A Conversation with Santa Fe Art Institute’s Sanjit Sethi

Santafe.com | THE magazine - May 28, 2014

Sanjit Sethi joined the Santa Fe Art Institute (SFAI) from the California College of the Arts in Oakland, California, where he was the Director of the Center for Art and Public Life. In that role, his programs reflected the creativity and values integral to the college’s mission and history. Sethi has a background in sculpture, ceramics, and advanced visual studies. In August 2013, the SFAI Board of Trustees announced his appointment as Executive Director. THE magazine met with Sethi to discuss his thoughts about Santa Fe and his plans for SFAI. 

THE magazine: Are you a person who is easily impressed? 

Sanjit Sethi: I’m a person who wants to believe in things. I’m interested in seeing capacity and vision, and I’m an optimist at heart. If someone comes to me with a vision, I don’t approach it with “why wouldn’t this work?” but rather “how can this work?” I’m interested in vision, but vision has to manifest itself for me to be actually impressed. So, am I easily impressed? I don’t think I am.

TM: Are there times when you’re under-impressed about things?

SS: Absolutely.

TM: What has impressed you the most since you have been in Santa Fe?

SS: I’d say that what has impressed me the most is the cultural weight and the cultural capacity of this city, its incredible cultural resources, and the brain trust of individuals who have somehow found their way to this city of 70,000 people. I like being in a room where I’m having conversations with people who are dynamic, engaged, thoughtful, and provocative—and I’ve certainly had quite a bit of that since I’ve been here. That has definitely been impressive.

TM: What initially inspired you to leave California College of the Arts to come here?

SS: It was an opportunity to run an art non-profit, outside of the shell and the larger corpus of academia, and especially run one that had such great stewardship over the past ten years. And to see how my vision can contribute to and accelerate this specific institution. So, on one hand it was about the institution itself—about the opportunity to run a nonprofit that has really good bones and has done some great things, and to see what I could do working together with the board and a dedicated team. The second thing was that I’ve always enjoyed northern New Mexico and I think there is something quite impressive about the cultural community that is assembled here.

TM: When you were at California College of the Arts, you had to answer to people. Who do you answer to here?

SS: I answer to a very vigorous, dynamic, and opinionated board.

TM: So is that troublesome at times?

SS: I don’t think it’s troublesome—it’s just like any position that requires tact, diplomacy, and empathy. It’s about relationship building. I was pretty transparent with the board when I was entering into discussions with them about their interest in me as a candidate for this position. I’m not interested in SFAI as a myopic, monastic institution that is solely a safe harbor for artists to keep their hats down and do their own isolated practice.

TM: The direction you want to take the SFAI?

SS: We have an opportunity to engage in creativity in a broader sense. Beyond solely one scope—say fine arts or design—by looking at issues around creativity. I want to see how this institution can harness creativity and celebrate it locally, nationally, and internationally, and see how it can be used to drive social change.

TM: You are saying that you see art as a positive social force if used properly?

SS: Absolutely.

TM: How will you connect SFAI to national and global communities?

SS: It’s partly about bringing national and international artists to Santa Fe, but the other half of that equation is seeing how SFAI can begin to extend beyond the physical boundaries of its own building: into the local Santa Fe community, into northern New Mexico, and into partnerships that are national and global. I’m in the process of trying to set up a partnership with California College of the Arts where we could bring undergraduate and graduate students here, and also create a way for SFAI to have a connection there. I’m working with the Santa Fe Innovation Park on the Microgrid Project, specifically looking at communities in India and the idea of how an arts and cultural organization can have a significant role to play in the development of different types of power systems there. I don’t think that these partnerships are antithetical to an arts organization, I think they are actually part of an evolving nature of how the world is getting smaller. It is about understanding and recalibrating for a greater degree of interconnectivity.

TM: Do you think art can or should be used to deal with social issues, like race?

SS: Yes, I think that this is a key opportunity to see how we embrace the sticky questions. How do we look at issues around race, culture, and identity? We’re starting a thematic residency focus this fall. The idea is that we’re re-tooling our entire residency program so that this fall, artists and designers and architects, and whoever else wants to come into residence, will be focused on a series of meta-questions around one topic. From the fall of 2014 to spring of 2015 it’s “Food Justice.” From the fall of 2015 to spring 2016 it’s going to be issues around immigration. These are issues that have local importance. The moment I got here people were talking about issues around food: food security, food deserts, seed banking, and anti-GMO conversations. So the idea is to create something that has resonance locally. We’re starting to plug in a huge constellation of local individuals and organizations that are keenly interested in these issues around food justice and food security. We have a responsibility to bring programming to our local constituents that is relevant to their day-to-day issues.

TM: I know that the SFAI is not an exhibition space, per se, even though the artists will sometimes show their work. My sense is that you are interested in the “conversation.”

SS: Yes, we still have an exhibition space and I think it’s about using that gallery space less for isolated, individual, immersive shows, but rather using it as a catalyst for a broader series of conversations and experiences.

TM: Like SFAI 140, which some people don’t know about.

SS: Yes, SFAI 140 came about as a result of looking at our open studios, which is what we used to do. At the end of every month the artists-in-residence would speak about their work; it was kind of an open house. The new idea is to create quarterly events, called SFAI 140, where we take all the artists-in-residence, along with members of the Santa Fe community—ranging from architects, sustainable designers, writers, local artists, as well as health and human services workers. Everyone gets two minutes and twenty seconds to present thoughts. The idea is to engage. It’s an amuse-bouche that allows people to then follow up with those individuals and say, “Wow, that was incredible. I want to do something with you” or “I want to have a follow-up conversation.” It’s a large conversation that’s dynamic, and people also get to go visit the artists’ studios until we kick them out of the building.

TM: Do you go out to many art openings or visit galleries?

SS: I certainly have been to some events, but that is something that I hope to do more and more so I can get a greater understanding of the cultural milieu out here.

TM: Any last thoughts?

SS: Yes. One of the things we’re trying to do at SFAI is transform our ability to really embrace creativity in diverse forms, as well as to see how our programming can be really reflexive in nature to where it’s understanding local concerns. We don’t see ourselves defined by terms like “contemporary” or “fine arts” necessarily, but rather by issues around creativity and critical engagement. Our new summer youth program, SFAI Design Workshop, is a good example of that in working with highschool aged youth to teach them skills about design thinking and its relationship to community transformation. Guy Cross is the publisher and editor of THE magazine.