Feb 5, 2010 | Santa Fe, NM
Feb 5, 2010

The Santa Fe Art Institute is located on the campus of the College of Santa Fe, just off Cerillos Road on the outskirts of town, and all four of these entities — the Art Institute, the College, Cerillos Road, and Santa Fe itself — are very strange.

The Art Institute is dramatically underfunded, and is running a several hundred thousand dollar deficit this year. The residency handbook says they provide basic foodstuffs like bread, eggs, milk, cereal, and peanut butter, but when I asked the director today in the kitchen where was the peanut butter, she said they had stopped supplying peanut butter because it was an unnecessary extravagance and they needed to save the cash. Then she rushed back to her desk to jump on a call.

In the office, there is a constant feeling of panic, with people staring into spreadsheets and sipping giant cups of coffee, trying to keep it all together.

The College of Santa Fe, which leases space to the Art Institute, was founded in 1859 by Christian Brothers in an adobe hut. In 2008 the college declared financial exigency so they could fire tenured professors and balance their debt. Last May, the college declared bankruptcy altogether and disbanded its entire faculty and student body. By July, tumbleweeds were rolling through the vacant campus, and the parched grass got long.

In late July a donor appeared and resurrected the college in a miracle deal, leaving one month to scramble for students and teachers to populate the fall semester. They managed to scrounge up around 100 students, and hung newly printed vinyl banners on all the lampposts, proclaiming the virtues of creativity in big yellow letters. In three days here and just as many walks, I have yet to see a single student, though I did see a tumbleweed.

Yesterday in the snowstorm a man was playing tennis alone in the road with no balls, just leaping back and forth and swinging his racket. I watched him for a while, and thought how he was probably one of those tenured professors who'd lost his job and now he'd lost his mind, too.

Cerillos Road is strip mall hell, looking like the outskirts of any American city, except with more potholes. There are six lanes of traffic and they always seem to be full, creating a constant grumbling undercurrent to campus life.

Santa Fe itself I still don't know, except to know it's very strange.

There's the quaint downtown, packed with art galleries peddling any kind of landscape painting you can imagine, and native folks peddling turquoise jewelry in the famous plaza. Then there's Cerillos Road, with its generic consumer sprawl, and the Pecos mountains beyond, promising something better. There is good food, and many wealthy new age types to enjoy it. They come here because this is Santa Fe, and everybody loves Santa Fe. But there are also many poor people, who come to New Mexico because it is sunny and cheap and close to Mexico, and probably also for other reasons I don't yet understand.