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1985-1993  /  1994-2000  /  2001-2012  /  2013-2019  /  2020+

Our History

SFAI believes that art has the power to change the world. Since 1985, we have engaged over 5,000 artists and creative practitioners and provided meaningful programming to over 30,000 community members!

While our programming, our language, and our focus has naturally shifted over the years, our mission has remained the same: to foster and explore the interconnections of contemporary art and society, to enliven public discourse on art, and to support and nurture artists at all phases of their careers.


How it Began

In the late 70’s, founders Pony Ault and Bill Lumpkins began talking about a program that would bring renowned artists to Santa Fe, to teach in residency for one month at a time. Fundraising began, and in 1985, Bobbie Webb Thomas stepped up to direct the program. The Santa Fe Art Institute – originally named the Santa Fe Institute of Fine Arts – was officially established.

Ambitions were high! In the 80’s, with Richard Diebenkorn as SFAI’s first Visiting Artist (and greatest promoter), outreach to artists from around the world attracted both students and other visiting artists, including John Baldessari, Donald Sultan, Luis Jimenez, Nancy Graves, and Helen Frankenthaler.

From the start, the Art Institute’s programming was developed and informed by artists, who worked to bring awareness to the shifting relationship between art and society, and to redefine and disrupt the traditional gatekeeping roles of art institutions, including outdated labels such as “master” artist.


In the 90’s, SFAI would house visiting artists and provide studio space in various locations across Santa Fe. This era attracted high-wattage visiting artists – such as Coco Fusco, John Chamberlain, Beverly Pepper, and Susan Rothenberg.

The decade ended with SFAI moving into its extraordinary building in 1999 – the first facility artist residency program built specifically to accommodate a residency program.

Under the direction of Executive Director Kerry Benson, SFAI in the 1990’s established itself as a hub for art making. In this era, support from locals including Gerald Peters helped to provide places to stay, make art, and teach.


SFAI wouldn’t have a permanent home until the end of the 90’s, an incredible moment for art in Santa Fe, when John and Anne Marion helped to establish a strong circle of deep investment in the arts here. As a SFAI Trustee, John Marion soon approached the College of Santa Fe to envision a permanent home for SFAI on the campus. CSF President Jim Fries agreed to host SFAI on the campus, in exchange for the opportunity to help realize his vision to build world-class art facilities for the College.

Renowned Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta was hired to design the Visual Arts Center, which included SFAI, the Marion Center for Photographic Arts, Tishman Hall, Thaw Art History Building, and Tipton Hall, and was completed in 1999.


In the new millennium, SFAI began to open up to the Santa Fe community with new traditions of hosting Open Studios and commissioning community projects, such as the Flash Flood for a Living River project with founder Bill McKibben.

Lectures and workshops were developed around conceptual themes such as Clothesline, Comfort Zone, Outsider, and Elemental, with visiting artists and innovative thinkers such as Jenny Holzer, Nancy Holt, Laurie Anderson, Dread Scott, and many others.


Diane Karp, Ph.D. was driving from New York to Santa Fe to take on her new position as SFAI Executive Director, when 9/11 occurred. Diane immediately established the SFAI Emergency Relief Residency program to offer New York artists and writers living near Ground Zero space to live and work at SFAI. The Emergency Relief program, in time, also provided support to artists impacted by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and other natural disasters.

During this era, SFAI connected artists from around the world with the local community, building upon its artist-founded roots and moving closer to being, as Diane has stated, “a place where ideas matter and the artist becomes the voice for deep issues and higher concerns of society.”


In the last few years, SFAI has responded to the global rise in intolerance and division by supporting artists who enliven public life and discourse, and who uncover and bring awareness to deeper mechanisms of inequality embedded within society.

For the first time in our history, SFAI has eliminated residency fees for our annual thematic investigations such as Equal Justice, and Truth and Reconciliation, increasing access to marginalized artists by over 50%.

In 2018, we launched the Story Maps Fellowship, supporting local Indigenous, Black, and artists of color to work in partnership with governmental and non-arts organizations to foster greater equity and inclusion in civic engagement.


In 2013, Executive Director Sanjit Sethi, a social practice artist and educator, shifted the residency program to be more directly rooted in social justice issues. He launched the SFAI140 events as a platform for SFAI residents and community members to present work and engage in rapid discourse.


In 2015, Jamie Blosser stepped in as Executive Director, seeing a need and opportunity to more deeply shift the institution to respond to the needs of marginalized artists. To address underlying and systemic roots of inequity, SFAI continually works to define and embody our values, investigate our privilege and role as an institution, and to better provide meaningful and safe(r) space, support, and programming with and for marginalized and underrepresented artists.

Since 2018, when the Santa Fe University of Art and Design closed its campus, SFAI has also worked to create the Midtown Arts Alliance and a vision for how the arts can positively impact equitable development in Midtown. We received a highly competitive NEA Our Town grant to help envision this future through engaging with and prioritizing local artists and Indigenous, Hispanic, Chicano, and Latinx cultures and communities.

In 2013, the SFAI140 was launched as a platform for SFAI residents and community members to present work and engage in rapid discourse

2020 and Beyond

Our vision for 2020 and beyond is rooted in our belief in the power of art to shape society, the importance of connecting and building relationships, and the need for critical public discourse. In this year of celebration and reflecting back, SFAI will continue to expand upon our institutional values as a foundation from which inspire, provoke, and engage you, our SFAI community!

In 2020, SFAI and our community will

  • Engage over 1500 community members and over 50 local artists
  • Host 67 artists from 38 disciplines and 21 countries
  • Support 2 local Story Maps Fellowships
  • Launch 2 international SFAI Alumni Trips (SFAI-AT) and
  • Activate the Midtown Site!

We honor all of those who have helped to build SFAI over the last 35 years – directors, staff, trustees, local, national, and international artists and creative practitioners of all disciplines, community organizations, and our local community members! Thank you.