The house of eternal return. Santa Fe’s unlikely new cultural destination, is a two-story Victorian built by the art collective Meow Wolf inside a converted old bowling alley owned by Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin. The decor recalls the 1970s, with faux-wood paneling and afghan-covered bed
s and a hamster cage in a child’s bedroom. You follow various passageways—through the fireplace, the refrigerator, a closet—and find yourself in fantastical worlds that cling to the periphery of the house like moss. The
re’s a forest of neon trees. A Star Trek-ian spaceship. A mobile home plunked down in the middle of a desert.
The 22,000-square-foot installation is a haunted house without the monsters, an amusement park without the rides, an acid trip without the drugs. It is embedded with clues about the mysterious fate of a family who lived there. You can choose to simply steep yourself in the abstract visual stimuli, or you can attempt to piece the narrative together. In an upstairs office, I found the Perry Mason crowd: visitors of various ages pulling books from shelves, riffling through spiral notebooks, unpinning papers from a bulletin board, and clicking through files on a computer.
“It’s, like, a lot of Illuminati stuff,” Anna, a blond 16-year-old, said with teenage earnestness. She could have been discussing Dungeons & Dragons. “It’s about the occult or time travel,” said her friend Sabrina, an 18-year-old with a pixie cut who was flipping through a legal pad like an extra in a crime show. The House of Eternal Return looks exactly like what it is: a surreal fantasia concocted by a group of 150 artists with a $2.7 million budget. Though it’s nothing like the soothing pastels and bright landscape paintings on display at Santa Fe’s many galleries and museums, visitors have flocked to it. In the six months after it opened in March, the exhibit brought in 350,000 visitors and revenue of $4 million.
Santa Fe’s boosters like to say that more art is sold in Santa Fe than in any American city other than New York or Los Angeles—a surprising claim when you consider that the town’s population barely grazes 70,000. Collectors from all over the world travel to buy at its internationally renowned summer fairs: the Traditional Spanish Market, the Santa Fe Indian Market, and the International Folk Art Market. Santa Fe also has more than 200 galleries and a dozen museums. Much of the work is characterized by an overwhelming Southwesternness. One friend, an editor at the Santa Fe-based Outside magazine, summed it up as “burros with sunsets.”
More than a million tourists come each year in search of this Southwestern aesthetic. Santa Fe, a guidebook by longtime resident Buddy Mays that I picked up in the gift shop of the New Mexico History Museum, explains that the town’s quaint image was deliberately crafted as a means of driving tourism. Beginning around 1912, the year New Mexico was granted statehood, civic leaders sought to define Santa Fe’s architectural style, set restrictions on signage, and draw attention to Hispanic and Native American arts. The idea was to give the city a historic regional identity and the patina of an exotic travel destination.
The plan worked. Too well, some would argue. For years, Santa Fe has been trapped inside its own successful branding. Besides the art, there’s the ubiquitous turquoise jewelry and the inescapable red and green chiles. There’s the low-slung-, mud-brown adobe architecture, the result of a strict zoning ordinance passed in 1957 that remains in effect today. There’s the pervasive undercurrent of New Age spiritualism. Since the early 1980s, when an Esquire cover story called it “the right place to live” and areal estate boom brought a wave of second-homers and celebrities (Sam Shepard, Ali Mac Graw, Jane Fonda, Val Kilmer), Santa Fe—or the idea of it, anyway— has been entrenched in the popular consciousness.
Countless articles have praised its clean high-altitude air, tasteful old-world aesthetic, and quiet rhythms. Magazine spreads pay homage to “Santa Fe style,” a term (codified by a popular 1986 coffee-table book of the same name) that describes the town’s characteristic mix of Pueblo and Territorial Revival architecture and an interior-decor approach that favors folk crafts, Native American artifacts, and Western accents, like bleached steer skulls. Many locals told me that they try to avoid their town’s most popular destinations, like the Plaza, the historic downtown square, and Canyon Road, the row of galleries that was once an artists’ enclave. Once in awhile, they might go to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum to see the paintings that are so foundational to Santa Fe’s identity. But, my editor friend told me, “We’re due for a reset. It’s just been Georgia O’Keeffe straight through.”