Indigenous art. Indigenous perspectives.

SWAIA selects Ira Wilson (Navajo) as its executive director


Santa Fe, NM—The Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (SWAIA) selected Ira Wilson (Navajo) to serve as its executive director. Wilson, of Albuquerque, brings decades of Native art experience to his new role, which begins February 26, 2018.

Ira Wilson

Ira Wilson. Image courtesy of SWAIA.

SWAIA is the nonprofit organization that puts on Santa Fe Indian Market each August. The largest and oldest continuing Native art event in the United States, Santa Fe Indian Market is building up to its much anticipated 100th market in 2021. The 97th market will take place on August 18 and 19, 2018.

In December 2017, SWAIA’s recent chief operating officer Dallin Maybee (Northern Arapaho-Seneca) announced that he would not renew his three-year contract with the organization. John D. Jones, SWAIA’s chief development director also left in 2017. The executive director position was split into two separate positions in 2012 when John Torres Nez (Navajo) was hired as chief operating officer and Charlene Porsild was hired as chief development director and tasked with fundraising. Torres Nez resigned in March 2014, and Porsild resigned in January 2015.

After several tumultuous years, the organization is stabilizing. SWAIA’s choice to hire Wilson is being met with optimism.

“I am encouraged by SWAIA’s appointment of Ira Wilson as the new executive director,” says Adrian Wall (Jemez), SWAIA artist and musician. ” His managerial experience, fiscal knowledge, understanding of Native arts, makes Ira an excellent choice to lead SWAIA.”

Background in the Arts

Ira Wilson grew up in the small Navajo community of Teec Nos Pos in northeastern Arizona, only seven miles from the Four Corners. The community is known for its bright, intricately detailed weavings, and Wilson’s grandmother was a textile artist. “My grandmother, Jeanie, was always the heart of our family,” Wilson wrote in 2015. “It was through time spent with her that I learned about who I am and my purpose in life.” His grandmother taught him many aspects of Navajo culture, including weaving and working with natural dyes.

Wilson’s father was a painter, and Wilson is a silversmith with deep roots in the Southwest. He graduated from Montezuma Cortez High School in 1990 and went on to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

Indian Pueblo Cultural Center

Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Albuquerque, NM (sign altered due to font). Photo: Jonny Brownbill (CC By 2.0).

For 26 years, Wilson served as the lead buyer for Shumakolowa Native Arts, the retail arm of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (IPCC) in Albuquerque. There he worked directly with artists and developed the museum store’s online presence.

Cliff Fragua (Jemez), a sculptor and former SWAIA board member, first met Wilson at the IPCC. “He has experience with the artists and their issues. He has always taken time out to converse with me [about]my work and career and the issues pertaining to Native arts.”

“His employment as buyer and manager of Shumakolowa Gallery strengthened the mission of what the gallery is accomplishing, which is to highlight and educate visitors about Pueblo art as well as Native arts” by other tribes, Fragua continues. “It’s a lot of work and pressure to pursue that endeavor, and Ira did a good job.”

“Ira has created and fostered many relationships with artists, collectors, art professionals, and gallery owners over the years at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center,” says Wall.

Music and Event Planning

Red Earth band

Red Earth performing at the Electric 49 at the El Rey Theater, Albuquerque, NM, 2008.
Photo: Lee Hyeoma (Hopi) (CC BY-SA 3.0).

“I’ve jammed with Ira as a musician at gathering and parties, and he’s quite an accomplished and talented musician,” explains Fragua.

Wilson sings and plays guitar for the Native rock/funk/psychobilly band Red Earth. Wall also plays in this NAMMY-winning band. “I personally have known Ira since we were in our very early 20s when we started playing music together,” says Wall. “I have worked with Ira as a musician and through our dealing at the IPCC, I consider him to be fair and hard working.”

In the 1990s, Wilson and fellow members of Red Earth launched the Electric 49, a music festival that took place during the Gathering of Nations, the largest powwow in North America. The Electric 49 provided a venue for Native musicians who don’t fit the New Age-mold. The event went on hiatus, but Wilson revived the festival in 2015 and 2016.

This event planning experience will be crucial to Wilson’s new role at SWAIA. In 2017, Forbes ranks event planning as one of the ten most stressful jobs, alongside policing, firefighting, and serving in the military.

 Looking Forward

“With my expertise in management, finance, personnel, multiple facets of Native arts, techniques, materials and motifs, I will be … a staunch cheerleader and an accessible and fair advocate for Native artists,” Wilson says.

Fragua agrees that Wilson will to rise to the challenges of leading SWAIA. “Good man!” Fragua says. “I wish him the very best in his new job with SWAIA.”


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