Back to the Future: IFAM Invests in Sustainable Cultural Traditions

By RoseMary Diaz
By RoseMary Diaz

“My Heart is in the Art”—the resounding theme for the world’s largest gathering of indigenous folk artists, folk art collectors and fans—moved more than sentiment, generating $3.1 million from more than 21,000 visitors over three days in late July. Through a wide range of media and styles, the nearly 200 artists who participated in the 16th annual International Folk Art Market (IFAM) in Santa Fe represented vastly different geographic, cultural and creative territories. Amid this diverse group, there were at least two common threads: the use of natural materials, and a legacy of art-making traditions passed down through generations.

A few decades ago, such things seemed eternally rooted in the cultures where they were born, but today, environmental damage threatens the sustainability of many natural materials, while much of the younger generation is choosing technology over tradition. Fortunately, at the same time, appreciation of folk art continues to widen, as IFAM’s rising attendance and revenue have shown. This brings up both philosophical and practical questions: Where is folk art going? More immediately, how does an organization like IFAM use rising popular interest to overcome folk art’s challenges?

In the Southwestern U.S., the centuries-old, Hispanic-Catholic tradition of the santeros/santeras, or makers of religious art, can be traced to the small villages of northern New Mexico in the 1700s. Typical creations in this tradition, such as these by santera Maria Romero Cash, include santos (carved representations of Catholic saints), retablos (devotional paintings) and bultos (handcarved and painted woodcarvings of saints). All photos by Kitty Leaken.

Many folk artists around the world must devote their time largely to practical chores, such as hauling water, growing food and caring for livestock. The time needed to make art is borrowed from these essential tasks, not to mention the time and resources required to obtain materials and find a customer base. This is where IFAM comes in, offering an international market opportunity, training in marketing, sales, and customer relations, and encouraging the use of sustainable materials and fair trade, according to Stuart Ashman, IFAM’s CEO. The organization’s sponsorship program also provides direct financial aid to 30 artists each year, funding their travel, lodging and food during the event.

The annual International Folk Art Market begins with a parade around historic Santa Fe plaza, with artists and their families proudly showing off the traditional attire of their native lands. The parade route comes within a block of the Missouri-Santa Fe Trail, which, in the 1800s, was a 1,200-mile trade route and transportation pipeline to the expanding West.

One challenge is that technology has lured a generation into electronic communication, social media and instant information, Ashman says. “Young people are interested in developing themselves in those areas, and there are fewer and fewer interested in continuing their family’s traditions.”

To help counter that, the market’s income makes it possible for many artists to contribute to their communities, through building schools and clinics, drilling wells, and funding overall improvements. “By providing a significant livelihood to the artists, IFAM demonstrates that there is great potential for improving standards of living through the continuation of these traditions,” Ashman says. “The market changes lives in many positive ways.”

As for the growing public interest in folk art, Ashman says “Our society is inundated with manufactured products, so there is a longing for the handmade, and for understanding the source of the products we use daily. There is interest from the public in preserving traditions, along with seeing the evolving trends in folk art.”

In response to those trends, which include the use of responsible land, water, and animal-friendly art-making practices, as well as a return to things more authentic and of the earth, IFAM has created new show categories such as Innovation, Sustainable Art, Eco Art and Urban Folk Art. Another new addition to the program, Sustainability Sunday, shines a prominent spotlight on artists who are using sustainable materials.

This year’s honorary market chair, Ndaba Mandela (left), grandson of Nelson Mandela, co-founded and co-chairs the Africa Rising Foundation. 

With Santa Fe’s IFAM serving as a model, other cities have shown interest in hosting an International Folk Art Market (a trademarked term). “We have an annual wholesale market at the Dallas Market Center for about 25 artists, most of whom follow up at the flagship market in Santa Fe,” says Ashman. IFAM is working with Dallas Market Center’s organizers, and developing criteria for other cities interested in hosting their own markets.

“We are interested in creating similar markets in other communities where our team feels they would be successful,” Ashman explains. “We’ll look at whether they have the right demographic to support a market—do they have the volunteer base, the facilities and the community resources needed to support the influx of visitors?”

IFAM’s long-term goals include creating a sustainable organization that can continue its valuable work, expanding its education programs, becoming more efficient in the logistics of the market, and creating more opportunities to expand artist participation. This year, IFAM included several U.S.-born artists and — for the first time in the market’s history — U.S-born Native American artists. At IFAM’s request, Anthony Belvado, Marie Romero Cash, Billy Ray Hussey, Elizabeth Manygoats, and Mary Louise Tafoya were invited, each by different organizations: The School for Advanced Research, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, the Museum of International Folk Art, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, respectively.

A traditional tsii’’edo’a’tl (Apache fiddle), made by third-generation fiddle-maker Anthony Belvado, is carved from a split and hollowed agave stalk. The bow is strung from horsehair.

“We know that artists from other countries will benefit from interacting with them as members of a global folk artists’ community,” Ashman wrote in this year’s official market guide. Santa Fe santera artist Marie Romero Cash heartily agreed: “Without question, the market was one of the most exciting and amazing events I have ever been a part of. The air vibrated with the energy of hundreds of talented craftsmen. I definitely felt there was a place for my traditional-contemporary New Mexican folk art.”

Another artist from the U.S.-born group, North Carolina ceramicist Billy Ray Hussey, appreciates IFAM’s success so far: “This was one of the most impressively orchestrated events I’ve ever had the honor to be included in,” he says. “The enthusiasm was highly contagious, and coupled with the serious support, it made for an uplifting experience.”

Next summer, IFAM will welcome another handful of U.S.-born artists to the show. The invitation process and theme for the July 2020 market have yet to be determined, but preparations are already underway. No rest for the wickedly talented, nor for the many dedicated souls who make an international folk art market a reality.

RoseMary Diaz is a freelance writer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She studied literature and its respective arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Naropa University, and University of California, Santa Cruz. You can find more of her writing in First American Art Magazine

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