Friday, August 31, 2007


I exhibited this August at one of the two ethnographic art shows now running side by side in Santa Fe, New Mexico. At 24 years old, the Whitehawk “Ethnographic Art Show” is the longest running non-American Indian tribal art show in the USA and the original model for other similar shows now running in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York City. The show is temporarily housed at the El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe until the Sweeney Center is rebuilt, hopefully no later than 2009. Across town at the College of Santa Fe was the sixth annual “Historic and World Tribal Arts” show put on by promoter Barry Cohen.

Some background on both shows might help explain how each are fairing today. The Whitehawk show was until last year held in the old Sweeney Center, just off the main square, which is prime real estate during the busy summer months. Art buying tourists, Texas millionaires, hard-core collectors, and the tribally curious flood into Santa Fe by mid-August to enjoy the pleasant weather, the opera, the ballet, and the much anticipated Indian Week (one of the largest showings of Native American art in the United States). In the early 1980’s, Don Bennett, who already ran an antique American Indian Show at the Sweeney, conceived of the idea of opening a second show of other ethnographic material, including tribal art from African, Oceania, and Asia, that could compete in this established market. Several years ago Don sold both shows to the Whitehawk organization.

For many years, the Ethnographic Show at the Sweeney Center thrived and became the “must see” show for tribal art collectors from all parts of the country. By the late 1980’s and early 1990’s other tribal art shows - most notably ones promoted by the Caskey Lees organization - took much of the steam out of the Santa Fe show. This brought about a slow decline in attendance, and therefore sales, of higher end collectors outside the Southwest. In response, many of the higher end dealers, especially those selling African Art (who had already experienced slow sales in their areas) dropped out of the show. Often many of the replacement venders were not of the same caliber as the originals and some were offering material that seemed inappropriate for an “ethnographic show”. This lack of focus and standards has been a problem for the show to this day.

Six years ago, promoter Barry Cohen, set up a smaller alternate tribal show, mostly of high end American Indian dealers, in a nearby hotel lobby. At that time, this new show was relatively benign and seemingly not in direct competition to the main event at the Sweeney Center. After a few years, Mr. Cohen was able to find a larger venue at the nearby College of Santa Fe, which allowed for considerable expansion and additional selling spaces. He actively sought out higher end vendors from the Whitehawk show, and elsewhere, in part to create a higher caliber and more varied ethnographic and Indian show.

About that same time, it became known to the exhibitors at the Whitehawk show that the Sweeney Center was set for demolition and would be unavailable as a venue for three or four years. When this would happen was not clear and each year appeared to be the last. Changes in management (twice) from the old Don Bennett organization to the new Whitehawk promoters created some additional anxiety amongst the dealers (although it should be noted that the current promoters are very capable and wonderful people to work with, especially under the circumstances). Another long running problem was the size and quality of booth spaces available at the old Sweeney Center. Most vendors were looking for larger booths in prime locations on the ground floor, which was not possible under the original, and frankly antiquated, show set-up plan. These issues, as well as the aforementioned problems of ethnographic focus and overall quality of vendors, created conditions that several of the remaining higher end tribal art sellers “defected” to the Cohen show.

It looked as if the Whitehawk Ethnographic Show (the American Indian Show did not appear to be affected by these same circumstances) may not survive these defections, drop in standards, lack of focus, and as importantly, the temporary change in venue. Meanwhile the Historic and World Tribal Arts show appeared to be on a roll, firmly taking the mantle of the higher end and well displayed tribal art show. With a few exceptions, the majority of these vendors were top notch, offering higher quality objects.

But, surprisingly things did not go as predicted. In 2006, the new Whitehawk venue, now held within a shabby warehouse-like structure and lacking sufficient parking, worked out just fine - with huge crowds in attendance on Friday’s opening night and each of the two weekend days. Sales were brisk, although often in the lower to mid ranges and most vendors I talked to did well in 2006, as well as this year. Despite the fact that some vendors (either because of quality or type of material) are still not, in my opinion, appropriate for an “ethnographic” show, it still had an interesting and fun look, with a wide range of items to pick through. It seemed to me that most of the visitors were in a buying mood (typical of tourists visiting art-rich-overload Santa Fe) with several new tribal art buyers making purchases.

Across town at the Cohen show, attendance was strong only on their Thursday night opening and Friday, with the weekend slow enough for vendors to find time to run over to the Whitehawk show (along with most of the rest of Santa Fe). With a few exceptions, most of the really big sales and certainly most of the consistent sales were with the American Indian dealers. Most of the other tribal art dealers were struggling to make decent sales and to find important new clients. It is my understanding that this was the same situation in 2007. In fact, sales expectations for many of the non-American Indian dealers was so poor, that several dropped out in 2007, creating an obvious empty space along the back wall (now used as a dining area).

Perhaps, having two competing venues has diluted the potential marketplace for higher end non-American Indian tribal art? Possibly, but in my opinion that market was already weak some years ago, mostly due to the eventual creation of stronger competing shows in the other larger markets of NYC, SF, and LA (as well as Europe). Big buyers did not have to run off to Santa Fe each year, as they did in the 1980s and early 90’s, because better organized and higher quality shows existed elsewhere. Other than the American Indian collectors, most of the people now coming to Santa Fe to look at tribal art are often decorators, art tourists, or the more modest level collectors.

Next year, certainly no later than the year after, the Whitehawk Show will return to the new, improved Sweeney Center. This would be a great opportunity for the current promoters to re-examine their vendors list and weed out the lower end sellers and those with material best suited for other venues. Creating larger booth spaces and more open, managable aisles would be ideal. Then, they should make a concentrated effort to fill those booths with the higher end ethnographic dealers that either defected to the Cohen show or dropped out in the past. With a little tweaking, it would be possible to make good use of the energy and enthusiasm their show already brings as well as bringing up the quality and standards that could lure back serious collectors.

Meanwhile, the Cohen show should focus on what works best for them and that is a high end American Indian venue. If they focused on a tighter, high quality only, Indian show they could create and maintain a strong position leading up to Indian Week.

Perhaps merging the two shows may be in order, but I don’t know if that is feasible. What is likely is that unless there are some serious changes to both shows, these problems will continue. The Whitehawk show could degenerate into a glorified flea market and loose the chance to bring in any high quality tribal art. The Cohen show will likely lose more of their higher end non-Indian dealers and assuming they want to keep up the appearance of a “World Art” show may be forced to fill those spaces with sellers of lesser material, thus bringing down their overall quality.