Reflections from the Other Side

"Ok, I'll take it."  The woman behind me said.  "Honey, I'm buying this."  She said to her husband who stood outside the booth.

"Whatever." He replied, completely unaffected by either the spending of money or the new piece of artwork that would soon be in their home.  Or their collection.

The piece she was purchasing was seven thousand dollars.  She had been in the ten foot by five foot booth for less than three minutes.  She had only looked at the two framed originals that hung on the walls.  My mom and I continued to look through the collections of matted originals held in slings at the corners of the booth.  Those were between five and seven thousand each.  And each was certainly worth it.  They are the work of acclaimed Blackfeet Ledger Artist Terrance Guardipee.  His work is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian.  I hadn't even finished my coffee.

On the advice of a local, we had gotten up at 6:30 that morning so we could be at the Indian Market by 7am when it opened.  The artists had been setting up since 4:30 and, because their tent structures are not individual and were provided by Market organizers, they had to bring all their work home every night.  There was no security to keep things from wandering off.

By a few minutes after seven there were noticeable vacant spaces in the market - artists who had sold out to eager collectors had packed up and gone home.  The idea of actually selling out, especially in the first fifteen minutes, seemed so foreign to me.  But most artists at the Indian Market only had about 10-20 pieces on their tables.  Most artists have pieces that start in the hundreds of dollars, and I'm told that many make most of their money for the year at this show.  One artist we talked to at 7:10 had sold her $3500 "showpiece" by the time we returned to pick up an altered print for my son around 10:45.

The Plaza is also surrounded by high-end galleries.  My mom and I stepped into a clothing store late Friday night where a single shirt was as much as I spend on clothing in a year.  Shops are packed with hundreds of thousands of dollars of silver and turquoise, and the women AND men shopping the Market are glistening in the Santa Fe sun with their Indian-made treasures.

New Mexico is the sixth-poorest state in the nation.  It also has the second-highest poverty rate with over 20% of the people living in poverty.  It also has the third largest art market.  In a town of 90,000 people I saw far more galleries and high-end stores than I've been able to find in my 35 years of living in Seattle.  Nearly the entire downtown (the Plaza and Canyon Road) are stuffed to the brim with galleries and stores I can't afford.

The stereotype of the "starving artist" is pervasive.  I've often been asked what my husband does for a living when people find out I'm a full-time artist.  I receive an "Oh, okay" of understanding after I answer, truthfully, that he works at Microsoft.  As though my husband's profession explains why we don't live in squalor, when he himself will tell you that I'm the hardest-working person he has ever met. But there's another level to the starving artist stereotype here:  all the artists are Native American, and the poverty and unemployment levels for tribe members are astoundingly high, with unemployment rates sometimes ten times the national average. It's better off the reservations, apparently, but still much higher than for, say, white people.

I live in the suburbs of Seattle and we're relatively homogeneous here in terms of race, and socioeconomic status.  I'm rarely in a position where I feel much richer or much poorer than those around me.  But, in Santa Fe, I felt both simultaneously.  A lot of artists at this show were sharing booths because they couldn't swing the $400 booth fee alone (it had been $200 in previous years).  Sometimes artists were crammed three or more to a booth.  And then there were the ladies who spent $7,000 on a painting without so much as a discussion, or were wearing tens of thousands of dollars of Indian jewelry.  I hesitated to wonder whether this was just another example of white people using the Indians for their own entertainment.

After spending the weekend at the show, talking to artists and making my mom watch the Adam Ruins Everything on Art Galleries I felt totally disinclined to buy anything from a gallery. Not that I harbor any sort of delusion that the few hundred dollars I spent at the show would make a pivotal difference for any of the artists there, but I do also know that every bit counts.  It may help pay the booth fee, or some of the travel expenses, or dinner that night.  And handing the money directly to the artist means I know it's all going to him or her, rather than having a large chunk taken by the gallery.

I keep writing in hopes of reaching a resolution, some sort of conclusion, with these thoughts and feelings.  But there isn't one.  There are only more questions, and more feelings, and a question: when do we, as a country, start offering all citizens access to decent basic services, like healthcare, education and drinking water.  When do we start creating jobs for the Indian population, to start chipping away at the unemployment rates that climb up to near 70%, over doubling that of Detroit at it's worst.  Tell me, dear friends, where do we start? What can we do today? And where do we go tomorrow?



A quick note about the terms "Native American" and "Indian" -- on the last day I asked my mom about this.  I was taught to say "Native American" because "Indian" isn't PC - but everyone at the market says Indian.  It's the Indian Market.  So on the last day we asked an Indian man selling jewelry on the square -

Q:  so do you say Indian or Native American?

A: I say "Native American Indian" and my wife says, "all you just said is Indian Indian" and I tell her, well there are eight more little Indians out there and I have to start naming them!

Q: So it doesn't matter?

A:  No, I don't really care.  All I really get bothered by are the Redskins....

And then he proceeded to name ALL of the racist team names... there are a lot...  ending with "We're all Cowboys fans here."  To which all the other street vendors around him quickly, and loudly, shouted corrections.


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