It seems like just yesterday that I returned home from Santa Fe’s Indian Market, and here it is on us once again. The oldest and largest Native American art show in the world, this is a bucket list event for any collector or fan of Native American art. There is typically a week of activity leading up to the Indian Market weekend, and I always spend that time rushing from event to event.
This year marks the 98th annual celebration, and the juried show will have the maximum number of artists that space allows once again. A pedestrian-only zone of several square city blocks centered on the Santa Fe Plaza sees rows of white tents in the middle of the street as well as along the sides. The show is run by SWAIA, the Southwestern Association of Indian Arts. Signage is prevalent, and SWAIA even has a handy cellphone app so the location of each artist can be found. In addition, Native American Arts magazine (in my humble opinion, the premier magazine covering Native American, culture, art and artists) compiles a large Indian Market guide for their August/September issue, and is available for free to attendees.
Early in the spring, artists submit their applications to SWAIA, and a volunteer jury of judges looks at a photograph of each piece of art that accompanies the application, selecting only the best of the best for this show. The judging is blind, meaning that the judges do not know the name of the artist who submitted the piece, so they are making their decisions only on the quality of the artist’s representative piece. In recent years, SWAIA has made a concerted effort to reach out to Native American artists throughout the continent, so artists may come from as far away as Alaska, Canada, or the Northeastern part of the US. If you see a tribal name you don’t know, you can always stop and ask the artist about their tribe.
Some artists choose to enter the show competition, and bring their entry piece or pieces to the show a few days early. Again, the judging is done without knowledge of the artist’s name. Because these are already the best of the best artists in the show, the competition for ribbons is quite fierce, and extremely minor details can cause a piece of art to win or lose a ribbon.
The next day, SWAIA holds an early bird luncheon, where ticketed attendees can get a first look at the pieces entered into the competition, and admire all of the competition entrants and particularly those which won ribbons. On Friday evening, an artist reception is held, and ticketed attendees can chat with the artists while looking at the pieces. This is where many collectors note who won which ribbon and carefully plot their strategy for the next morning. On Saturday, the show opens up at 8 a.m. and attendees rush to the tents of their favorite artists. Only once the show has begun can artists actually sell their work, so there is sometimes a line of people wanting to rush to a specific tent to acquire an award-winning piece.
Yes, the art and artists are the central focus of Indian Market, but SWAIA puts this show into context by showing the culture of Native Americans as well. Exhibition dances are held in street intersections, a free fashion show is held in the Plaza gazebo, and abundant information is freely provided so that attendees can get a quick immersion into the background of Native Americans.
At the end of the Saturday and Sunday show, I am totally exhausted, always attempting to visit more people than I have available time, but it is always so much fun to build relationships with artists over time. Some of them I see multiple times a year, either at shows or in their homes, but others may only be at this one show each year, so each visit is special to me. Michael and I approach the show with a game plan, dividing the show into smaller segments and identifying who we want to visit each day. We always keep our eyes open for a new artist or piece of work that may catch our eyes.
Should you decide to visit Indian Market, plan ahead. Over 100,000 visitors attend each year, and Santa Fe can get crowded quite fast. The swirl and pageantry of the show bring a riotous color and vibrant energy to the city, and becomes an annual event that celebrates the pinnacle of Native American art. Hope to see you there!