As you stroll through the Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA) in Santa Fe, New Mexico, you may feel as though you’ve stumbled into some eccentric collector’s desert mansion. Set in a Pueblo Revival-style building atop the city’s Museum Hill, this playfully curated institution doesn’t confine its collection — roughly 136,000 pieces from more than 100 countries — to traditional displays. Instead, the galleries burst to life in a kaleidoscopic celebration of color and form, offering a window into the ways we celebrate, dance, live, love, mourn, play and worship. Teddy bears and rag dolls gather to dine at tiny tables, vibrant textiles and quilts line the walls, figurines populate intricate village dioramas, and religious icons fill every inch of chapel-like nooks. Look up and you might even catch some figures dangling from the rafters or flying overhead like Superman.
What is folk art? The museum sets out to answer that in one particular exhibit (see below), and explains on its website that folk art generally — among other things — is handmade, can be used for ceremonial or decorative purposes, and reflects shared cultural aesthetics and social issues. Artists may be formally trained or self-taught. “Folk art can be funny, delightful and colorful,” says Khristaan Villela, the museum's executive director, “but it can also be about current issues, since it’s made by everyday people all over the world, just like you and me. Folk arts are living traditions — from art to clothing to song and even food.”
COVID-19 update: Visitors are required to wear masks and asked to maintain social distancing. In addition, many services (including storage lockers, coat checks and headset rentals) are currently not available unless they’re required for ADA accessibility reasons. Check the website, internationalfolkart.org, for updates.
Plan your trip
Location: 706 Camino Lejo, about two miles south of Santa Fe Plaza on Museum Hill, which might be thought of as New Mexico’s answer to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The cultural complex also includes the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, the Santa Fe Botanical Garden and the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian.
Getting there: By car, you’ll reach the museum in less than 10 minutes from the center of town; it’s a nearly straight shot along the Old Santa Fe Trail. You can also access it via the Santa Fe Trails city bus “M” line, which takes about 20 minutes, or by riding the New Mexico Rail Runner train to the last stop (Santa Fe Depot) and catching the free Santa Fe Pick-Up shuttle to Museum Hill.
When it's open: Daily, May through October; Tuesday through Sunday, November through April (closed New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas)
Admission: $7 for New Mexico residents; $12 for nonresidents. Free on the first Sunday of the month for New Mexico residents and every Wednesday for New Mexico resident seniors (60+).
Best time to visit: MOIFA’s collection is dense, so if you want to really see everything, arrive bright and early (the museum opens at 10 a.m.). The museum is currently offering limited docent tours; call the front desk (505-476-1204) for the tour schedule that day.
Best season to visit: Some of the executive director’s favorite times of year at the museum are the Day of the Dead in early November and the Lunar New Year, which usually occurs in February. On such occasions, festivities include live music, food and hands-on arts activities. Summer brings a slate of free outdoor family programming to take advantage of the beautiful weather, including workshops during which kids can learn to make crafts inspired by Alexander Girard. Remember: Despite Santa Fe’s Southwest location, its altitude of 7,200 feet means that average high temperatures in July are only in the mid-80s.
Accessibility: Upon arrival, there’s an elevator from the hillside parking lot up to Milner Plaza, where the museum is located, and then you’re just a few steps from the entrance. Inside, you’ll find all exhibits on the ground level, save for Lloyd’s Treasure Chest, which is on the lower level and accessible by elevator. Wheelchairs and motorized scooters are available (first come, first served) at no charge (call ahead at 505-476-1204 to check on availability).
The museum's story
Opened in 1953 in the Santa Fe foothills, the world’s largest folk art collection will radically expand your notions of what belongs in a museum: ceramics, jewelry, masks, puppets, quilts, dolls, textiles and more. It all began with the tireless efforts of Chicago heiress Florence Dibell Bartlett (1881–1954), a daughter of a hardware wholesaler — he originated the True Value label — whose interests skewed decidedly more highbrow than hammers and nails.
Bartlett first started visiting New Mexico in the 1920s, and began amassing a collection of folk art that would eventually include more than 2,500 pieces from 30-plus countries. She later commissioned architect John Gaw Meem, known for popularizing the “Santa Fe style,” to create a building for her collection, a gift to the people of New Mexico.
Philanthropy, it turns out, ran in the family. Her sister, Maie Bartlett Heard, cofounded Phoenix’s Heard Museum, which is dedicated to Native American art, while her brother, Frederic Clay Bartlett, donated his unparalleled collection of modern masterpieces — including Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte — to the Art Institute of Chicago.
Bartlett’s mission, however, was more far-reaching and progressive than simply showing off the considerable collection she had acquired from around the globe. “The art of the craftsman,” she once said, “is a bond between the peoples of the world.” After two devastating world wars had accentuated the differences between cultures, she hoped to instead highlight our commonalities. She was especially enamored of handmade goods, which stood in stark contrast to the 20th century’s turn toward impersonal industrialization. As you wander through the galleries, it’s impossible not to be a bit moved. It doesn’t matter whether they’re from Peru or Poland, Tibet or Tanzania, craftspeople will still make ceremonial items to commune with their deities, memorials to honor their dead and toys to entertain their kids.
Inside the museum
Over the years, MOIFA has grown considerably. Joining the original Bartlett Wing, which now features rotating gallery spaces, is the Hispanic Heritage Wing (currently home to an exhibition on New Mexico’s Hispano folk music that includes handmade instruments and costumes) and the textile-filled Neutrogena Wing, where the namesake collection includes Indonesian ceremonial cloths, Bolivian feathered costumes and Japanese kimonos. But the museum undoubtedly shines brightest in the Girard Wing, with Multiple Visions: A Common Bond, an ongoing exhibition that opened in 1982.
In a unique twist, the collection’s donor, midcentury modernist designer and architect Alexander Girard (who also went by the nickname “Sandro”), designed his own exhibition, and its curation is groundbreakingly immersive. Rather than sticking objects in rows behind glass, Girard created whimsical vignettes, cramming figurines, miniatures and toys from around the world into detailed scenes of bullfights, christenings, feasts, markets, weddings and even gatherings of angels and demons, with none of the displays segregated by region of origin.
The massive wing features 10,000 pieces of folk art — only about 10 percent of the total Alexander and Susan Girard Collection — with the artwork intentionally left unlabeled; the idea is to simply allow this colorful jumble of cross-cultural art to wash over you.
“The can’t-miss item in our collection is actually 10,000 can’t-miss items,” says Villela. “The pieces come at you from all directions — don’t forget to look up!” (Of course, if you’re dying to know more about all those unlabeled objects, you can pick up a printed gallery guide or a multimedia iPod tour.)
After you spend a few hours burying deeper and deeper into every corner of Multiple Visions, Villela hopes you will take the elevator (aka “Vehicle to the Vault”) down to an overlooked hidden gem: Lloyd’s Treasure Chest, named after late art collector and former Neutrogena CEO Lloyd Cotsen, who donated many pieces to the museum. “In addition to changing exhibitions, there’s a display on ‘What Is Folk Art?’ ” says Villela. “I think many of us think we know what folk art is — maybe quilts or duck decoys — but what do other people around the world make?” The open-storage vault includes such works as a wedding rickshaw from Bangladesh, mechanical toy robots from Japan and a popular fabric sculpture by American artist Mary Bowman depicting an anthropomorphic cow and coyote holding hands on a couch.
If you don’t mind crowds, you might want to visit during the annual International Folk Art Market, held the second weekend of July on the plaza outside. Founded to create economic opportunities for folk artists from around the globe, the market welcomes about 160 sellers from more than 50 countries, including Guatemalan beadwork embroiderers, Indonesian tapestry weavers and Ukrainian icon painters. Sure, you can pick up countless gifts on an around-the-world shopping spree, but the festival offers something more meaningful: a stirring reminder that Bartlett’s mission of celebrating the common bond among craftspeople is alive and well.
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Invest in a $30 New Mexico CulturePass for access to all 15 of New Mexico’s state museums and historic sites (the pass entitles you to one visit per attraction over a 12-month period). While you’ll find attractions across the state, from Albuquerque to Las Cruces, the Santa Fe roster includes the Folk Art Museum as well as the New Mexico Museum of Art, the New Mexico History Museum and the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture.
Equally worthwhile, though not included in the pass, are Santa Fe’s independent cultural institutions, including the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and SITE Santa Fe, a cutting-edge contemporary gallery housed in an old beer warehouse.
Plus, be sure to leave at least a half day to explore the more than 80 galleries and studios that fill the centuries-old adobe structures lining the Canyon Road Arts District, which begins about a half-mile walk (or two-minute drive) southeast of the Plaza.
If you’re feeling inspired by all that folk art, drive about 40 minutes south on New Mexico 14 (known as “the Turquoise Trail”) to Madrid (pronounced “MAD-rid”), a former ghost town that some residents claim has the most artists per capita of any place in the U.S. Here, former coal miners’ cabins have been painted in an array of rainbow hues and now house boutiques, galleries and restaurants.
In the other direction, drive about an hour north of Santa Fe on U.S. Highway 84, and you’ll find the restored Georgia O’Keeffe home and studio in the town of Abiquiú. The Spanish Colonial-era compound, featuring rooms dating back to the early 18th century, offers stunning views of the surrounding desert that will make it easy to see why O’Keeffe found this place so peaceful. The 2022 tour season is expected to begin in March. During a small-group guided tour ($45) of the minimalist space, you’ll see many of the motifs that would work their way into her art, from her collection of skulls and rocks to the cottonwood trees growing in the river valley behind her studio to the simple patio door that inspired more than 20 paintings.
Where to stay
Splurge: Just steps from the Santa Fe Plaza and directly across the street from the New Mexico History Museum sits the luxurious, 58-room Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, which will impress you with its collection of baskets, carvings, paintings and textiles that pair Native American and Hispanic influences. Rooms from $625
Save: Now a member of Marriott’s Tribute Portfolio, La Posada de Santa Fe — less than a 10-minute stroll from both the Plaza and the Canyon Road Arts District — started life in the 1880s as a wealthy merchant’s mansion. In the 1930s the owners added adobe casitas and invited artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe to stay and work on-site. Today the mansion houses four guest rooms done up in a Victorian style, while many of the remaining 153 casita-style rooms and suites feature original architectural details, such as vigas (exposed beams) and latillas (wood slats). Rooms from $149
Where to eat
Café Pasqual’s: Grab breakfast at this local hot spot a block off the Plaza for classic dishes such as huevos rancheros or smoked trout hash, and you’ll see why this four-decade-old institution earned a James Beard Foundation America’s Classic designation. Don’t miss the gallery next door selling ceramics, paintings and wood carvings.
The Shed: This must-try restaurant on Palace Avenue, just off the Plaza, opened in 1953 — the same year as MOIFA — and now occupies a building that traces its roots to 1692. Many menu items (burritos, enchiladas, tamales) come smothered with red or green chile sauce, but locals know the pro move: Ask for your dish “Christmas-style” to sample both.
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines' Hemispheres magazine, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.