One-On-One With Suzanne Sbarge

By Ellen Marks
Albuquerque Journal, N.M.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Great Q&A with Suzanne Sbarge, founding executive director of 516 ARTS, a “non-collecting contemporary art museum.” Instead of selling art, 516 focuses on using art to educate people about topics such as immigration and the environment.


From the start, Suzanne Sbarge’s 516 art space was envisioned as a spark for bringing new life to Downtown and the Central Avenue corridor.

But Sbarge’s goals are so much grander than that.

“One of the things I focus on in this work is trying to connect Albuquerque and New Mexico to the rest of the world,” says Sbarge, a 53-year-old artist, arts administrator, educator and activist.

Sbarge is the founding executive director of 516 ARTS, a “non-collecting contemporary art museum” that she started 13 years ago. Funded with seed money from the McCune Charitable Foundation, Sbarge’s mission was partly to “bring the business community together with the arts community.” The McCune foundation at the time was heavily involved in revitalizing Downtown Albuquerque.

Instead of selling art, 516 focuses on using art to educate people about topics such as immigration and the environment. Its current project, “Species in Peril Along the Rio Grande,” is a massive effort that involves artists and scientists across the region with presentations, art displays, nature walks and panel discussions.

However, Sbarge’s biggest effort, the International Symposium on Electronic Art 2012, focused on connections among art, science and technology. It brought people to Albuquerque from 37 countries, with exhibits at five sites and a six-month collaboration involving three states.

“It was really huge, and we worked on it for three years and it almost killed me, it really did,” says Sbarge, whose own art involves creating surreal images from collage and painting. “But I was really glad we did it, and it was amazing that we pulled it off. It really put 516 on the map, and a lot of people internationally know us because of that.”

Sbarge, who grew up in Connecticut, is deeply rooted in the South Valley because, she says, “the South Valley has been my home and where I make art for the past 25 years.”

She’s also around a lot of music. She took up the accordion at one point, and her husband, Rufus Cohen, is the nephew of folk legend Pete Seeger.

Among the things Sbarge would like to change is the “arbitrary separation” she sees between the business world and nonprofit arts organizations such as 516.

“It’s an incredible missed opportunity because the arts overlap and interact with business in a myriad of ways,” she says. “Arts and culture are what make people want to come work here and what make a community feel vibrant and interesting and engaging and meaningful.”

What was your childhood like?

“I grew up in suburban Connecticut, and we were the only Jewish family. My mom’s an immigrant, a Holocaust survivor from France. My dad’s family, they were born here, but they were refugees from Russia. So coming from a family of Jewish refugees in suburban Connecticut, growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, you know, we were kind of freaky. But I loved being in the woods there. It was great, with the neighborhood and all the social life as a little kid. But as I got into my teens, it became really hard. My mother taught at a prep school, and so I could go for free.”

Did you ever consider a career other than the visual arts?

“From very early, as a very little kid, I was always drawing and making things. I was really into dance, too. I went to France, to the Rosella Hightower ballet school, when I was 17 with all these other girls from all over Europe. All they did was dance, and they were very competitive and mean, and everybody was anorexic. Of course, I was too at that time. But that was part of the reason I gave up dance. It wasn’t healthy, and it really turned me off because I was really into books and culture and the mind, not just dance.”

Who inspires you?
“As an artist, my work falls into the category of surrealism. I’m very interested in a lot of women surrealists from Mexico, Leonora Carrington. Also, the Dada movement. I work with collage a lot — a drive to take disparate parts and pull (them) together into something, to create some kind of harmony. That is what I do with my artwork, and it’s also what I do with arts organizing, because it’s all about bringing together.”

You mentioned wanting closer ties between businesses and nonprofit arts organizations. What do you think makes the two similar?

“I do feel like nonprofits are businesses. They operate with some of the most challenging circumstances, and they use business principles and practices in sometimes an extreme way to survive. I just feel like we have a lot to learn from each other. They’re very complementary parts of life and of our community.”

Where are your favorite places?
“Well, I do love Paris, where my mother is from, and I do love the South Valley of Albuquerque. I really love being out in nature, and all of New Mexico I just find incredibly beautiful. I fell in love with it when I went to Tent Rocks (as part of) a course in the (University of New Mexico) art department when I first got here.”

What places are on your bucket list?

“First on my list is Mexico City! I don’t really enjoy being a tourist per se. I really like making things. Some of my high points have been in art residencies. I haven’t gone in a very long time, but I used to go to northern Vermont, North Carolina, Colorado. That opportunity to work side by side with other artists, share a meal, have a creative dialogue.”

What makes you laugh?

“My husband. Humor’s a big part of my artwork, too, and some of the process of making collages, I crack myself up while I’m doing it. We have a collage group that meets sometimes, and I’ll be working, and then I just start laughing.”

Any regrets?

“No. I could have made more money in other fields, but I’m a very idealistic person, and I think the reason I’m successful with this work is because my whole heart is completely in it. I just feel like I didn’t really have a choice. It wouldn’t have worked for me to get a job in an insurance company just for the salary. Also for me, the arts administrative work is a form of my art work. I see myself as a community organizer through art.”

What makes you happy?
“My happiest moments have been certain openings here at 516 when it felt like everybody was coming together around the art. The opening of the Street Arts show in 2010 — that comes up for me a lot because it really mixed audiences in a whole new way. Street artists and graffiti artists were mixing with traditional art collectors and punk kids and everybody. And everybody was celebrating together and kind of sharing this experience.”

THE BASICS: Suzanne Elizabeth Sbarge, 53, born in Hartford, Connecticut, married to Rufus Cohen since 1999; two cats, Buzz and Tallulah; master’s in art education, University of New Mexico, 1991; bachelor’s in art history, Barnard College, 1987.

POSITIONS: Executive director and founder of 516 ARTS since 2006; independent visual artist, for life; previously executive director, Magnífico Arts Inc.; program director, Harwood Art Center; arts consultant and graphic designer; current board member, Loren Kahn Puppet & Object Theatre and Fuego Studio School; past board member, Downtown MainStreet and Downtown Arts and Cultural District.

COMMUNITY SERVICE: “I have been running nonprofit arts organizations in Albuquerque since 1995, all of which I feel is a form of community service. Although I am employed, I also put in a great deal of volunteer time, which is really what it takes to keep a small nonprofit going. It’s a labor of love. I also volunteer as a co-organizer of the South Valley Studio Tour.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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