buildings are laid out in relation to the solstice.”
Dyron Murphy has designed five of the institute’s 12 buildings, and the firm is working on a sixth—the new performing arts and fitness center. The goal, Murphy said, is to infuse the campus with “a voice for all tribes.”
“Representing all nations from the North American continent is quite a task,” he said. “We try to capture common themes of traditional Native thought, reverence of nature and their place in the world.”
One year after opening its new campus, IAIA was accredited to award four-year degrees. And in 2013, it launched a master of fine arts program in creative writing. The first class of 17 students graduated from the MFA program in May.
IAIA also operates the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in downtown Santa Fe, and the Center for Lifelong Education, which is open for distance learning to all indigenous people worldwide.
Although IAIA continues to explore, innovate and push its boundaries, much of its success is tied to its history, Martin said. Many of the institute’s 4,000 graduates have gone on to have prestigious careers.
“IAIA is about advancing the notion of contemporary art while acknowledging the history and artistic expression that came before,” he said. “Now you see our artists at the Santa Fe Indian Market or the Heard Museum or other places. Every time there’s Native art, there’s always a connection to us.”
This story was originally published October 1, 2015.