FARMINGTON – Twinkling lights are strung from the rafters, where stacks of lumber rest high in the eaves, a holdover from the building’s previous identity as a lumber warehouse. Now, part artists’ studio, gallery and bakery-coffeeshop, Artifacts Gallery is a sign of Farmington’s downtown arts revitalization, and an ongoing effort to transform the history of a boom-and-bust town into a future of economic diversification.
Started in the early 1900s, the Taylor family lumber business ultimately closed in 1995 and reopened as an open artist’s studio until it underwent another transformation and remodel in 2015 with the addition of an event exhibit space and the Studio Bake Shoppe, according to Bev Taylor, owner of Artifacts.
In addition to Artifacts Gallery, a stroll down Main Street reveals the city’s work to transform the face of Farmington and promote its newly designated Arts and Cultural District, according to Michael Bulloch, the downtown coordinator for the city. Local antique stores, a few galleries, trading posts and graffiti from local artists populate the street.
“We weren’t known for (the arts) even though we have a large population of artists in and around Farmington,” Bulloch said.
Bulloch and others aim to change that.
In partnership with New Mexico’s MainStreet program, Arts and Historic Preservation division and Tourism Department, the state passed legislation in 2008 to assist the historical and cultural preservation of downtown districts. The push to become a state-recognized arts and cultural district is part of Farmington’s multifaceted economic development and diversification plan, Bulloch said.
Bulloch, who also is an artist, said becoming a state-designated district was on Farmington’s list of economic strategies for at least the past five years. In 2018, after years of identifying local artists, coordinating with downtown businesses, museums and galleries and hosting quarterly art walks, the city became one of 12 arts and cultural districts affiliated with the state’s MainStreet program.
For many, promoting the arts was a natural fit.
“Arts kind of became the DNA of downtown,” said Warren Unsicker, director of economic development for the city.
Elevating what’s always been thereWhile the downtown art scene has become more visible with support of the MainStreet designation, many locals argue artists have always called Farmington home. It’s a matter of elevating what’s always been there.
When Taylor, a former art professor at San Juan College, first opened Artifacts, even she was surprised at the number and quality of artists she had coming in.
“I was floored at what kind of art was being created locally,” she said.
Studio 116, owned by local artists Karen Ellsbury and Patrick Hazen, has been in business for the past six years, well before the MainStreet project began. “People are recognizing how much fine art we do have and how many good artists we have in Farmington,” Ellsbury said. “There are so many cultures that come together here; this community and landscape we live in is really inspiring.”
While the arts have always been in the region, the official district designation comes with a few perks, such as a listing on the state’s tourism website and doubled historic preservation tax incentives within the district to $50,000.
“It helps to encourage the entrepreneurial spirit downtown,” Unsicker said.
The MainStreet project also has increased funding and business opportunities for many local artists and studio owners, according to Unsicker. For example, Studio 116 received a state grant to convert unused parking spaces behind the building into a back patio to host live music and events. During the summer, Ellsbury hosted free jazz concerts with local musicians every other Wednesday.
But one of the struggles is spreading the word to locals and outsiders who might have negative perceptions of downtown Farmington or are unfamiliar with its deeply rooted but often hidden artists. “It’s really a sports community which is all built on the oil and gas field history of the town,” Taylor said. “That’s why Durango might look down its nose at us.”
Regional artWhile its neighbor to the north, Durango, might be better known in the Four Corners for a vibrant art scene, some in Farmington believe the two downtowns aren’t so different.
While Farmington might be known for the big-box stores and chain restaurants, Ellsbury said she’s seen an increase in tourists coming downtown and browsing the galleries. “We’re so much a part of each other’s community, that it’s nice to see us share what we have together a little more,” she said.
With over a dozen studios, monthly art walks and multiple performing arts spaces in Durango, there’s no denying the city has a large art presence and is a draw for many tourists. But supporters of Farmington’s arts and cultural district say the city, if it can overcome the perception of downtown, offers its own brand of high-quality art to both locals and tourists. “If they would just come here, walk in the door, we will drop your jaw because we are so good,” Taylor said.
On a December afternoon, people filter in and out of Artifacts, browsing the small gallery in the front, purchasing baked goods and coffee. A few artists work in the upstairs loft and the place exudes a quiet, festive cheer. Supporters of Farmington’s arts and cultural development know there’s more work ahead in creating a sustained economic impact, but they also celebrate how far their art community has come.
“We have places to go,” Ellsbury said. “We’re not there yet, but we’re taking those steps.”