The Best Museum

By Richard Mahler

Author of "New Mexico's Best"

There is no place on Earth quite like Santa Fe's Museum of International Folk Art. Yes, there are other folk art museums in the United States, but none as exuberant, good-humored, and diverse as this.The cornerstone Girard Collection is a real gem: a fantastic and fanciful array of more than 100,000 objects gathered and carefully curated for display by Alexander Girard, an architectural designer whose work took him all over the world.

What makes this collection unique, besides its seemingly endless and eclectic variety, is the way in which Girard-who died in 1993-grouped his objects into a harmonious whole. He could see beyond the differences in an assortment of dolls and masks, for example, and find the cross-cultural commonality.

This is a showcase for the human spirit, as expressed by untrained artists near and far. That's one reason Girard insisted that the items not be labeled, so that they could be experienced with unmitigated awe and wonder. (For those with a need to know, a printed guide provides detailed descriptions of each piece.)

Besides the Girard Wing, which never changes, other noteworthy sections of the museum include a comprehensive multi-media display documenting New Mexico's rich Spanish colonial history, as well as the most diverse textile and costume display anywhere, which like the Girard collection occupies its own wing. All together, the various components make MOIFA, as local people call the site, the world's largest folk-art museum.

If You Go: The Museum of International Folk Art (505-827-6350) is at 707 Camino Lejo, 3 miles east of the Plaza (buses run about every half-hour). It is part of a three-museum complex that includes the state-owned Museum of Indian Arts and Culture and the privately owned Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian. Each is open daily from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., except for Mondays in January and February and on major holidays. There are no restaurants. There is a $5 admission fee for visitors 16 and older, or a four-day pass to all four state museums in Santa Fe is available for $10. On Sundays, New Mexico residents are admitted for $1.

Insider Tip: If your timing is right, folk artists and musicians will be on hand to show and explain how their traditions are continuing into the 21st century. You may also see demonstrations of Indian pottery making, weaving, beadwork or other Native American craftwork at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, just across the parking lot from the Folk Art Museum. In the opposite direction, the Wheelwright Museum has similar demonstrations as well as a full-scale, working reproduction of a reservation trading post.

For more information on MOIFA and Santa Fe's other state museums, go the Things To Do page on Santa Fe Always Online.


Richard Mahler is author of "New Mexico's Best" and several other books. A journalist and photographer as well, he specializes in travel writing, among other subjects. He has contributed to National Public Radio since 1973 and to the Los Angeles Times since 1979. He has written thousands of articles for more than 100 magazines and newspapers, including The New Mexican, New Mexico magazine, and Santa Fean magazine. A longtime resident of New Mexico, he lives in Santa Fe.

For a full listing of Richard Mahler's books, and to place orders for them, visit

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