NPR logo

Art Sales Uneven At Santa Fe's Indian Market

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Art Sales Uneven At Santa Fe's Indian Market

Art & Design

Art Sales Uneven At Santa Fe's Indian Market

Art Sales Uneven At Santa Fe's Indian Market

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Each year at the end of the summer, more than a thousand American Indian artists converge in Santa Fe, N.M., to sell their work at Indian Market. It's the largest showcase of its kind, and a place for artists, museum curators and tourists to mix.

At dawn of the first day, the sluggish economy isn't immediately apparent as artists inch along in bumper-to-bumper traffic on their way to set up their booths along the plaza. But there is some anxiety mixed in with the cool mountain air.

Navajo jewelers Darryl Begay and his wife Rebecca are among many artists with serious concerns about how the economy would affect sales this year. Why? "Because we watch the stock market," Darryl Begay says.

The Begays had just won the best of show award for a concho belt with elaborate silver figures. It's a prestigious honor at Indian Market, which began in 1922, and has long been a magnet for the presentation and sale of authentic American Indian art. The market is a juried exhibition and all of the artists are here by invitation.

'Hot Off The Grill'

Early Saturday morning, Hopi artist Tayron Polequaptewa from Second Mesa, Ariz., hangs up his hand-carved kachina dolls made from cottonwood roots. (Some now refer to these dolls as katsinas because the Hopi language does not have the "ch" sound.) He says some of his doubts about how he would fare lifted before he arrived.

"About two weeks prior to the show, I received phone calls and letters and the guys actually are waiting for me to show up, so hopefully that'll help me out a lot," he says. "So I'm actually more or less just delivering dolls."

Collectors also flock to Robert Tenorio, a Santo Domingo potter who has been showing his work at Indian Market for more than 45 years. He sells his three largest pieces by 7 a.m.

Tenorio brings books and photographs to teach customers about the designs and traditions of his village. He also invites people to witness how he still uses his grandmother's methods for firing pots outdoors.

"So people come to my house and it works out very well for me," he says. "When they see the firing they buy so-called hot off the grill."

By mid-morning, the Begays sell their prize-winning belt for more than $18,000. In past years, top artists like the Begays would typically sell out right away.

"But people are being a little bit more cautious because they're not sure where the economy is going," says Mike Eagle, a veteran collector who serves as chairman of the national board of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, Ind.

Reduced Bidding

The recession had a tangible impact on some of the benefit auctions held during the week of Indian Market. Artists — along with some galleries and dealers — often donate original works to help raise money for museums and organizations dedicated to American Indian arts.

Benjamin Harjo Jr., a Seminole-Shawnee painter, printmaker and pen-and-ink artist from Oklahoma City, says he typically donates a piece to the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian for its benefit auction. He even goes so far as to carry his work down the aisle as it gets auctioned off.

"The donation process is a part of our giving back for all of the support we receive from the various museums," he says.

This year, Harjo donated a monotype and it sold for $1,200 — substantially lower than its $3,400 estimated value. But that was the case for many contemporary and historic pieces at this auction — including a black-on-black bowl by Maria and Julian Martinez, the celebrated potters from San Ildefonso Pueblo.

Income For Artists And The City

Santa Fe estimates that Indian Market brings in more than $80 million in revenue. And Bruce Bernstein, the executive director of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) — the organization that puts the event together — says the financial impact is critical for the artists too.

"Most artists make 60 to 80 percent of their yearly income and that can range from a four-figure salary to a healthy six figures and everything in between," he says.

Prior to market, Bernstein had advised artists to tailor their pieces for the lean economy by creating more affordable works. But still, this year some artists didn't sell anything.

In the end, Tenorio does well; just as the market is about to close, a couple from Texas rushes over to check out a pot with deer hunter designs. They buy it right on the spot.

Tenorio and his nephew, Howard, wrap up the remaining pieces and look at how they did.

"This should take care of us for the whole year," he says, before breaking into Keres, his native language. Then, Howard wheels the pots back to their car.

So, how's the market for Indian arts? It's a bumpy road.

Related NPR Stories