One could argue that Santa Fe has already gotten its reset in the form of Javier Gonzales, So, the city’s first openly gay mayor. He was elected in 2014 after running on the slogan “Dare to grow young,” a reference to the town’s aging population (the median age is 44, seven years higher than the national average) and youth exodus (the under-45 population has sharply declined in the past decade).
On a bright, breezy day in early May, I met Gonzales at his office in city hall. Long-limbed and handsome in cowboy boots and jeans, he told me that Santa Fe “can’t be afraid to move forward” on issues that matter to people in their 20s and 30s: affordable housing, job growth in industries other than tourism and government, green energy, and nightlife. Gonzales plans to bring more film and digital media to town, not only to increase employment opportunities but also to diversify the cultural landscape, which leans disproportionately toward crafts and visual arts. He has challenged the city’s institutions to support creative work that is more inclusive, and “not just for the patrons,” as he put it.
I thought about this mandate at the opening of “Lowriders, Hoppers, and Hot Rods: Car Culture of Northern New Mexico,” on view until Mar ch at the New Mexico History Museum. Rather than the white, middle-aged crowd you might expect to see at an exhibition in the city’s most touristy district, the attendees were young, tattooed, and diverse. One was Julia Armijo, a seventh-generation Santa Fean who had come with her daughter, Justice Lovato, the founder and president of a local car club called Enchanted Expressions. Lowriders, Armijo told me, are works of art that are “built, not bought.”
Perhaps the best example of Santa Fe’s broadening definition of art is the ascent of Meow Wolf. The collective’s bowling-alley complex, which, in addition to the House of Eternal Return, contains studios, offices, and a youth-education center, is four miles across town from the Plaza, in the Siler Road District. The area, which was once dominated by auto-repair garages, metal shops, and old manufacturing buildings, has swiftly become a creative hub. Several small theater companies have sprung up: Teatro Paraguas, which performs in a black-box space; Wise Fool New Mexico, a nonprofit circus troupe; and Adobe Rose Theatre, which opened in January’ in a former door factory. The Arts and Creativity Center, a city-backed development prow ding live-work spaces for artists, could be completed there by next summer—a major step toward making Santa Fe, a town that depends on art, more hospitable to the people who create it.
Vince Kadlubek, Meow Wolf’s 34-year-old CEO, radiates the entrepreneurial savvy of Tim Ferriss and the monomaniacal intensity of Captain Ahab. As the collective’s chief fund raiser and spokesperson, he is superhumanly busy. At 9 am. on a Tuesday, he had not yet slept. Seated in aback room of Meow Wolf headquarters, Kadlubek, who grew up in Santa Fe—his parents are retired public-school teachers—expressed both pride and frustration in his hometown. “The cultural identity of Santa Fe was so valuable, and powerful, and controlled, that it had very’ little ability to change, to be agile,” he told me. A decade ago, like so many young Santa Feans, he moved away—in his case, to Portland, Oregon—but he returned after a year.
“I played this out in my head,” he recalled. “If Santa Fe keeps the same old identity, it becomes less and less attractive to anew generation. The demographic that is attracted to it grows older and older, and we just start to see the vibrancy—the actual health and sustainability—of the city that I grew up in and love start to come into question.” He pounded a fist on the table. “When I got back, I was like, ‘I’ve got to do something’.”
In 2008, he founded Meow Wolf with 11 other artists. In a former hair salon, the group hosted shows and punk-rock concerts while developing its signature creative style: immersive, colorful, multimedia, hyper-collaborative. Initially, Meow Wolf “had zero entry’ point into the art world of Santa Fe,” Kadlubek told me. But eventually the establishment took notice. In 2011, the Center for Contemporary Art commissioned the group to create the Due Return, an interactive 5,000-square-foot ship with a backstory about traveling through time and space to an alien planet. The project was a hit, and brought commissions for installations in Chicago, Miami, New York, and elsewhere.
Around the same time, Santa Fe resident George R.R. Martin, though a sexagenarian himself, had grown concerned about his town’s lack of youthful vigor. So in 2013, he purchased a dormant 128-seat, single-screen theater, the Jean Cocteau. On a spooky, windy night, I attended a showing of Blue Velvet. It was instantly clear to me that the theater also serves as a youth hangout. There are board games and a wall of books signed by authors, like Neil Gaiman and Junot Diaz, who have given readings. In addition to popcorn with real butter, the concession counter sells com dogs, turkey Reubens, and deep-fried Twinkies. “Is George ever here?” I asked a girl with a half-shaved head. Yes, on Wednesdays for game night, she told me. “He really loves this place.”