As early as 1913, the Society for the Revival of Spanish Arts and later, the Society for the Restoration and Preservation of Spanish Mission Churches of New Mexico, were collecting traditional New Mexico art. Both organizations were the precursors when, on October 29, 1929, author Mary Austin and artist and author Frank G. Applegate and a group of friends and collectors officially founded the Spanish Colonial Arts Society. The records differ on the names of the original founders but most seemed to have also served on the Board of Trustees.
The initial 1926 Spanish Market was an effort by this small group to support and promote the local New Mexican art forms, and the men and women who created them.
On October 15, 1929, two weeks before the Society’s incorporation paperwork was officially signed, the Society purchased a privately owned chapel in the village of Chimayo. The purchase price of $6000 was raised by Mary Austin and others from a private donor in the East who set the condition that he remain anonymous. The chapel was immediately given to the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and, for almost 20 years, the Society provided basic maintenance. Later, the chapel was totally refurbished and became known throughout the world as El Santuario de Chimayo, the Lourdes of America. Later, in 1954, the Society assisted with financing the renovation work of the old Plaza del Cerro at Chimayo.
The second major purchase undertaken by the Society was an altar screen by 19th century master santero José Rafael Aragón, originally from the Nuestra Señora del Carmen church at Llano Quemado. The altar screen was sold to the Society by the committee in charge of church building at Llano Quemado after it had been replaced at the church by a millwork altar screen. This altar screen was loaned to the Palace of the Governors in 1929 and it remains on long-term loan, and is a popular exhibit today.
From 1930 to 1933, the Society operated The Spanish Shop at Room 39 of Sena Plaza that offered a sales inventory of the work of the Market artists. The Society also had some success in convincing galleries in the East to display the work of a few of the artists of northern New Mexico.
In 1938, the Society mounted a special exhibition of Spanish Colonial Art at the Museum of New Mexico’s Palace of the Governors. The Society placed forty-eight objects at the Palace, including hide paintings, Rio Grande blankets, Mexican rebozos, altar cloths, and other art objects.
In the early 1950s, the Spanish Colonial art scholar, Elizabeth Boyd White, known professionally as E Boyd, was appointed as the first curator of the newly established Spanish Colonial Arts Department at the New Mexico Museum of International Folk Art. E Boyd, along with a small group of the original founders, was involved in the reinvigoration of the Society and served as the curator of the Society’s collection for many years.
Alan C. Vedder and his wife Ann joined the organization in the early 1950s and they remained deeply involved until their deaths in the 1990s. Alan and Ann shared the leadership of the Society with E. Boyd and together they expanded and restored the collection. The first inventory of the collection was done by E Boyd and the Vedders. Over two decades, they acquired and restored hundreds of art objects and arranged several significant bequests to the collection. During those years, a conscious effort was made to expand the collection to include art objects from Spain, Mexico, Central and South America, and other parts of the Spanish Colonial world.
By the early 1950s, the Society Board expressed their desire for a permanent museum to house and exhibit the growing art collection, which then consisted of several hundred pieces. The Board knew that a museum to store and showcase the collection would allow them to further their mission, which included educating the public about the art forms. Because the collection was safeguarded in the homes of Society members, there were storage and security concerns.
In 1965, the Market was resurrected as an annual event and was held beneath the portal of the First National Bank of Santa Fe on the Plaza. The location of the Market shifted a few times over the next several years, as the number of artists participating in the event grew. The portal of the Palace of the Governors was also used for several years.
On May 17, 1998, the Society received an anonymous gift of 2.6 acres of land and a historic residence to be used as core gallery space of a proposed museum. The original 5000-square-foot residence that was gifted to the Society was commissioned and financed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. for use by the Center for Anthropological Studies, and was designed by John Gaw Meem in 1930. The building is a wonderful example of the “Spanish Colonial” style for which Meem is known, and the building provides an intimate setting for visitors to view the collection and other exhibit items. Meem had been involved with the Society from its incorporation and he and his wife, Faith, were active members and supporters. They donated a substantial gift of 147 Bultos and Retablos to the Society collection in 1985.
After a successful building campaign, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art opened to the public in July, 2002, becoming the only museum in the world dedicated to Spanish Colonial art, with a special focus on the unique art styles developed in New Mexico. There are more than 3700 unique art objects in the collection and the museum is an important research facility as well as exhibit space.
During the 1990s, the focus of collecting shifted to art created in the 20th century and many pieces have been purchased from current Spanish Market award-winning artists. Donations of quality art are frequently given to the Society and the collection continues to grow. In addition to mounting exhibitions of the collection in the museum, many pieces are constantly out on loan for use in other museums exhibitions.