An Artists' Home: Gender and the Santa Fe Culture Center Controversy

Article excerpt

In the spring of 1926 the writer Mary Austin went on a tirade. Such behavior was not uncommon for Austin, but within weeks she had allies as esteemed as the satirist Sinclair Lewis. Austin's target was a proposal for a summer Chautauqua (alternately called a culture center) in her adopted home of Santa Fe, New Mexico. (1) Austin railed. She railed against middlebrow, watered-down cultural expression. She railed against homogeneity. She railed against censorship. She railed against the refusal of many Americans to recognize and praise the contributions of artists to the nation. She railed against the marginality of descendents of Spanish colonial settlers, a sizeable portion of Santa Fe's residents. Austin saw a country at risk. Not just Santa Fe--but the entire nation--risked losing its most valuable cultural expressions if people stood idly by and let the town of Santa Fe accept a Chautauqua.

The source of Austin's ire was not a major corporation, the forces of modern advertising, or even a local business. The group that had driven Austin to the brink of apoplectic anger was the Texas Federation of Women's Clubs, an organization composed of women not all that different from Austin herself. As an author of several novels as well as numerous works of nonfiction on the American Southwest's environments and indigenous cultures, Austin's interest in creative work and her enthusiasm for the Southwest were well known. (2) Though more private in their enthusiasm, the women of the Texas Federation shared several similarities with Austin. Like Austin, they wanted more exposure to artistic expression. They delighted in what they saw as the unique natural and cultural qualities of Santa Fe. They wanted art to receive daily recognition in American society. They wanted, like Austin, a place where they could revel in the cultural development of a community devoted to artistic expression. (3)

It was precisely these similarities to Austin that made the club women and their proposal so threatening in the eyes of Austin and many of her allies. Austin and many other women in Santa Fe considered themselves artists who drew their creative inspiration from northern New Mexico as a region and from their relationship with northern New Mexico as a home. Many of the women in Santa Fe's Anglo arts community relied on this identity for their sense of belonging in northern New Mexico as well as for their authority in New Mexico's Anglo arts community. As women interested in building institutions of cultural expression in Santa Fe, the federation members threatened to steal away the place that the women in Santa Fe's Anglo arts community had identified as necessary to their identity as artists. If Austin's reaction to the culture colony seemed extreme, it was because she saw Ear more at stake than the summer entertainment of Texas women. She saw herself and other women interested in literary or artistic careers losing the one place where they could freely and completely pursue their ambitions.

Women were not the only members of the Santa Fe arts community to object to the culture center plan. A large contingent of artists and writers contributed to the outcry that eventually defeated the endeavor, and scholars have suggested a number of explanations for the vehemence of their response. The plan was proposed at a time when alliances within Santa Fe's arts community were shifting, and the Chautauqua was one of many casualties that resulted from the ensuing conflicts. (4) Many of the more recently arrived Anglo artists and writers may have seen the culture center as a threat to one of their causes: support for New Mexico rural Hispanos as an idealized American folk. A culture center filled with white Texan women would hardly have been a conducive environment for fostering Hispano culture, particularly the idealized culture that Anglo artists in Santa Fe had begun to champion. (5) This last reason may have contributed to the objections of two Hispano organizations in town as well. …