Judging the Santa Fe Indian Market

August 19, 2010 – “I am staying with a friend in Albuquerque but at 4:30am I am up and ready to head out. Destination: Santa Fe. It is Friday, the day before Santa Fe Indian Market and I am on my way to help judge the artwork entered for competition.”

What is Santa Fe Indian Market? Each August, the historic city of Santa Fe, NM becomes the Santa Fe Indian Market, enveloping the town's central Plaza and surrounding streets. In addition, hundreds of gallery openings, art shows and related events take place during the weekend of Indian Market and during the two weeks immediately preceding it. Indian art collectors and artists from around the world make the pilgrimage to Santa Fe -- whether they intend to buy or not. The Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) sponsors the event, which is estimated to bring more than 80,000 people and over $100 million in revenues to the state and region.

Needless to say I was excited, rushed out the door, grabbed some breakfast at Dunkin Donuts on Montgomery and Wyoming and took off. I took off a bit too fast however and immediately saw red flashing lights in my rear view mirror. As soon as I saw the lights, I knew I was in trouble. The rules of judging Indian Market is that you are not to bring a large purse, camera or cell phone into the judging area. This is because of the need to protect the valuable art pieces but also to protect the security and privacy of the judging process. With that in mind, I left my big bag at home and threw the necessities into a small wallet. Unfortunately, one of the items I left was my driver’s license! Also, I was driving my friend’s new car and he had not put the registration into the vehicle. There I was with no license and no registration at 4:45am with only a couple of donuts to use as bail. (I decided not to make jokes about cops and donuts). The good news is that police officer had a sense of humor and decided that no one could make up a story like mine, so he sent me on my way.

Judging Santa Fe Indian Market is an honor and also a responsibility. Having worked with Native American artists for 30 years I am aware that a ribbon from the prestigious Indian Market can mean a significant boost to an artist’s career. In some cases, artists work all year to create the award winning masterpieces that are associated with Indian Market. The competition is fierce and judging is a challenge because each piece of artwork is imbued with the artist’s spirit, effort and dreams. Deciding which item gets top honor is a time consuming, careful and sometimes heart wrenching process. It helps that we work in teams with each judge bringing insight and expertise as well integrity.

Visual response to the artwork is probably the first and most obvious step in the process of judging. Some items evoke an awe response that is undeniable. However, the wow factor is not necessarily what wins the day. Yes, the items must have a visual appeal but the beauty in subtle details can represent a high level of skill and, when taken into account, can often lead to greater points in the judges eyes.

The next step, after walking around the tables, looking at the items and making sure they are in the right categories, is to take the time to read each written submission from the artists. Each item is attached to the entry form which gives the artist’s personal information as well as materials, techniques and tools used to create the object.   This is where artists have an opportunity to “sell” their work to the judges. The more detailed information given to the judges helps to paint a picture of what it took for the creation of the piece. The more detail and depth brings the piece to life.

Once we all read the submissions, the elimination process begins. Each judge might separate out their top choices for awards and the discussions about those choices begin. It is a very fascinating and educational process as the judges come from all areas of our industry and each offer unique knowledge. This process takes hours, and while it is tiring both physically and mentally, in my experience, not one judge has stopped short of giving their all right up until the end. These judges understand how important this process is to our artists.

Once the judging is completed the pieces are taken to be put on display for the gala event on Friday evening. That event is a festive and exciting time where all get dressed in their finest for the unveiling of the ribbon winning artwork. Collectors are out in great numbers drooling over the masterpieces and planning their strategies to procure the coveted Blue Ribbon winners. In some cases, they even camp in the winning artist’s booth overnight!  

I have been a Santa Fe Indian Market judge numerous times. Each time it is an honor to be a part of something so important. Watching an artist’s career grow and flourish gives me great pleasure, and it is especially satisfying to know that Native American jewelry and art will continue and be passed to future generations.  I love being a part of this!

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