Taos, New Mexico

Windows on the Future

An art exhibition in Taos brings life and vibrancy back to main street.

“Creative arts are essential in terms of getting us through hard times,” says Matt Thomas, director of the PASEO Project in Taos and one of the community leaders helping to spearhead a new effort to fill vacant downtown storefronts with the work of local artists. “Art creates inspiration, new perspectives, wonder, hope. We need those perspectives now. As we get bogged down in doom and gloom, art has the power of drawing us up, letting us see through the fear.”

Windows on the Future—a collaboration between the PASEO Project, Vital Spaces, 516 ARTS, Falling Colors, Creative Santa Fe, and the LOR Foundation—seems tailor-made for the COVID era, when downtown life has come to a standstill and the future has never seemed so uncertain.

In fact, says Thomas, the idea was in the works before the pandemic arrived. COVID-19 just fast-tracked it.

“Reflection” by Dana Sikkila. Photo by Steven Lang.

“Our downtown was already struggling,” Thomas says. Of the ten vacant Taos storefronts that will house art installations, he estimates that half were empty before COVID swept in and shuttered the rest. But suddenly, in the face of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, he and others found themselves wondering what would happen when the orders were lifted. “Will our town be hollowed out?”

He and the other creators of Windows on the Future are hoping to guard against that possibility.

The juried exhibition, designed to be forward-looking and future-focused, is open to artists from every discipline. Selected participants receive a $500 stipend, plus logistical support from a professional curator or established artist. As restrictions ease and public health guidance allows, exhibits will be installed for one month each in empty storefronts. The project is a win-win—especially for local artists who have lost income but might not be eligible for the kinds of relief programs available to many businesses and nonprofits.

The idea to host Windows on the Future in Taos emerged as part of a larger conversation about how to create excitement around what Thomas calls a “complex but beautiful place.”

Taos has long grappled with the ups and downs of a tourism economy. The need for economic diversification—to broaden revenue streams so the community is not so dependent on outside dollars for survival—is just one of Taos’s challenges. The town also faces a long history of poverty and multigenerational trauma, a widening income disparity, plus the challenges familiar to many rural communities striving to provide educational, employment, and cultural opportunities that will retain—and draw more—young people.

Taos has long grappled with the ups and downs of a tourism economy. The need for economic diversification—to broaden revenue streams so the community is not so dependent on outside dollars for survival—is just one of Taos’s challenges.

While an art exhibition can’t solve these big systemic problems, it can provide fresh perspectives and spark deeper conversations. “There’s already a great cross-pollination that’s happening,” says Thomas, pointing to conversations with groups like Taos Main Street and adding that the ultimate goal of Windows on the Future is to “activate and inspire our community.”

The Illuminated Reef Collective. Photo by Steven Lang.

The upcoming exhibition will also create a sense of vitality while showcasing both artists and the business community, says Taos native and LOR program officer Jake Caldwell. “It will bring life back to downtown and might even portray a downtown that’s adapting toward a better future”

For all the short- and long-term challenges facing his rural town, as well as the artists who live here, Thomas points to a crucial trait shared by both communities: they tend to be resilient—if only because they’ve had to be. “They are familiar with having to survive on less, with income or revenue always being in flux. In some ways, that’s built into their lifestyle.”

That resiliency—and the innovative ideas and unique perspectives it fosters—will serve the Taos community well as it strives to emerge out of the COVID era into a brighter, stronger future.

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