The thirty-two-foot-tall "Camino de Sueños," made of glass and steel, is at the Camino Real International Heritage Center, south of Socorro.
The sculptor at work: Which now involves a lot of renderings, correspondence, presentations, and reports.
The bigger the project, the more talents needed
—Keiko Ohnuma, Signpost
When Greg Reiche calls his work monumental sculpture, he’s not exaggerating. We’re talking six thousand pounds of glass in a monolith thirty-five feet tall. We’re talking projects with art budgets that exceed $1 million.
Maybe you’ve seen some of his work. How about the Big I (freeway interchange)? Reiche designed the steel ornamental walls installed during the 2000-2002 reconstruction. As you might guess, his focus is large public works projects, which he wins through competitive bidding.
He wasn’t always this ambitious. The Placitas artist started out like most—drawing, painting, and taking classes in sculpture. A native of Socorro, he would depict wildlife because he spent a lot of time outdoors, rock-hounding and hunting.
But after studying art at UNM for a few years, Reiche’s career took a decidedly atypical turn. He wouldn’t describe it that way—switch-hitting from right to left brain come so naturally to him that he considers his first career as a certified public accountant a matter of simple practicality.
“I found it hard to make a living (as an artist) because I didn’t know about marketing and pricing,” he explains—before adding that he did, in fact, make a living as a jeweler and furniture maker from the age of sixteen all the way through college.
Reiche eventually found the accounting business “painful,” and focused his energy on sculpture, which his tax business allowed him to do for most months of the year. He began experimenting with abstraction, putting together tabletop-size works of stone, glass, and other materials that appealed to him. In 1983, he decided to open his own art gallery, which consumed him so much that he sold the tax business a few years later.
It was during the fourteen years that he ran Mirage Gallery in Albuquerque that Reiche really learned about the business side of art. You could say that he’d been heading in that direction his whole life, switching between skills rational and intuitive.
“It helped me understand how the system works, what motivates people,” he said of the gallery business. “It’s all about personal relationships. Of course, it’s about beauty too—everyone wants beauty in their lives. So it’s connecting with people who share your aesthetic, and figuring out what they need.”
Ironically, the gallery left Reiche little time to make art on his own. He had to adapt quickly to the marketplace to survive, moving from limited-edition fine art to corporate art and framing, both of which turned out to be profitable and stable. He met his wife, artist Laura Telander, when she applied for a job at the gallery. In 1997, they sold the gallery to focus on making art full-time.
By that time, the couple had two young children and a house in Placitas. Reiche’s work had grown with his network, and he was selling through a gallery in Santa Fe, with agents in Oklahoma and Denver. The first public art project he got had a budget of $12,000, “and I thought that was huge!” he laughs. “Awesome—I could do this all my life!”
Reiche describes his progression to the kind of projects he does now—city monuments, park fountains, university and museum entrance gates—as gradual and marked by plateaus. But it was clearly a decade of rapid self-education.
Today, he employs an engineer and two plants that fabricate his works in stone and metal. His sketches get translated via computer to animated 3-D fly-throughs, so that the hiring board—a city council or arts committee—can more easily picture his proposed structure. He makes presentations, builds models, and then oversees a construction team when a project is approved. All of this calls on skills far beyond the scope of those who focus solely on making art.
It hasn’t come naturally, Reiche protests modestly; he did it because he had to survive. But one of his guiding principles has been to jump at every opportunity, no matter how far above his head it seems. Help will come when you need it, he says.
Also, enthusiasm drives him. “I really like doing these projects,” he says of the fiercely competitive world of RFPs (requests for proposal). “It’s like cultural anthropology—it’s fun. It’s cool. The process is fascinating.”
With boilerplate application packages at the ready, Reiche might spend only a few hours on an RFP initially. Out of every ten or fifteen of them, he might end up a finalist on one—though the process has gotten much more competitive recently. Finalists generally receive a small budget to put together an actual proposal, which might take another hundred hours of work. Every dozen or so of those might actually land him a contract.
Such a project can easily net a million dollars, but Reiche says he takes home a smaller percentage of profit than with his gallery work, because his costs are also sky-high. On a recent project for a ski resort in Colorado, he went through several versions of steel fountain-towers before settling on a design, echoed in the main entrance, which serves as both a fountain and static sculpture. The entrance gate changes color with temperature, so it connects to the seasons and environment.
“Every project has a different committee, and you never know what they’re looking for” going in, he said. “I look for projects that I think are really interesting, and write a statement to that effect. From there, it’s up to the universe.”
Public art projects demand great flexibility of artists, as well as the teamwork to work successfully with architects, engineers, fabricators, and landscapers.
“It’s really fun,” Reiche grins. “It’s everything from conception to realization. I get so much out of public art projects, because I want everybody to enjoy it.”
A successful artist by any standard, Reiche says the current environment is the toughest he’s seen in thirty years of doing creative work. One of his projects in California just got cancelled; another in Colorado is on hold until the city can sell more bonds. And the competition for public works projects continues to swell, as gallery sales and other artistic venues dry up.
But to put things in context, Reiche does not measure things by the same scale as the rest of us. If you buy a piece from him (as someone did at the recent Placitas Studio Tour), it will require a forklift to take it home. Around his yard he keeps an inventory of “small” pieces, temple-like oases of calm that weigh just a ton or two, that “anyone” can pick up for a few thousand dollars.
For a little more spare change, Reiche is offering a piece he donated to the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, to be sold this month at the Vintage Albuquerque Fine Wine and Art Auction. “Flor de la Luz” is 1,600 pounds of stone, glass, and stainless steel and stands 7’3” high. All proceeds from the auction go to support symphony outreach in the public schools, which reaches forty thousand students statewide. For more information or to bid online, visit www.vintagealbuquerque.org.