Home Lifestyle Arts For art's sake: Supporting the Santa Fe Artists Medical Fund

For art's sake: Supporting the Santa Fe Artists Medical Fund
For art's sake: Supporting the Santa Fe Artists Medical Fund avatar

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Santa Fe is known as one of the artsiest cities in the United States, with tourists and collectors traveling from all over the world to gallery-hop on Canyon Road and soak up the creative atmosphere in the Railyard. But even though Santa Fe’s mystique — and portions of its economy — rely heavily on painters and sculptors, there isn’t much of a safety net in place for them. As a population, all but the most successful artists often struggle financially, and because most working artists are self-employed, until implementation of the Affordable Care Act, many lacked health insurance. Some people might say that such personal risk is the price one pays for choosing to lead a unconventional life. Others might look at the situation and see an opportunity for creative, community-oriented solutions.

“A group of us used to gather every morning and have coffee at a place called Trixie’s,” recalled artist Armond Lara. “One day someone who was an ex-soap opera actor mentioned he didn’t have to worry about his health insurance because the Screen Actors Guild paid for everything, and even sent him a retirement check every month. I thought, Why can’t we have an Artists Guild?”

Lara and a handful of other local artists established the first fundraiser to support their newly formed organization, the Santa Fe Artists Medical Fund, in 1996. The event has since been held almost every December. Artists donate six-by-six-inch works that are sold in a silent auction, and all proceeds go into the fund, which provides relatively modest but crucial financial support to professional artists who encounter medical issues. “I was so glad to do that, and the artists were so glad to participate because it was the only event for artists by artists at that time,” Lara said. “Santa Fe has many nonprofits that call all the artists at this time of year and ask them to donate work. I would say a good 50 percent of the time, we never even get a thank-you letter. So, we started our own organization.”

Lara was born in Colorado in 1939. He studied at the Colorado Institute of Art, Glendale College in California, and the University of Washington in Seattle. He works in a variety of media, including painting and collage, and is well known for his carved fetishes and marionettes. He is represented by Form & Concept Gallery in Santa Fe and is currently working on The Flying Blue Buffalo project, set to open in August 2018. In this installation of painting and sculpture, Lara explores the kidnapping and enslavement of Native American children from the 1600s until the late 1800s. He is personally connected to the story through his grandmother, a Navajo woman who was kidnapped in childhood and raised by an Hispanic family.

In the first year, the event raised $5,000 for an artist who fell off a ladder and broke his foot. The fund, managed by the Santa Fe Community Foundation, now nets about $30,000 annually from the auction, which is added to the endowment. The fund’s standards are flexible enough that it has paid for everything from a bag of groceries to fixing a car so someone could go to their chemotherapy appointment, to paying to transfer a woman to hospice in another state. “One of the decisions that Armond and the previous leaders made is that who gets money is not decided by the Artists Medical Fund or its board,” said Joseph Riggs, a painter and the volunteer project manager for this year’s event, an expansive, multivenue champagne and chocolates party on Sunday, Dec. 17, at Yares Projects, Santa Fe Modern, and Rippel Metal Fabrication in the Baca Street Arts District.

“The decisions used to be made by the fund’s board, but it opened them up to criticism and accusations of favoritism. The Community Foundation accepts all the requests for assistance, and they don’t limit the kinds of requests,” Riggs said, though there isn’t enough money to pay for someone’s entire medical treatment. Most requests are modest and used for urgent matters, with ongoing arrangements decided on a case-by-case basis. In order to be considered, applicants must make at least 50 percent of their income from their art and have had at least one solo show in a commercial gallery or museum in the previous five years. Funds are available only to visual artists working in two-dimensional and three-dimensional mediums; oddly, artists who work primarily in digital media, video, or photography are ineligible.

Coordinating the fundraiser has been difficult the last few years, with longtime volunteers burning out, moving away, or being too elderly or sick to take on the kinds of responsibilities they once did. There was no auction in 2016, and board members considered letting the fund go dormant. But Riggs, a longtime friend and admirer of Lara’s, decided to recreate the silent auction and reception this year. The undertaking required — among other tasks — rebuilding a database of artists, finding a new venue as well as a new framer to donate matting services, and collecting hundreds of six-by-six pieces of art from inside and outside New Mexico. Riggs hired a professional events coordinator and development specialist, Lerin Ramsay Winter, and together they are determined to appeal to a new generation of artists, grow the fund, and find additional ways to support the medical needs of their constituency. Future plans include a group medical plan. And Lara has always dreamed of retirement housing for artists.

This year’s auction features work by 200 artists, including Lara, Riggs, Sarah Bienvenu, Julia Cairns, Carlos Carulo, Matthew Chase-Daniel, Stephen Day, Sandra Duran-Wilson, McCreery Jordan, Stephen Lang, Lisa Law, Deborah Paisner, Jerry Wellman, and Antonio Weiss. Gavin Collier & Company Custom Framers donated the mounting and matting, valued at about $4,500. In addition, there are also some small sculptural works for sale. Attendees can sample champagne and confections from some of Santa Fe’s finest chocolatiers and bakeries, including Kakawa Chocolate House, Chocolate Maven, Todos Santos, and Cacao Santa Fe. Bidding for each artwork begins at $50, making it an affordable avenue for younger collectors and a place where seasoned buyers can snag some unlikely deals.

Many artists have been contributing work to the auction for two decades. Susan Contreras and Elias Rivera, both painters, have lived in Santa Fe since 1982 and have been donating pieces to the fundraiser since its inception. The couple never imagined the small act of generosity around the holidays was an investment in their own future, but Rivera developed Parkinson’s disease, and over the last two years they have depended on the Santa Fe Artists Medical Fund to supplement their insurance coverage. Though he is currently unable to paint, he hopes to one day regain that ability. “You never think you’re going to lose that ability — you think you can paint into old age,” Contreras said. “But he is going to physical therapy, getting help with pharmaceuticals, and the fund helped him with acupuncture. Of course, it makes him feel great that the community is supporting him. I just couldn’t have done it without them.” ◀

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