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Since being named president of SAR, I’ve had many opportunities to describe the institution I’ll be leading to friends, colleagues, and others curious about what I’m doing next. I’ve also received numerous communications from SAR members, alumni, and supporters with their own descriptions of SAR.

Two observations from these multiple representations of our 117-year-old organization:

  • It is exceedingly difficult to summarize SAR in a single phrase or sentence.
  • SAR is very meaningful to a large number of people, but for differing reasons.
Morris Foster

Morris W. Foster, SAR President

In an era in which the fifteen-second “elevator pitch” has become an art form, the first of these observations seems daunting, particularly as the person charged with leading SAR’s fundraising. I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to come up with a magical phrase, the utterance of which would immediately cast a generosity spell upon prospective donors I may fortuitously encounter in elevators.

The difficulty in easily describing SAR, though, can be explained semiotically. Quite simply, there is no semantic category with multiple members that corresponds to what SAR does. And so there is no convenient common name to symbolize that category and immediately communicate SAR’s function to others. Perhaps this can best be demonstrated by a series of Jeopardy clues:

  • A “school” that does not confer degrees.
  • A research institute that is not associated with a university.
  • An organization whose alumni have won more awards in the arts, humanities, and social sciences than those of any single university but has no full-time, permanent faculty of its own.
  • A research center that curates a world-class collection of Native Southwestern art but is not a typical museum.
  • The only independent research non-profit that explicitly combines the arts, humanities, and social sciences in its mission.
  • An institute that has a longstanding focus on Native America alongside a global focus on the human experience.
  • What is SAR?

As both artists and anthropologists know, categories that have a unique set of multiple functions (and so a membership of one) often lack conventional generic labels but also have greater cultural resonance precisely because they are so difficult to name. For many of us, SAR occupies just such a powerful yet hard-to-articulate semantic space.

The second observation is evidence of SAR’s multiple distinct missions. Each mission dates back to the founding of SAR and has an ardent audience today. My job is to resource them, keep them up to date with all the changes going on around us—such as the digital online world—and emphasize synergies among them.

SAR’s Indian Arts Research Center is an international leader in developing and implementing innovative models for community engagement in collection management and for hosting contemporary Native artist fellowships in the context of an historical collection. SAR’s resident fellowship and advanced seminar programs have organized and disseminated paradigm-changing scholarly works that simply aren’t possible within the usual academic domains of colleges, universities, and disciplinary organizations. SAR also actively contributes to the intellectual and cultural quality of life in Santa Fe and beyond through public programs that present the creative and scholarly work it sponsors in the context of broader interests and critical issues of the moment.

In their centennial history of SAR, Nancy Owen Lewis and Lay Leigh Hagan characterized the convergence of these missions in a single organization as a “Peculiar Alchemy,” bringing different elements together in a way that transmutes them into a rare compound. Certainly, SAR works a transformative magic on creative and scholarly endeavors that few other places can claim. Just look at the MacArthur awards, National Book awards, and juried arts awards, among other national and international recognitions for excellence, that our scholarly and arts fellows and seminar participants have received over the years.

Another way to think about SAR is as what sociolinguists call a speech community, in which multiple communicative encounters are facilitated, contextualized, and given meaning by being parts of the same interactive whole. Some of those encounters are in-person, spatially anchored by the compelling sense of place of our campus, and some increasingly are virtual. Yet others are in the form of SAR-published discourses about texts (oral, written, or otherwise inscribed) and created objects (such as pottery) interpreted as “speaking” to one another—as well as to those of us who participate in the SAR community—across years, decades, and even centuries.

SAR, however you define it and whatever part of its mission draws you to it, is a vibrant community of people in ongoing dialogue with one another, as well as with different times, other places, and diverse communities. If you haven’t already, I invite you to join the conversation.