Soaking Up New Mexico's Renaissance

Mary Robnett

The New Mexico of the past—where New Age mystics and retirees went to drop out—is being reinvented by the next generation of dreamers. Will they protect what makes this corner of the Southwest so special?

In a year of momentous cultural upheaval, it may seem small. But what happened on Cerrillos Road, a few miles south of Santa Fe’s historic central plaza, sums up the state of things in northern New Mexico. Which is to say—to open with the punch line—that hipster culture has established itself like a showy wildflower among the Land of Enchantment’s timeless piñon-and-juniper landscape. Truth be told, the newcomers are only the most recent of a long line of cosmopolitan tastemakers drawn to the region from distant cities. Even so, some locals regard them as a particularly noxious weed, an invasive threat to the fragile local ecology. The scene of the incident was El Rey Court, a 1930s motor lodge revamped by Texas entrepreneurs as a bohemian neo-retro hideaway with single-village mezcal in the bar, crackling piñon logs in the lobby fireplace, and funky rooms tricked out with Southwestern-flavored Americana.

The offending gesture was an illuminated sign, the kind with movable plastic letters that spell out pithy marketing phrases. One day in early February, a new message went up: “My spirit animal is a sloth.”

The response on social media was swift and furious.

“My spirit animal is appropriation” read one justice warrior’s digitally altered version of the sign. Other critics fired off accusations of white privilege and insensitivity. Northern New Mexico has long been defined by its tripartite cultural identity, a blend of Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo elements that fuse into a unique regional style—and a highly marketable one. The questions of who “owns” the past and who gets to profit from cultural heritage are hardly new here. The stormy debate arises as often as July thunderheads. El Rey was only the latest lightning rod.

Related: A Tour of Santa Fe's Food Scene

In response to the outcry, the hotel’s co-owner Jeff Burns, who is white, apologized in the press for “an embarrassing learning experience...we’re very, very sorry for.” But the brouhaha lingered. A couple of weeks later I had dinner in Santa Fe at Paper Dosa—South Indian counter-programming in the land of green chiles—and I started to chat with the solo diner next to me, a private chef on her night off. I asked about El Rey. “Santa Fe can be a little subdued,” she explained, “and when you walk in there, it’s like you’ve been abducted. It’s for people who moved from California and feel the need to always wear a wide-brimmed hat and all their turquoise jewelry at once.”

I used to stay at El Rey Court when it was a cheap roadside flophouse. These days the revamped La Reina bar fills with a clientele who look as if they arrived via some cosmic wormhole linking Silver Lake and Tulum. When I met Jeff Burns there for a drink, he didn’t really want to rehash the “spirit animal” kerfuffle, preferring to talk about the hotel’s informal artist-residency program. Still, he acknowledged that the new El Rey wasn’t for everyone. “People either love us or hate us,” he said. “It gives us an edge.” Burns scrolled through his phone to find a comment posted online by a disgruntled—and presumably gray-haired—guest. “Beware of scruffy unkempt young people,” it read. Burns laughed. “Scruffy unkempt young people” is El Rey’s target audience. A pop-up marketplace in the El Rey lobby that night attracted photogenic exemplars of the type, none more visible than hatmaker Percy Stith, who couldn’t be missed in a wide-brimmed hat—just as I’d been warned to expect.

This was my umpteenth visit to northern New Mexico since a 1988 family ski trip, and my itinerary was meant to be relaxed—hang around Santa Fe for a couple of days, then drive to Taos, the enchantingly oddball 1,000-year-old Pueblo settlement/artist colony/ski town to the north. At times I had déjà vu, as if nothing had changed from prior visits ten, 20, or 30 years ago. I once again window-shopped plaza galleries. Atop a creaky staircase, the gallery Shiprock Santa Fe, run by fifth-generation dealer Jed Foutz, offered Navajo weavings and Pueblo pottery—similar to the museum-quality artworks that first caught my eye decades ago at Joshua Baer’s gallery. (The dean of Southwestern Native art dealers, Baer now sells privately from his home north of town.)


Local pottery at the Boyd & Allister showroom. Mary Robnett

At other times, I had to wonder if I was still in New Mexico, like when I walked into the first U.S. outpost of the cult Japanese fashion brand Visvim or, a few blocks away, into a menswear boutique from Oakland-based retailer Standard & Strange. The whiplash sensation would continue in Taos, where the bean-to-bar chocolate shop Chokolá is on par with anything in Brooklyn, San Francisco, or, for that matter, Venezuela, where owners Deborah Vincent and Javier Abad met and ran a chocolate company prior to their 2016 opening in Taos.

The contrast between the familiar and the unexpected gave me a salubrious shock, like going from the hot tub to the cold plunge after a day of skiing. I tried to describe the feeling one morning over coffee with Lutz Arnhold, managing director of Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi.

Related: Summer in Santa Fe

“Santa Fe is never-changing,” he said, putting into words the theme of my trip. “But it’s changing so much.”

As soon as you drive out of the Albuquerque airport, there’s no mistaking where you are—even gas stations and fast-food joints are “faux-dobe,” a commercial take on the blocky forms and earth-toned plaster of Pueblo mud-brick architecture. Albuquerque sprawls outward from its touristy old town and gets hot as blazes in summertime, so I’ve never stuck around. To make amends, I went for breakfast at the beautifully restored Los Poblanos Historic Inn. The farm-like setting and breakfast cazuela with carne adovada, bolita beans, sautéed greens, and house-made blue-corn tortillas convinced me. Next time I’m in New Mexico I’ll tack on an extra night to dine and sleep among the property’s cottonwood trees.

Santa Fe is a pleasant hour’s drive to the north. At an altitude of 7,199 feet, the state capital is really a mountain town, although one can forget that on the plaza. A quieter setting is the big draw at Bishop’s Lodge, a historic 1920s getaway on 317 acres surrounded by national forest. Closed for renovations during my visit, the property relaunches this year as an Auberge Resort with amenities to include a new central lodge, a restaurant by Dallas celebrity chef Dean Fearing, a spa, riding stables, a private trout stream, and 120 new rooms, including a cluster of freestanding kiva-style suites.


Mary Robnett

Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi committed to its own more modest retooling with the addition of a rooftop pool, a restaurant reboot, and room upgrades. (The name may prove more resistant to updating. Among modern Pueblo people and archaeologists, the term Anasazi, a Navajo word meaning “ancient enemy,” has been rejected in favor of “Ancestral Puebloans.”) Both hotels are addressing the question that the state’s whole tourism industry is asking: After years of coasting on reputation, how to freshen things up for today’s more informed—and pickier—high-end customer without losing the uniqueness that makes northern New Mexico worth visiting in the first place?

The question has already been put to the test in Taos, 90 minutes north of Santa Fe—or more if you drive the so-called High Road. I took this long route, passing through the village of Chimayo, where a perpetual trickle of pilgrims visits the holy shrine sometimes called the Lourdes of the Southwest and winds up at the historic Taos Inn. Locals fretted last year when the news broke that a Denver-based hospitality group had bought the property, which dates to 1936 and long ago earned a reputation as the town’s living room. Worries crescendoed when the new management replaced the lobby’s ratty sofas, but perhaps fears of a soulless upgrade were premature. When I visited, nothing had been done to change the historic character of slanting floors and mismatched furniture in the oldest guest rooms above the lobby. The most notable adjustment has been at its restaurant, Doc Martin’s, where consulting chef Zakary Pelaccio, the James Beard Award–winning founder of the Hudson Valley restaurant Fish & Game, pruned back an overwrought menu and handed the kitchen to eighth-generation Taoseño Nité Marquez, encouraging him to make New Mexican food as a New Mexican chef would.


 From left: Queso fundido with chorizo at Doc Martin’s; the Agnes Martin Gallery at the Harwood Museum of Art. Mary Robnett

“You needed someone who is genuine and who loves Taos and this place,” explained Pelaccio when I met him and his wife, Jori Jayne Emde, for dinner at Doc Martin’s; they also own a house on the way up to Taos Ski Valley. Marquez soon emerged from the kitchen with half a dozen plates of tacos, corn bread, beans, and green chile—a knockout spread. He proved to be a self-effacing talent who described his menu as “basic cooking,” a truth that does nothing to express the wonderful sense of place Marquez achieves through some alchemy of local ingredients and loose, confident technique. The meal reminded me of what a trained chef might do on his day off while riffing on his grandmother’s recipes—an update on tradition that honors the spirit of the original but elevates the results.

From town, I drove up to Taos Ski Valley, which has been revitalized by billionaire owner Louis Bacon. The initial phase of the master plan includes a new base hotel, the Blake, as well as mountainside condos, a ski school, and new high-speed lifts to some of the most extreme in-bounds skiing in America. The goal, said CEO Dave Norden, is to make Taos into a destination for family ski week—everyone gets what they need, whether steep and deep slopes or afternoon naptime. Bacon is also a serious conservationist, and Norden notes that future growth will match the “carrying capacity of this narrow and somewhat remote valley” in order to avoid the damage of over-tourism. In the meantime, the broader goal is to retain the “spirit and mystique” of Taos. “Those are differentiators,” Norden said. “It’s what people are looking for.”


From left: The lobby of El Rey Court; Dolina chef Annamaria Brezna O’Brien. Mary Robnett

Throughout my trip, I kept thinking back to the El Rey Incident and what it all meant. I wasn’t surprised that the hotel’s tone-deaf attempt at humor caused a ruckus in this age of heightened cultural sensitivities. Or that locals will get riled by newcomers. Or even that Art disdains Commerce in a small city where both thrive. Instead, what struck me was that both the cool kids at El Rey and the woke call-out critics they offended are all part of the same generational shift. They’re all pushing things forward in their respective ways. They all share a feisty commitment to an old city that became a little too comfortable with its image as a second-home enclave for rich retirees and a summertime destination for self-actualized tourists yearning to discover Georgia O’Keeffe landscapes and turquoise-and-silver souvenirs.


A micaceous clay plate by chef and potter Johnny Ortiz. Mary Robnett

Among the younger generation of artists, artisans, and entrepreneurs, some have family roots in the region and work in ways that enlarge upon their cultural inheritance. Taos-born chef Johnny Ortiz trained at high-end spots like Alinea in Chicago and Saison in San Francisco before returning home to launch Shed, a series of pop-up dinners in an old dance hall in La Madera that won him recognition as a “rising star” from the James Beard Foundation. With Shed on hiatus due to COVID19, Ortiz is now focusing on his other passion, making pottery from local micaceous clay. Similar to pieces used at Shed, the wares perpetuate ancient Pueblo pottery traditions and are sold through Maida, an online gallery for Indigenous and Mestizx artists curated by founder Maida Branch, who describes her ancestry as Inda-Hispana.

While New Mexico’s creative heritage is deeply rooted in Indigenous experience, today’s young creative set is also, almost by definition, attuned to multiple cultural frequencies, some of which originate far from the land of Kokopelli—the trickster of Ancestral Puebloan mythology who became an avatar of 1980s Santa Fe style. A counterpoint to the deeply New Mexican wild-harvested dinners at Shed, Paper Dosa serves its eponymous South Indian crispy crepe the size of a rolled-up pillowcase with half a dozen chutneys, each one a mini essay on a specific flavor—coconut, tamarind, eggplant, mint, and so on. On Guadalupe Street, Dolina looks like any other ambitious all-day café from the past few years, but the delicious menu from chef-owner Annamaria Brezna O’Brien, a native of Slovakia, triangulates Eastern Europe, northern New Mexico, and Brooklyn.

Furniture maker Jonathan Boyd was raised in Pennsylvania and first came to Santa Fe as a student at St. John’s College. After post-graduation rambles, he moved back, dabbled in real estate, and took up fine woodworking. The furniture he sells today has nothing to do with the Ghost Ranch aesthetic—the rustic skulls-and-blankets vernacular established by Georgia O’Keeffe at her Abiquiu ranch. Instead, Boyd looks to the French modernists Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand. I visited him one afternoon in the tiny retail space he runs alongside his workshop to ask why, given his background and taste, he would put down roots in Santa Fe.


The High Road to Taos, just north of Santa Fe. Mary Robnett

“Look outside at the light right now— it’s stunning,” said Boyd, adding that Santa Fe, apart from its self-evident attractions, offers a creative freedom not found in the metropolis. “You have an ability to cultivate your voice. I would be hustling my ass off in New York City to pay the rent. I was able to buy this building.” To help younger artists and artisans cope with rising real estate prices, Boyd launched the nonprofit Vital Spaces, which arranges tax benefits for landlords who provide creative workspace in vacant retail storefronts. “It creates an artificial price break for an emerging arts and crafts world,” Boyd explained. “Because young people make an old and dying place come to life.”

And perhaps youth was precisely the quality most lacking in the old Santa Fe I used to know. The youngest art dealer in town now is probably 23-year-old Max Baseman, a Taos native. His 5. Gallery— pronounced “five point”—operates in an industrial park off Ruffina Street, showing work by underrepresented BIPOC artists and others marginalized by the mainstream art world, such as midcentury physique photographer Bruce Bellas, better known as Bruce of Los Angeles. “It fills a need in Santa Fe,” said Baseman. “There’s a wonderful family that’s come together around this gallery.” Baseman’s partner, Laura Martin, runs a yarn and fabric shop, Hacer, in a former rail-yard development near contemporary arts space SITE Santa Fe. Both exemplify a trend in Santa Fe away from the plaza and Canyon Road, the old tourist bull’s-eyes, and toward the Cerrillos Corridor, a long stretch that runs from SITE all the way down to the House of Eternal Return, a blockbuster immersive art experience by the Meow Wolf collective that launched in 2016 and spread like wildfire across social media.

It’s been roughly a century since New Mexico’s modern tourism industry began to take shape. Arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan settled in Taos in 1917 and drew D. H. Lawrence, O’Keeffe, and Ansel Adams in her wake. Santa Fe’s Indian Market, an important summertime sales venue for Native art and crafts, launched in 1922, and Spanish Market followed four years later. Despite the intervening years of development, trends, and necessary debates about identity and cultural heritage, something “doggedly New Mexican” remains, said Katharine Kagel, who opened the perennial favorite Café Pasqual’s in Santa Fe 40 years ago. “We haven’t been homogenized,” she added. “The area has retained its regionalism.”

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Kagel pointed to a jar of rubber bands on her desk. Each band, she mused, represented one of the “hermetic worlds” that define northern New Mexico: the 19 Native pueblos in the Rio Grande Valley, Hispanic immigrant communities, Anglos, expats, artists, and the old Spanish families, some of whom arrived 400 years ago. The rubber bands overlap and commingle, even if they never fully connect. The implication, if I understood her correctly, was that there’s always room in the jar for another rubber band.

Stay

Check out the recently renovated Los Poblanos (rooms from $255), a boutique inn located on an organic farm just east of the Rio Grande. El Rey Court (rooms from $120) stays true to authentic Southwest architecture. Check in to one of the modern adobe-style casitas, complete with fireplaces and soaking tubs, at the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado (rooms from $740) in the Sangre de Cristo foothills. Taos Inn (rooms from $120), in the downtown historic district, has 45 unique rooms, each with its own Southwestern flair. The newly renovated 58-room Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi ( rooms from $300) pays homage to the region’s Ancestral Puebloans. Stay in one of the 80 rooms at the Blake (rooms from $330) at Taos Ski Valley and enjoy mountainside accommodations. Keep Bishop’s Lodge (rooms from $475), now part of the Auberge Resorts Collection, on your radar for its reopening in March 2021.

Eat

Chokolá specializes in organic, small-batch chocolate. Longtime favorite Café Pasqual’s serves fresh, organic Mexican and New Mexican cuisine. The cozy café and bakery Dolina dishes out modern American fare with Eastern European influences. Doc Martin’s features locally sourced Southwestern dishes like rainbow trout with green-chile yogurt and huitlacoche mole. The casual spot Paper Dosa offers South Indian dishes, from classic dosas to Chennai chicken.

Shop


From left: The exterior of the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos; La Reina bar at El Rey Court in Santa Fe. Mary Robnett

5. Gallery focuses on the works of underrepresented artists. The Harwood Museum of Art (harwood museum.org) has a great shop that complements its extensive collection of Native art and works by longtime resident Agnes Martin. For handmade furniture that stands out against the typical Southwestern pieces, check out Boyd & Allister. Hacer is a fiber studio and shop. Maida showcases the work of Indigenous and Mestizx artists. Overlooking historic Santa Fe Plaza, Shiprock features vintage and contemporary Native art. Standard & Strange stocks stylish menswear. The cult Japanese fashion brand Visvim chose Santa Fe for its first U.S. outpost in 2017.