When I called Gabe Gallegos, the curator of our collaborative photography show, Social Distance, to ask him a few questions, I was worried that I was interrupting him. He responded, “No, I can talk—I’m just in the middle of waiting.” That made me laugh; what an apt description of life across America right now.
Gallegos is one of Albuquerque’s original placemakers. He started Albuquerque Artwalk (known as ABQ Artwalk), one of the city’s most successful placemaking initiatives. ABQ Artwalk gets thousands of residents in this sprawling, car-centric town to do something uncommon: walk around downtown Albuquerque. The monthly event raises the visibility of local artists while supporting small businesses downtown. It’s an alternative to the usual weekend club scene, as it offers an inclusive way to experience visual art and draws a broad cross section of people.
In early 2020, Homewise (the CDFI and development organization I work for) was fortunate enough to get Gallegos on our team as a part-time consultant and curator, planning out a slate of Artwalk events at the Ruppe Drugstore, a building we purchased that I’ve written about previously on Shelterforce. We were planning monthly Artwalk openings at the space beginning in March, a plan that was promptly derailed by the COVID-19 outbreak. On March 12, just six days after our successful March First Friday event, social gatherings were limited by our governor. The next day schools were closed, and by March 16, we were all working from home.
We continued our weekly placemaking planning meetings remotely. The first meeting was tough—Gallegos was eager to consider how we might move forward with in-person events. The rate of change was head-spinning, and accepting that the way we did everything was going to have to change for a while was the first step toward reimagining how we might move forward. It quickly became clear that April Artwalk events would not happen. I felt for Gallegos—he had worked so hard to build up this tradition and now it was shutting down overnight. Similarly, we had been getting great traction with community use of the Ruppe space and I was disappointed that we had to halt the momentum we had generated.
Placemaking is a delicate balance of assessing a community’s assets and potential and using those strengths to creatively foster a deeper sense of place. It’s an inherently in-person practice, centered on experiencing public spaces together. When successful, placemaking benefits the health, happiness, and well-being of individuals and deepens social bonds. It’s something ephemeral—hard to pin down but easy to recognize when it’s done well.
Thinking, as always, about assets first, “I asked ourselves what we had,” Gallegos said of generating the idea for Social Distance. “We had a group of photographers who wanted to produce work that was relevant.” Gallegos redesigned the April exhibit into a show that would share images photographers captured of life in this strange time of separation.
“Working through all of this on such a quick timeline without any in-person conversations has been hard,” he said. “Artists are visual thinkers, and normally I always meet in person to plan out a show. But we’ve been successful promoting the installation through social media. I’m working with people I’ve never met on this show; the content people are generating has been awesome.” In a week, 52 images were submitted, 37 of which will be included in the show.
Social Distance is an installation that will have a digital platform and selected images will also be installed in the windows of the Ruppe. The show is a partnership with IGers (Instagrammers) of ABQ, a virtual community of nearly 13,000 followers who share photos that capture the striking natural beauty and daily rhythms of life in Albuquerque. Gallegos noted that it was fortuitous that we had a group photography show already slated for May. “Photography is the most reliable way we have to understand history. Artists all have their own aesthetic, so the show will become an expression of the different versions of this shared reality.”
In addition to the visual content of the show, we wanted to expand into other digital modalities. We connected with Dr. Frank Mirabal, host of a podcast called Portraits in Color, which offers a unique look at race in America through the stories of artists and entrepreneurs. Mirabal is doing interviews with First Friday artists and collaborators that will complement our digital shows. He began with this interview of Michelle Sena, owner of All Chola, a T-shirt company that “sheds truth on what it means to be a Chola through fashion, culture, and art.” An episode about the Social Distance exhibit is forthcoming.
The website will link to a COVID Emergency Fund established by the Albuquerque Community Foundation. We know that art can inspire a sense of beauty and community, and wanted to give people a way to contribute to their city’s response to this crisis. The Albuquerque Community Foundation made a $10,000 investment in an emergency mortgage assistance fund we’ve established at Homewise that will help homeowners across the city who are receiving no other federal assistance, such as immigrants.
A poem by Albuquerque Poet Laureate Jessica Helen Lopez will adorn the door of Ruppe, surrounded by photos in the storefront’s windows.
Now is the time we dwell In La’kesh,
you who are me. I who am you.
Together we are alone.
Alone we are together.
Do you see all of the springtime branches showing their colors?
The seasons have not shuttered their doors.
The sun, still a shimmering ball of warmth.
Burque ablaze with sunset heat, alive with the pink
and watery gold feathers that brush our heavenly sky.
Everyday a painting created for you. For me.
Our hope gathers despite the separation.
I guess we are all like individual drops of rain
falling into one grand river after all.
“What’s always most important to me as a curator,” says Gallegos, “is to share artwork that expresses the New Mexican experience. When we look back at the news about this time in history, we will see images of New York and New Orleans and Wuhan—we won’t find images of New Mexico. So what we want to capture is this moment for us.”
Coronavirus, and the necessary physical isolation we’re all enduring to defeat it, has not extinguished our sense of place, which is, of course, the bedrock of placemaking.