History of the Portal Program

The Museum of New Mexico was established by the territorial government of New Mexico in 1909. Originally located in the Palace of the Governors, the Museum has grown to include the collecting units in Santa Fe---the Palace of the Governors History Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of International Folk Art, and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture---as well as five state monuments throughout New Mexico. The museums share centralized support services, including exhibitions, conservation, travelling exhibits and statewide programs and education. The Museum of New Mexico is a division of the state Office of Cultural Affairs.

Anchoring the downtown plaza, the Palace of the Governors has been at the center of activity in Santa Fe since its construction in 1610. Its physical presence alone is one of the city's most cherished treasures: its commanding facade covers the entire length of the north side of the plaza, and the Native American craftspeople who sell their work beneath the Palace portal, or front porch, are part of a centuries-old local tradition that virtually no resident or visitor has missed.

Since its founding, the Museum of New Mexico has worked to protect and promote traditional Southwest Native American arts and crafts. Museum policy has traditionally reserved, and, in 1979, won the legal right to reserve, the portal of the Palace of the Governors for the use of Native Americans to display and sell wares they, or members of their households, have made. All vendors, with a few exceptions, are members of New Mexico pueblos or tribes. The exceptions are spouses of New Mexico Native Americans who are enrolled members of Native American groups outside New Mexico and graduates of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.

There are over 1000 authorized participants in the Native American Vendors Program. All program participants must demonstrate their technical mastery of craft skills as part of the application process. The program is monitored, and work inspected, on a daily basis by a ten member Committee of vendors elected by their peers at the annual meeting held each April. There is a complex set of rules and regulations governing the conduct of the program and the quality of the items sold under the portal. These rules are continually evolving. New rules, rule changes, revisions and refinements are proposed jointly by vendors and the museum administration and voted on at the annual meeting by program participants. Rule changes are reviewed by the state attorney general's office and presented to the Museum of New Mexico Board of Regents for final approval. These rules, incidentally, are more stringent than any craft show, consistently enforced, and frequently requested as guidelines by other organizations.

The portal market has been of incalculable economic benefit to New Mexico Native Americans for generations, providing a reputable and reliable outlet for their arts and crafts. Unlike most powwows and arts and crafts shows, selling space is available free to the vendors 360 days a year. Administrative and maintainence costs are minimal and are paid by the Palace of the Governors.

The question "What is traditional?," in reference to Native American pottery, sandpainting, silverwork, lapidary, and weaving has as many answers as respondents. It is, as J.J. Brody wrote in Indian Painters and White Patrons, "a semantic booby trap." However, it is indisputable that the majority of vendors live on the reservations and are deeply conservative people with many traditional obligations---both civic and ceremonial---at home; these can be extraordinarily demanding, and frequently unpredictable, in terms of time. The portal as a workplace provides vendors with the scheduling flexibility to fulfill these obligations without jeopardizing their livelihoods.

In addition, the Native American Vendors Program is an ongoing experiment in multicultural cooperation. Members of all nineteen New Mexico pueblos, the Navajo, Jicarilla and Mescalero Apache tribes, and Anglo and Hispanic museum staff work closely together daily. From the pueblos, reservations, villages, towns and cities of New Mexico, they come together to form a tentative and fragile community which, despite past enmities and contemporary tensions, endures.

This program has evolved organically over eight decades. It provides visitors to, and residents of, New Mexico with the opportunity to meet contemporary Native American craftspeople. It is precisely the kind of joint venture that most cultural institutions, at best, can attempt to create artificially.

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