Leaving a Legacy: Sabrina Pratt Retires from the Santa Fe Arts Commission

Craig Smith | - September 18, 2012

"After more than two decades as executive director of the Santa Fe Art Commission, Sabrina Pratt retires"

Sabrina Pratt, who retired July 31 after more than two decades as executive director of the Santa Fe Art Commission, has a smile on her face these days. Most people who retire happily do.

But not all leave a legacy of hundreds of other smiling faces, of people grateful for excellent work in a demanding situation. Pratt does – and in a city as arts-oriented as Santa Fe, and with so many artists, patrons, politicians, and arts groups to satisfy, that’s saying something.

“I grew up in a family that was very arts oriented,” said Pratt, a native of Dallas. “My father’s an architect and we did a lot of traveling, including to New Mexico. We had friends in Albuquerque.

“When I graduated from college I came (back) to New Mexico, kind of thinking I wanted to find a job in the arts. With a degree in psychology from Vassar, I didn’t exactly have the right credentials to find an arts job – although I did have some intern experience at the Dallas Craft Guild, and through a program at Vassar, running workshops there.”

When she moved to New Mexico, Pratt lived in Albuquerque for a year, where she worked for a private investigator. She then moved to Santa Fe, where she had a job at the Hilton. From there, it was a logical step over to the Convention and Visitors Bureau. After five years, she became executive director of the Arts Commission, where she stayed “22 years and a little bit.”

Over those 265 months, the commission and its staff profile have radically changed. When she first took over the helm, the commission was only about three years old; staffing was Pratt as the one full-time employee, and a part-time administrative assistant. (Today it’s four full-time employees and one part-time.) The extant programs were the granting program, Art in Public Places, an annual competition for a poster image to help advertise the city, and the Mayor’s Awards, given to individuals and organizations for excellence in and service to the arts.

But things were about to change.

“The city had just been awarded a large National Endowment for the Arts grant from the Local Arts program,” Pratt recalled, “which required the city to bring in additional monies to match the grant and fund arts activities. We had some opportunities with money and with meeting some needs in the community that led to some growth.”

The growth came in many areas, including the granting program. The city set aside 1 percent of gross receipts tax funds to provide competitive grants to organizations of artistic excellence that also helped draw tourists to Santa Fe, as well as assist organization still young in experience. Over the years, the award money peaked “as high as $1 million,” Pratt recalled, “before the economic downturn. It’s now at about $750,000.”

Today, the city administers a plethora of arts programs. Besides the original list, today’s menu takes in the Poet Laureate Program and The Artist’s Table, a series of dinners by famed chefs and hosted by noted artists; the proceeds benefit art and education in the cities. Other aspects are Artworks (in the public schools), the Creative Cities Network, Santa Fe Creative Tourism, Santa Fe Sister Cities, and special projects including the Storefront Art Installation Project, the Youth Mural Program, Cultural Voices and the Arts Network, a common-ground series of meetings where arts executives can meet and dialog. “It’s sort of amazing to see how many things can happen in 22 years,” Pratt mused. “We have so many programs now.”

Running the Arts Commission has meant a great deal of important, if day-after-day, work. Does Pratt have any high-point memories?

“As an arts commission, we really achieved something through the Railyard planning, getting an arts district put into that plan,” she said. “And it’s worked out really well, with both commercial and non-profit organizations having a place there.”

Additional notable achievements included being nominated for a Coming Up Taller Award, which honors quality arts and humanities programs that benefit young people; getting the money for Art in Public Places projects raised from 1 percent of bond issue revenue to 2 percent; and, “We, the arts commission staff, managed to create some really good relationships with the Public Works staff, which has led to really great projects – like that new pedestrian underpass on St. Francis Drive. Things that are embedded in the infrastructure.

“I really like that Camino Alire bridge where we had an artist do the railing. A public art project coming up that’s going to be visible soon, I hope, will be new transit shelters that have a nice punched tin-type design to them.

“I like where we can make a difference in the look of the city through our public art program and those kind of infrastructure projects are the easiest way to do it. Because we can take a little bit of money out of the Arts Commission and money out of the project budget, and create something really wonderful.”

With retirement now in play, Pratt intends to start her own consulting business to advise on cultural matters, but she also wants to make art herself. “My dad worked in clay and I’ve been dabbling in clay for all of my life, practically. I think I could get back into that.”

One last question. Some people say Santa Fe is past its best. Are we still a viable arts community?

“Yes!” Pratt said decisively. “We still have a lot of creativity embedded in the culture and in the people who are here today.

“I think that we’re in an international position where we’re not in the first tier in the U.S. in terms of art cities, perhaps, because we’re not so big. But you might think of us as a second tier city for the arts and one that really does stand out, actually. And I think now, with the way the world is getting so much smaller, it gives us a lot of opportunity to stand out in the world.”

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