Food For the Soul

“We don’t have any grocery stores downtown any more,” our Santa Fe hostess told us. “They’ve all been turned into art galleries.”

Strictly speaking, this isn’t precisely the case. We saw three supermarkets within a few minutes’ drive of the old downtown historic district, plus a small grocery store only a few blocks from the plaza. True, this last seemed to cater more to visitors from the nearby hotels than to local householders doing the week’s shopping. It ran to expensive imported chocolates, gourmet cookies, and exotic meats, rather than ordinary produce and canned goods. It’s the only grocery store I’ve ever been in that listed “caviar” on one of its overhead aisle signs.

So food for the soul has not completely displaced food for the body in Santa Fe. Still, there are more art galleries in the downtown area than it would seem one small city could possibly support. Surely the tourists can’t buy that much fine art.

Just walking casually through the downtown area, we passed at least 50 galleries. Contemporary art. Traditional Native American art. Textile art—some of it formerly known as weaving. Imported Mexican art. The art of Russia. Western art. Folk art—complete, in one case, with a sign out front proclaiming, “Jesus says buy folk art.”

A few obviously thriving galleries were housed in grand buildings with attractive courtyards and carefully designed sculpture gardens. Some of the artworks were by familiar names; all of them were priced in the range of “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”

A second tier consisted of galleries that were less grand, but still appeared to be well-established and presumably successful.

The third tier included the many small galleries—tucked into elderly adobe buildings crowded next to their neighbors, with small signs out front and perhaps a few pieces of sculpture crowded into a tiny front yard. Many of them featured the work of only one or two artists, who from the mixed residential/business appearance of the neighborhoods may well have lived upstairs. For all I know, some of them may reap more financial benefit from the tax deductions related to having businesses in their homes than they do from sales of their art.

Seeing this much art crowded into one small downtown inevitably leads to ponderings about what is art and what is not. My conclusion? I don’t know. My favorites tended to be the elegant, realistic sculptures and the paintings of recognizable subjects, rather than the blobs-of-muddy-color abstracts. This may mean I have classic good taste, or it may mean my eye is untrained and my esthetic sense is hopelessly provincial.

I must confess, though, that on one occasion I visited a gallery solely in search of sustenance for my stomach rather than my soul. The sign said there was a coffee and snack shop in the back. (In defense of this lapse into barbarism, my choices were limited. It was Sunday, and the downtown grocery store was closed.) I wasn’t impressed with the art, but the tuna salad and the chocolate chip cookies were excellent.

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