Artists, writers, and photographers have long been drawn to New Mexico. The light, the landscapes, and a certain sense of magic in the air—the sense that anything is possible here—seem to fuel creativity. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe, photographer Ansel Adams, and writer D. H. Lawrence are some of the more famous names who found inspiration here. For them, as for so many local artists and performers, their creative work was born out of a sense of place, and the sense of place here is unique. It’s partly defined by the wide-open spaces under enormous blue skies, the wild sunsets, and natural beauty from mountain to desert. But the geography can’t be separated from the history of the place—the combination of cultures that have informed today’s New Mexico, from the architecture to the way of life.
The Pueblo and Hispanic societies that first populated New Mexico have long traditions of art and culture, often inextricably entwined with their spiritual beliefs. Consider the Native American dances, which are not a performance but a sacred ceremony expressed through music and movement. Consider the beautifully carved and painted Catholic santos—images of saints—found in churches and homes. People here have always understood and experienced the arts as an everyday part of life. And so it continues in Albuquerque, as the city’s arts scene flourishes with visual arts and crafts, music, dance, theater, literature, and all manner of performances from the classic to the folkloric, contemporary, and avant-garde.
In 2009 AmericanStyle magazine placed Albuquerque fifth in its rankings of top big-city arts destinations, after New York (#1); Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and San Francisco. U.S. News & World Report highlighted Albuquerque’s “diverse options for theater buffs” when ranking the city in its “Best Places to Live 2009.”
These credits may come as news to people who haven’t spent much time in Albuquerque and who associate the arts more with Santa Fe or Taos, Albuquerque’s close cousins to the north in the Rio Grande corridor. It’s no news, though, to Duke City residents, who are active and enthusiastic participants in the host of arts experiences the city has to offer.
According to the Albuquerque Theatre Guild, there is more live theater per capita in Albuquerque than in almost any other U.S. city of comparable size. In 1978 Albuquerque established the first public art collection (now worth $10 million) in the state, There are over 100 galleries and studios in town, and monthly gallery ARTScrawls have been a popular tradition since 1990.
Although the arts here often reflect the traditional roots of the area, a thriving arts scene needs interaction with the outside world to keep it from stagnating from insularity and also for economic reasons, so there is access to new patrons. UNM’s student population of 25,000 helps bring fresh energy to the arts, providing an audience for more avant-garde or experimental performance companies. UNM’s arts students also contribute to the creative culture, bringing new ideas to the Duke City melting pot from wherever they call home. Albuquerque International Sunport is only a few minutes’ drive from the citys’ major venues, and Albuquerque is often the only New Mexico stopping point for national performers on tour. It’s also easy for visitors from out of state to fly in for the weekend and take in a couple of performances and the latest art exhibitions.
A 2007 report by the University of New Mexico Bureau of Business & Economic Research (BBER) found that the arts and cultural industries in Albuquerque and Bernalillo Counties generated receipts of nearly $1.2 billion in 2004, making it a major contributor to the area’s economy. The arts and cultural industries sector was responsible for 6 percent of the county’s employment, with 19,500 jobs and $413 million in wages. Half of that was funded by dollars from outside the region. Cultural tourism brought in an estimated $213.3 million in 2004. These are the most recent figures available
Ticket prices can be surprisingly low for such high-quality opera, ballet and contemporary dance, music, and theater—often much lower than their equivalents elsewhere; anyone accustomed to paying “big city” box office rates might wonder if someone’s misprinted the price. In keeping with the generally relaxed vibe in Albuquerque, dress can be less formal than in other cities for evening events. You can leave your tux or tiara at home.
There are plenty of shopping temptations in Albuquerque, from the trendy to the traditional, and each of the main shopping areas has a slightly different feel. Nob Hill on Central Avenue, otherwise known as Route 66, shines a spotlight on hip boutiques with an eclectic range of fashion, arts and handcrafts, and super little lifestyle stores where you can browse for hours to find items for the home and design-savvy gifts. In Historic Old Town, specialty shops in quaint adobe buildings line the narrow streets around the plaza. Find Native American and Hispanic arts, pottery, and jewelry here, plus quirky Burque gifts that you won’t find anywhere else. Don’t forget to wander along the row of artists under the portal on the east side of the plaza. They sell jewelry and other handcrafted items directly to the public. Downtown offers a good mix of the traditional and the contemporary, with stores selling Native American and New Mexican artisan goods, and it’s worth checking out the interesting young boutiques springing up along Gold Avenue. In all of these districts, it’s best to park and walk. There’s no better way to soak up the atmosphere and slow down enough to spot an interesting shopping opportunity or perhaps just an example of old city architecture. Also, the stores in these areas are close to each other, and there are plenty of restaurants and cafés, often with patios.
The Uptown area is home to the ABQ Uptown mall, plus many other contemporary retailers. If you’re shopping for fine art or crafts, there is also a guide to some of the best Albuquerque art galleries in our Arts chapter.