New Mexico Museum of Art

Celebrating 100 Years Of The Art & Soul of New Mexico

May 01, 2017

Jennifer Padilla

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: April 4, 2017 (Santa Fe, NM) - On November 25, 1917, the New Mexico Museum of Art officially opened its doors to the public with much fanfare and delight. A crowd of 1200 gathered to celebrate the opening of the state’s first art museum. Lawyer and newspaperman Frank Springer gave the opening speech stating, “The Art Museum shall uplift us to the level of our own better natures; and make us worthy of the heritage which the mighty Past has left us.”

New Mexico’s artistic past, present and future converge during 2017 as the New Mexico Museum of Art celebrates its 100-year anniversary. From September 18 to November 25, 2017 the New Mexico Museum of Art will be closed for restoration of floors and walls, installation of three new exhibitions, and re-imagining each Museum visit to enhance the visitors’ experience for generations to come.

Over the birthday year, the Museum will host a series of 100 programs, events and celebrations honoring its past and looking ahead to its future. Beginning on Saturday, November 25, 2017, the Museum’s 100th birthday, guests can participate in a day-long celebration of this historic milestone. Visitors are invited to pose for a centennial group photograph, tour exciting new exhibitions in the galleries, listen to music in St. Francis Auditorium and enjoy special programs and activities designed for all ages. This event is free and open to the public 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.

From the presentation of the museum’s collection to once-in-a-lifetime events—there is something for everyone during the Museum of Art’s centennial year. And because birthdays are all about surprises, a few of those are planned too.

Once a welcoming studio site for New Mexico artists, over the past century thousands of museum patrons and New Mexico students have enjoyed such world-class exhibitions as: Renaissance to Goya: Prints and Drawings from Spain; First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare; Excavating Egypt; and Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910-1950.

Throughout the centennial celebration, the Museum invites everyone to join us. There will be exciting events for children and adults of all ages and interests, upgraded facilities, and exhibitions celebrating the past and future of art in New Mexico.


Built in the Northwest corner of historic Santa Fe Plaza, the Museum of Art’s location mirrors its significance as a cornerstone in New Mexico’s emergence as a world class art market.

Marrying the promising state’s artistic future with its diverse cultural past, visionary city leaders erected the state’s first museum directly across the street from the Palace of Governors, the epicenter of 300 years of New Mexico history under the flags of Spanish,

Mexican, Territorial U.S. and even the Confederate government. The story of the Museum of Art begins long before the doors opened in 1917. The natural beauty of New Mexico’s desert landscape, expansive skies, and majestic mountain ranges has inspired creative expression among many peoples. Ancient petroglyphs and pre-Puebloan kivas speak to creation of art in these lands before New Mexico was even a territory.

With the coming of the railroad in the late 1800s, the number of visitors who ventured to New Mexico and the Southwest grew and so did the interest in the pottery, weaving, and artworks of Native Americans in the region. As the United States expanded west, so, too, did many artists who found themselves entranced with New Mexico’s scenic vistas, expansive landscapes, air, the quality of light, and ever-changing skies.

Even before New Mexico became the 47th state in the union on January 6, 1912, many community leaders recognized the unique appeal of New Mexico Territory to artists and to art patrons. Increasing numbers of visitors flocked to the now-accessible Southwest, creating a new source of revenue for the fledgling state – tourism.

As Santa Fe grew, adobe buildings were being replaced by brick commercial buildings with plate glass windows and brick bungalow cottages. Concerned civic leaders, including archaeologists and artists, took up a crusade to stop the loss of Santa Fe’s historic character. In the fall of 1912, a group of New Mexico artists staged the New-Old Santa Fe exhibition at the Palace of the Governors with images and models of what Santa Fe architecture could and they hoped would be. The leader of this group was archaeologist, visionary, and cultural entrepreneur Edgar Lee Hewett.

Hewett and his associates at the Museum of New Mexico believed the “New-Old” Santa Fe exhibit was historically appropriate, and an antidote to the homogenization of American architecture and the encroachment of Colonial- style buildings. They also thought it would attract visitors and much needed revenue from tourism.

One of several like-minded visionaries Hewett enlisted in the museum effort was Sylvanus Griswold Morley, a Harvard man who spent half the year in Santa Fe promoting it, and the other half in Mexico as a preeminent archaeologist at Mayan Yucatan. Morley commissioned local architect Isaac Rapp to create a watercolor from a picture he had seen of a Colorado mining camp with warehouse façade based on the Mission at Acoma Pueblo.

Meanwhile Hewett was invited to be director of exhibits at the Panama California Exhibition in San Diego in 1915. Hewett, too, enlisted Rapp, and asked the architect to develop the Acoma-inspired warehouse to serve as the State of New Mexico’s pavilion at the San Diego exhibition. The pavilion design proved to be such a success in San Diego that it prompted the New Mexico lawmakers to approve the model for a new art museum.

In March 1915, the New Mexico Legislature appropriated $30,000 for half the cost of constructing an art museum. Frank Springer, a wealthy, politically influential attorney from Northern New Mexico was the primary donor and fundraiser who raised the additional $30,000 matching money to construct the museum.

Santa Fe citizens urged the Santa Fe Board of Education to deed their land at the corner of Lincoln and Palace known as the “old barracks” to the museum effort. Finally, New Mexico had an appropriate space for the burgeoning artist colony to work. The creation of the art museum prompted artist Robert Henri to write that in Santa Fe “painters are treated with that welcome and appreciation that is supposed to exist only in certain places in Europe.” (El Palacio Vol. 4 No. 4 1917 p. 98) It was Henri who suggested to Edgar Lee Hewett, that the museum keep a policy of exhibiting artists of all schools of thought.

The building would become appreciated as a work of art in its own right. The art museum serves as a prime example of what is called the “Pueblo Revival” style. Architects Rapp and Rapp based their design for the museum on the churches that were built in New Mexico when Santa Fe was the capital of the colony of New Spain. These churches are distinct from Spanish mission churches in other areas because they were made using materials and designs native to the area. It was this fusion of Spanish and indigenous cultures that served as the model for the art museum.

The Franciscan churches were the perfect prototype for the new museum because they were both unique to New Mexico and also served as gathering spaces for the community. The museum was intended as a secular meeting ground for the people of New Mexico in a new era of American statehood. Each week following the opening, Tuesday evenings were called Museum Night, a social hour around the fireplace. The Red Cross and Women’s Naval Service held meetings at the museum while the country was embroiled in World War I.

The auditorium hosted lectures, concerts, and memorials on a regular basis. Here art, architecture and community were in perfect harmony.

Much has changed since the Museum opened its doors 100 years ago. The city and state have grown in population. Contemporary art is larger and more complex. Yet the Museum of Art has continuously renewed its commitment to inspire artists of different cultures and the larger community.


Known to many New Mexicans as the “Father of Zozobra,” (Old Man Gloom burned annually during Fiesta weekend) Santa Fe artist Will Shuster was commissioned

by the Federal Emergency Relief Agency to paint murals in the courtyard of the Art Museum. The project lasted all of 1934.

From the mid-1940s through the end of the 1950’s (13 Sep 1944 - 15 Jun 1959), the Museum hosted a series of multi-venue exhibitions outside of Santa Fe each lasting about six weeks. The exhibitions featured works by artists living in New Mexico, and were often available for purchase. The exhibitions would start to travel in the fall and ended their run-in spring of the next calendar year.

Museum founder and Director of the Museum of New Mexico, Edgar Lee Hewett died December 31, 1946. His ashes are interred in the courtyard of the art museum that he created.

The association with the School of American Research and the Museum of New Mexico ended in January 1958 when the New Mexico Legislature voted to sever ties between the two citing constitutional concerns

During the last year of the Kennedy administration, Museum Director, James Taylor Forrest changed the name of the museum to the “Museum of Fine Arts.”

In the mid-70s, Governor Bruce King and First Lady Alice King established the Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts to honor New Mexicans who have made a significant lifetime contribution to the arts. The Museum of Art’s St. Francis Auditorium was chosen as the site for the first ceremony held on October 13, 1974, and has hosted the ceremony every fall since. Recipients include such luminaries as artist Judy Chicago; actor, director Robert Redford; ‘Game of Thrones’ author, George R.R. Martin; actor Wes Studi; artists David Bradley and Peter Hurd and many other artists, art educators and philanthropists.

First Lady of New Mexico Clara Apodaca, (1975-1978) expanded the role of the Museum of Art in 1975. As an outreach facility for the Museum of Art, Apodaca founded the Governor’s Gallery on the 4th floor of the State Capitol.  The first exhibition featured the paintings of world-renowned artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, who closely supervised the installation. The Governor’s Gallery has continuously displayed works from the Museum’s collection ever since.

Sixty-three years after it opened, in 1980, the Museum of Art closed its doors for an upgrade. New Wing galleries were built, the sculpture garden was upgraded, and collection storage and office spaces in the basement of the museum were renovated.  During the renovation, in October, the museum put on a joint Lowriders exhibition with the Palace of the Governors on Santa Fe Plaza. The museum reopened to celebrate its 64th year on May 15, 1981. The museum name was legally changed to New Mexico Museum of Art on February 7, 2007 with the passage of Senate Bill 276 by the New Mexico Legislature.

In the past century, thousands of New Mexicans, school students and tourists have walked through the doors of the Museum of Art. 

To learn more about the history of the New Mexico Museum of Art, see below for links to articles in El Palacio, the oldest museum magazine in the country. Published since 1913, El Palacio—now as then—reflects the work of New Mexico’s four state museums in Santa Fe; its eight New Mexico Historic Sites; and its singular Office of Archaeological Studies.

Related Photos

NMMoA Centennial logo - BW Horizontal
NMMoA Centennial logo - BW Square
NMMoA Centennial logo - BW Vertical
NMMoA Centennial logo - Color Horizontal
NMMoA Centennial logo - Color Square
NMMoA Centennial logo - Color Vertical
Storm from La Bajada Hill
Pueblo Pottery
Hand-colored lantern slide, ca. 1920
Employment in Public Works
The Black Shawl
Awakening (Memory of Father)
NMoA Centennial Timeline
History of the NMMoA Building

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