City Hall in Belen, New Mexico.

Proposal for Judy Chicago Museum Divides a New Mexico Town

The small central New Mexican town of Belen is divided over a plan to open a museum dedicated to one of its best-known residents, Judy Chicago. The dispute has pitted the town’s art lovers against its more conservative denizens.

Fans of Chicago’s work argue that establishing an art destination in Belen, which has a population of just over seven thousand people, would draw cultural tourists to the area and help revive the town. However, Evangelical Christian leaders and conservative members of the city council find her art to be indecent. “If Judy Chicago wants to be successful in a museum, well bless her little heart,” sixty-two-year-old John K. Thompson said at a recent city council meeting. “But not in a sleepy little town in the middle of New Mexico. A lot of her art is very sexual, more fitting for some liberal city far from here.”

Nineteen-year-old nursing student Lacey Greer, a member of Belen’s Calvary Chapel, is also opposed to the museum. “As Christians, we are for order, justice, security and protection,” she told the New York Times. “I’m for protecting the eyes of the innocent, especially the children.” Other constituents did not take issue with Chicago’s art but did express that taxpayers’ dollars should not be used for the venue.

Chicago and her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, who first moved to Belen in the 1990s, originally agreed to work with town officials, including former mayor Ronnie Torres, who first proposed the idea. However, the controversy that erupted over the museum made the artist reconsider partnering with the municipal government. “The whole experience has been very painful,” Chicago told the New York Times.

The artist has since decided to realize the project on her own. She started a Go Fund Me campaign through her nonprofit Through the Flower. Operated by Chicago’s foundation, the organization aims to transform a building it owns across from the former Belen Hotel, where Chicago and Woodman live, into an exhibition space that will present rotating shows and feature a library and a gift shop. Chicago had used the space to stage exhibitions of work by female artists but has not held programming there in recent years.

Belen’s current mayor, Jerah Cordova, has also not shown any signs of giving up on the museum. The thirty-four-year-old is committed to donating his part-time salary of a little more than $10,000 to the project. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t get this done as a city, but I hope I can effect some change as an individual, and I’m certainly willing to step up to do that for the community,” he told the Albuquerque Journal