The New Mexico Museum of Art building dates only to 1917, but its architects looked to the past, and based the design on the 300 year-old mission churches at Acoma and other pueblos. It shares the graceful simplicity of pueblo architecture and the sense of being created from the earth. In turn, the building established the Pueblo Spanish Revival style of architecture, for which Santa Fe is known.
It was built to become the art gallery of the Museum of New Mexico, which had been founded in 1909 by archaeologist Edgar Lee Hewett. He had begun holding art shows in the historic Palace of the Governors, then realized that an art gallery would be needed to effectively promote art throughout the region. The architects, Rapp and Rapp, had built the wildly successful New Mexico pavilion for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. They enlarged and modified that design and proposed it for the new art gallery. The Art Gallery of the Museum of New Mexico opened in 1917, and many of the works that were exhibited at the opening remain in the collection today.
The early Art Gallery’s “open door” policy encouraged artists working in New Mexico to exhibit their work, since Santa Fe’s commercial gallery network was years away. That welcome, mixed with the excitement about New Mexico that was generated by the tourism industry, enticed artists with formal training from other parts of the country. The resulting blending and cross-influences of Native American, Hispanic, and European-based cultures created a unique body of work that is the basis of the New Mexico Museum of Art collection.
The museum changed its name over the years, as it grew and redefined its mission. The current name, The New Mexico Museum of Art, was adopted in 2007 to reflect the breadth of New Mexico art. Its previous name, "The Museum of Fine Arts," had been adopted in 1962.