The Paolo Soleri Amphitheater could see a new life as a performance venue for Santa Fe students

SANTA FE, NM (KRQE) – A uniquely designed amphitheater by Italian-American architect Paolo Soleri decays behind the Santa Fe Indian School athletic stadium. The venue, which has been essentially unused for more than a decade, could see new life thanks to investment funds from the state legislature.

Constructed in the mid-1960s, the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater was once a mainstay not only of the Santa Fe Indian School, but of the Santa Fe community as a whole. And the design, inspired by the southwestern landscape and the indigenous cultures that called this landscape home, is truly unique.

“If you look at the historical background,” explains Santa Fe-based architect Conrad Skinner, it was “designed specifically for Native American drama.” It incorporates design elements reminiscent of Native American ceremonial sites combined with Greek theatrical tradition, he says.

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The unique architecture of the Paolo Soleri remains majestic despite the crumbling infrastructure. Photo: Curtis Segarra

And the amphitheater embodies a story of reclaiming Native American identities and historical narratives, says Skinner. “They wanted to take on this stuff and they’ve been in hiding for so many decades – centuries, you know – and bringing it right back out and creating a new culture out of the old culture.”

But around 12 years ago, the venue closed indefinitely. The reason: operating costs and noisy concert-goers, according to previous reporting from KRQE News 13. At the time, a spokesman said the maintenance of the Santa Fe Indian School cost about $100,000 a year.

So the amphitheater on campus was abandoned. But it hasn’t been forgotten.

In 2016, for example, the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater briefly took the spotlight during the 2016 Santa Fe Biennale. And Skinner says community members still have fond memories of past concerts.

“I think it’s still very much alive in people’s minds,” says Skinner. “I don’t think it’s forgotten.”

And now there might be a second chance. Last week, several New Mexico lawmakers heard from Santa Fe Indian School Superintendent Christie Abeyta, who was asking for over $1 million in funding, part of which was earmarked to help with the renovation of the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater.

The funds would follow a $3 million grant to the school earlier this year. And the Santa Fe Indian School has committed another $5 million to the project.

“Interest has kind of fluctuated over the years,” Abeyta told KRQE News 13. “But we’re seeing more and more students being drawn to the media and to film and the performing arts in general.”

“So Paolo Soleri’s renovation will include green space or cloakroom study spaces, studio spaces or ballet or other types of dance,” says Abeyta. And the heart of the amphitheater will be preserved as best as possible given the aging infrastructure.

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The open-air design of the venue and stage has resulted in weathering over the years. Photo: Curtis Segarra

“We want to salvage everything we can up to that original design and build around it,” explains Abeyta. “The original amphitheater now, there are several structural issues that threaten safety and that’s why it was closed, along with it’s not ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] compliant.”

Speaking to lawmakers on the Indian Affairs Committee, Abeyta indicated that the history of the venue was also worth preserving, including keeping the Soleri name with the project. And lawmakers seemed to agree.

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The Paolo Soleri is currently gated, meaning current students cannot experience the space. But that may change in the coming years. Photo: Curtis Segarra

So how long will it be before the famous Paolo Soleri sees performances again? It could still be some time before the project progresses beyond the planning stage into construction. Ultimately, Abeyta hopes the project will last another five years or so.

But first, Abeyta needs to raise more money. Even with the $5 million from the school, $3 million from the earlier deployment, and another approximately $1.25 million that may be on the way, approximately $10 million will likely still be needed to achieve the full scope of the vision. Abeyta estimates that the total cost of the project could reach $15 million or even $18 million.

Nevertheless, the ball is rolling. And Conrad Skinner hopes that one day the unique performance space can be used again.

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Concept images show what a new building above the seating of the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater could look like. From NM Legislature and Dekker/Perich/Sabatini.

Skinner hopes the venue can once again be home to more shows in the future. “If they could find a way to use it for performances and bring in companies that have been involved in Native American performances, I think that would be enough,” he says.

Superintendent Abeyta says her goal is to preserve the architecture and share it with the future of Santa Fe’s performing arts. “There’s a lot of performing arts schools here, charter schools, the school for the deaf is just down the road, and I think we can all benefit from having this type of venue to support our students,” she says.

So it looks like the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater will not only live on, but find a breath of new life as a classroom and space for students. But according to Abeyta, the days of inviting rock bands and hosting public concerts are long gone. Instead, the students come first.