516 ARTS in Albuquerque rarely follows a conventional path, so combining choreography and murals in a national wildlife refuge seems an appropriate way to celebrate its 10th anniversary. Golden Migration was created by choreographer Lisa Nevada and artist Chip Thomas. The work is a meditation on climate change and an exploration of the relationship between humans and birds, many of which migrate through Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge south of downtown Albuquerque. It’s one of four site-based projects for “Decade,” the show marking 516 ARTS’ 10th anniversary. Nevada and Thomas didn’t know each other, but Suzanne Sbarge, founder and executive director of 516 ARTS, often throws together artists to see what they can create, and these partnerships are hallmarks of the organization, which brings together Albuquerque and New Mexico-based contemporary artists with colleagues from across the country and even the world. “I strongly believe local artists need to interact with the rest of the world and show side-by-side with the rest of the world,” Sbarge explains. “Being in the middle of nowhere here in the desert, it’s easy to get isolated.”
More than 1,000 artists have been part of 516’s exhibitions and public programs over the last decade. They have confronted issues such as climate change, immigration, racism, the impact of technology, and sexism. Fifteen of those artists have returned to create “Decade.” That legacy has also resulted in 20 murals throughout downtown Albuquerque. Some are temporary but most are permanent, and the collaborative ethos has extended into other art forms as well, with musicians, poets, dancers and actors participating in events and installations at the gallery over the years. As a result, the 516 openings are major happenings in downtown and usually turn into street parties full of an array of people from around the city. “So much of what 516 has become known for is that really diverse audience and breaking down barriers, having an experience that is inviting and engaging, even when the content is challenging,” says Sbarge.
As with all the show’s site-based projects, Golden Migration also has a gallery-based element, so audiences who encounter the work are also drawn to downtown, one of the reasons 516 was created.
It’s even more than Norty Kalishman could have hoped for. He was program director with the McCune Charitable Foundation, which invested in downtown redevelopment and owns the building where 516 is located. He wanted to focus on incorporating arts and culture with those redevelopment efforts. So McCune laid out its values to Sbarge when they tapped her to launch an arts organization. Those included bringing in other art forms, being inclusive and partnering with other groups and communities. “I think it has really served downtown,” he says. “The arts is an engagement process and economics is an engagement process: How do you get people engaged so it really enriches their lives?”
516 has built relationships around the state and the region, which was a primary reason Albuquerque snagged the International Symposium on Electronic Art, ISEA International, in 2013. The international conference on art and technology has only selected US-based sites four times over the past 21 years. Artist and scholar at the University of New Mexico, Andrea Polli moved to Albuquerque in 2009 and was seeking a partner to bring ISEA to the city. When she saw the scope of collaboration in the 516 show “LAND/ART” she knew she had found the right match. “It’s an incredibly important and vibrant organization,” Polli says.
Polli’s installation for “Decade,” created with architectural designer John Donalds, is in northwest Albuquerque on the grounds of Farm and Table restaurant. The ‘T’ House is inspired by a traditional Japanese teahouse and explores the symbiotic relationships of humans and plants. Instead of a traditional scroll in the tokonoma, or alcove, there is a “techno tokonomo,” a video featuring the extraction of caffeine from gunpowder tea. The careful, precise movements of the chemists evoke the choreography of the traditional tea ceremony. “I’d like people to come away with a greater awareness or consciousness about really simple activities they do in life,” Polli says. “We drink tea, we eat food, we meet each other, so it’s to create that spotlight or focus on the experience.”
516 occupies an unusual space in state’s art scene, says Andrew Connors, curator with the Albuquerque Museum. It’s a museum-quality space, he says, but it’s not beholden to a permanent collection, and it rotates exhibits often like a commercial gallery, but is not reliant on sales. “That allows them to do things that no other space in New Mexico really does,” Connors says. “Their collaborations bring contemporary voices and ideas to “an unsuspecting public.”
For example, the Valle del Oro refuge is in a neighborhood more accustomed to being a dumping ground for polluting industries than a stop for nature lovers. The site of another installation, the Tony Hillerman Library in the city’s northeast quadrant, sits in a neighborhood of strip retail centers and chain stores. That’s where Indiana artist Leticia Bajuyo installed Amplitude II, a large glittering sculpture of discarded CDs and DVDs formed into two horns draped over rafters. A smaller companion piece at 516 includes an interactive theremin.
Bajuyo likes playing with the idea of memory. “It’s a statement about value perceptions, a material I remember being precious and valuable as a child are almost passe,” she observes. Two murals by Los Angeles artist Aaron Noble already grace buildings in Albuquerque, thanks to past work with 516. His latest piece for “Decade” covers a large wall inside the Tamarind Institute facing Central Avenue in the southeast part of the city, across from the University of New Mexico. Called Subterranean, it’s an abstraction that seems pulled right from a graphic novel, perhaps the heart or even the intestine of a superhero or a villain. He describes it as an escape from the “relentless blast of light and heat on Central Avenue,” evoking thoughts of spelunking, burrowing into the earth.
Diana Gaston, director of Tamarind, says this is a typical example of Sbarge and her staff opening up the possibilities for how people encounter art. “I think it’s a great way to engage the immediate foot traffic of Central Avenue and bring attention to the fact that we’re making art in real time at Tamarind,” Gaston says. Noble’s piece will live on separately in a series of prints made at Tamarind.
As Sbarge and her staff celebrate 10 years, they’re always looking ahead to future shows. 516 is also one of just 10 organizations around the country selected to be part of the Warhol Foundation’s re-granting program, which provides $100,000 a year indefinitely. 516 created the Fulcrum Fund through the program and selected 11 projects by New Mexico artists for this first year. “Their program is all about finding places where the next Andy Warhol could come from,” Sbarge says. “The work we’ve done shows Albuquerque as a place where things like that are happening.”