Elaine Ritchel, Founder & Owner of Santa Fe Art Tours
Founder & Owner of Santa Fe Art Tours
Walking, reading, tea drinking
Bloomington, IN and Albuquerque, NM
What was your professional journey before founding Santa Fe Art Tours?
I’ve been an art nerd for my entire life. I always knew that art would be central to my work, but my professional path has been a bit meandering. While studying art history, I interned at both the University of New Mexico Art Museum and the Blanton Museum of Art at UT Austin. Funnily enough, it was actually my frustration with museum exhibitions that sparked my interest in museum education. I hoped to make art more engaging and accessible, and serendipitously, both of these museums endorsed inquiry-based, interactive methods for teaching about art.
These practices really resonated with me. While there is a time and a place for lecture-style teaching, that approach is inherently hierarchical: information is transferred from an expert to an audience, and there’s little room for exchange and community building. Encouraging personal connections with art through conversation feels so much more natural to me. It’s rich, dynamic, and more inclusive. I love the idea that we can all learn from each other and create meaning together. Ultimately, I realized that academia wasn’t quite the right fit for me. As much as I loved the scholarly aspect of my work, I felt most alive and inspired when I was leading educational programs in museums.
After grad school, I moved to Croatia, which turned out to be a very exploratory time for me. I launched an English-language tour program at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, became a travel and arts writer, and worked as an editor and translator. I even baked chocolate chip cookies––a novel American “delicacy” in Croatia––for a local cafe. I also started giving tours of art exhibitions for various organizations in Zagreb. I kind of fell into the role of independent museum educator and tour guide, which planted the seed for Santa Fe Art Tours.
How would you describe Santa Fe Art Tours?
Santa Fe Art Tours creates compelling experiences with art. We highlight local art venues and encourage people to engage more deeply with art on our immersive tours. We aim to empower viewers. In the art world, it’s common practice to teach people what to see rather than how to look. We challenge that model by equipping our tour groups with tools they can use to get more out of the museum and gallery experience. On each tour, for example, we incorporate an activity designed to get people laughing, chatting, and connecting with each other while actively looking at art.
We also create memorable experiences of Santa Fe: we explore hidden courtyards, feel the texture of crumbling adobe walls, take in the architecture, and discuss Santa Fe’s art scene over chocolate elixirs from Kakawa Chocolate House.
Why did you decide to start this business?
Art is such a powerful tool for reflection, connection, conversation, and growth, but many of us, even some of us in the art world, haven’t had this kind of exploratory, open-ended experience with it. Outside of the museum field, this style of engaging with art isn’t commonly practiced. I was inspired by my work as a museum educator to share this experience with others and to reimagine what a tour can be. Additionally, Santa Fe has an incredible art scene, but it can be difficult to navigate. There is a staggering number of art venues to experience, and many people don’t know where to begin. Pair that with necessity (jobs in art museum education are a rarity) and the realization that no one else was offering this type of tour here, and Santa Fe Art Tours was born.
What do your days typically look like?
Right now, there isn’t really a typical day. Of course, there are many days when I’m on tour, which is the best part of the job. That’s when I’m in my “flow” state. Behind the scenes, though, I’m attempting to wrangle my overflowing inbox, running numbers, creating custom itineraries, making phone calls, doing research, visiting galleries, writing, fussing with the website, preparing contracts, figuring out insurance requirements, and so on. I have a small team of incredible guides who help out with tours, but otherwise, I do everything myself.
I’m detail oriented, but the administrative side of my work is a challenge for me. I’m prone to getting bogged down by logistics and overthinking every little decision. Like many creatives, I started my business to do what I love. I never planned to own a business, and I don’t have a business background. I’m constantly learning as I go. Pairing activities I don’t love with things I do enjoy helps me keep my sanity. I’ll often hunker down with a big mug of chai to tackle burdensome tasks.
What are your future visions for Santa Fe Art Tours? What are some dream projects you'd like to work on?
I’m steadily working toward a goal of hosting some art-focused trips abroad. Anything that combines art and travel is a dream! I also love working with schools, museums, and other businesses that are interested in teaching with art or encouraging visual literacy. For example, I recently led a tour for a group of finance executives who were in Santa Fe on a leadership retreat. Our objectives were for the group to practice leadership skills and consider new perspectives through art appreciation. I’m working on creating similar programs and resources that highlight the skill-building potential of art education.
Do you have any notable partnerships or projects on the horizon?
This year, I’ve partnered with Atlas Obscura to offer two art-focused trips in New Mexico. That has been very exciting and a lot of fun. Among other activities, we’ll be exploring local artist studios, riding Pinzguaers to a Ra Paulette cave in a tucked-away valley, trekking through Ghost Ranch on horseback, and sharing a meal at San Ildefonso Pueblo.
What's your favorite thing about your work?
I love creating an opportunity for people to slow down, connect with each other, and enjoy art in a new way. People often tell me that they feel more comfortable with art after joining one of my tours, and that is incredibly meaningful to me. I also enjoy hearing others’ interpretations about art. The beauty of a conversational approach is that everyone is welcome to share. I am often delighted by others’ insights and revelations.
What's the biggest challenge you face in your work?
There are a lot of misconceptions about what I do. People tend to think that I just waltz tour groups through galleries and “tell them about paintings” or that I drive them around on a bus and point out sculptures. Or, they’re familiar with art and think, “Oh, I already know about art, I don’t need a tour.” I totally get it: I don’t often seek out tours because I don’t like being talked at or herded around with a bunch of people, and although I studied art history, I had not engaged with art this particular way until I became a museum educator. It’s difficult to articulate the kind of experience Santa Fe Art Tours provides because there’s not really a comparable model. Our approach is rooted in museum education theory and practice, but it’s also a walking tour. But then, it’s not a typical walking tour, either. Once people take a tour, they get it, but figuring out how to market what I do is an ongoing challenge.
What advice can you give to people who feel intimidated by gallery and museum culture?
There are many reasons that a museum or gallery might be intimidating to someone, but if I were to give some very general advice, I would say:
Do some basic research about the museum or gallery before you go. This will help you to feel equipped. Before you visit, you can usually find information about the work on view in addition to admission fees and free days, available amenities, and rules and restrictions. Museum and gallery websites often provide a wealth of information about the art they exhibit, and having a bit of context always helps.
Visit with a friend. This will diffuse any discomfort you might feel, and being able to talk about the artwork with someone else is always a lot of fun.
Take time to look. This can help to make the experience more enjoyable. Have you ever gone into a museum and felt completely overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place or the unfathomable number of paintings on the walls? It’s okay to spend time with just a select few works of art that you’re really drawn to. Ultimately, your interaction with a work of art is about you and the art, not the institution. Taking time to slow down and really look can help to remind us of that.
That said, the art itself can be intimidating too, especially if it’s difficult to understand. If that’s the case, don’t expect yourself to get it right away––or ever. Instead, just enjoy looking. Think of it like a game: you can look for clues to help you decipher what the artist might be trying to say, or you can tap into your own personal response to the work. It may help to keep in mind that looking at art is a practice. Like any skill, the more you do it, the more natural it will become.
What are your favorite galleries and exhibitions in Santa Fe?
There are so many! We feature many of them on our tours, so I’ll divulge just one: Art House. It’s such a unique space with an incredible collection, and a lot of locals don’t even know it exists.
What makes Santa Fe special to you? What is/are your favorite thing(s) about this place?
In New Mexico, I feel held. It’s a very particular sensation of being cradled between earth and sky. It’s simultaneously grounding and uplifting.
Santa Fe is a special place for so many reasons, but I constantly marvel at how many art venues and cultural activities there are in this relatively small town. That’s so unusual. The proximity to nature is also very attractive to me. I love that the mountains and sky are always there. I can feel their presence as I go about my day.
Have you found community and support here in Santa Fe? If so, how and where?
Yes, absolutely. One of the best things about starting a business here has been the enthusiasm I’ve experienced from others in the arts, in the museum field, and in tourism. Our community is small, so if we’re all going to thrive, a collaborative stance is key.
What are you passionate about outside of art?
Travel is a big priority for me. More specifically, I love spending time in Croatia. It’s my second home. Learning and speaking the language makes me really happy. As for everyday passions, I enjoy considering the magic of the world. This manifests in many ways: taking long walks, learning about herbs and their healing properties, enjoying our incredible skies, listening to music.
At the end of the day, why do you do what you do?
It brings me joy, and I can see that it does the same for others. In my work, I am constantly learning, sharing, listening, encouraging, and empathizing through the practice of looking at art. I’ve seen people laugh, cry, and experience surprise, resonance, and awe on tours. There are also times when someone challenges art, and we investigate that skepticism and doubt together. At its heart, my work is about practicing critical thought, encouraging wonder, honoring multiple perspectives, and creating enjoyable experiences for others. It’s a beautiful space to share with people.