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Tierna Unruh-Enos is the managing editor and associate publisher at The Paper.

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Downtown Albuquerque was arguably hit harder by the pandemic than any other district in the city. While Downtown has seen its fair share of ebbs and flows over the past decade, after the governor declared a public health emergency in March of last year, business virtually shut down. In June protests erupted all over the country over the death of George Floyd, and Albuquerque was no exception. Following a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally on June 1, a group of rioters turned violent. In the aftermath Downtown was apocalyptic. Several businesses still have yet to repair the damage. There are even more businesses that have yet to open within the state’s Red to Green framework. Despite all of this, several arts organizations have used the shutdown as an opportunity to bring hope to the community.

Victoria Vandame is the executive director of OT Circus, a nonprofit art space on Seventh and Central Ave. that has been open since 2017. Vandame lives and works Downtown and says that after the riots that happened following the peaceful BLM march in June of last year, Downtown was in shambles. “Every business down here was boarded up. I saw some young kids painting a beautiful mural on a boarded-up storefront. I asked them if they wanted to paint the boards in our windows at the gallery. That was the start of the Paint for Peace project.” Paint for Peace was a one-day event where 45 muralists from all over the city painted boarded-up Downtown business storefronts. “It was very healing for the Downtown community, but it was also an opportunity for artists who have never had their work seen to showcase their talent, and it was an opportunity for these guys to have a voice,” she said.

OT Circus also sponsors the Albuquerque Art Walk Downtown. Vandame also spearheads First Fridays, which is a collaboration between businesses and artists Downtown. Once a major draw for the Downtown district, First Fridays stopped last year along with the majority of businesses. Vandame decided this spring it was time to bring the popular event back to life. In March they drew several hundred people Downtown, eager to get out of the house and support local artists. Cognizant of the COVID restrictions still place, vendors have spaced out over six blocks. Patrons are encouraged to wear masks and not to congregate. On April 2 the event drew an even larger crowd. Musicians play to small groups in open-air spaces, artists sell their art, and businesses that stay open have seen an uptick on those nights as well. “I think, right now, art is going to save Downtown. We’re going to build this into something amazing, and when we can finally fully open up, Downtown is going to be amazing.”

Suzanne Sbarge agrees that art is creating a positive space that is much needed right now. Sbarge is the executive director of 516 Arts, a nonprofit collaborative art museum for 15 years. “I’ve been Downtown for so long now, and I’ve seen the changes it’s gone through. We’ve been part of so many efforts of revitalization. Now 516 is trying to be a model for experiencing art safely and responsibly Downtown. We want to support business down here with safe practices.”

Sbarge says their summer programming will be online, but they are still encouraging people to come down and enjoy their exhibitions. On busy nights like First Fridays, they aren’t open to walk-ins but encourage people to make appointments and plan their night. “I think, because we are trying to be a model of safety and encouraging people to take in art in small numbers, we’ve been able to maintain our audience. The number of people we see every month is pretty much what it was before COVID,” she says. “We’ve always been a cheerleader for Downtown and still strive to create an anchor for high-quality arts programming right here.”

516 also manages the Fulcrum Fund, their emergency relief grant funding for artists. The program funded over $260,000 in grants to New Mexico-based artists in 2020. Another $60,000 in grants has been funded so far in 2021. The program touts that 79 percent of the funding in 2020 went to artists of color.

Vandame is excited to see such growth and support of the arts community even in the midst of a pandemic. “I want to partner with as many artists and arts organizations as possible. I want to work more closely with the city and see if we can’t get more support there. I’m looking at activating spaces Downtown that haven’t been open in years like the Freed building. We’ve cleaned that space up and put some of the murals from Paint for Peace in the windows.”

She says she’s planning a mural festival to paint and revitalize alleyways Downtown in July, based on the success of Paint for Peace. She says she’s just trying to do whatever she can to create a more positive image of Downtown and to make people feel like it’s safe to go back there, especially when the governor gives the OK for businesses that are closed to reopen. “We need positivity right now, because it’s so easy to be negative. This place needs our support, artists need our support, and I’m going to keep going until somebody tells me to stop.”

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