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Axle Contemporary, a Santa Fe-based mobile art gallery, sets up shop all over Santa Fe, bringing its robust program of shows, experimental performance, book publishing, and community art projects to people throughout the city. For Matthew Chase-Daniel and Jerry Wellman, it started with a truck and a dream.
The two Santa Fe-based artists had known each other for over 10 years when a conversation one day about trucks sparked the idea for putting a gallery in a truck. “It sounded fun and challenging, and it’s a way to get a diverse group of people involved in the arts, both exhibiting their art, and seeing art,” explained Chase-Daniel. “Santa Fe is a big art market and an art center, but it lacks places to show experimental work, especially for local artists.”
Researching vehicles on Craigslist, the artists honed in on a silver 1970 step-truck with a souped-up Camaro engine — previously a Hostess delivery truck, later owned by an Elvis-impersonating handyman. After purchasing it for $1,950, they spent another $1,000 building out the roof and walls, installing windows along the top, and signing up for a mobile vendor permit. Next they set to work planning exhibitions and curating Axle’s program, and within just a few months, it was up and running.
Three years later, Axle Contemporary is open five to six days a week, parked at hotels, schools, or anywhere from the historic center of Santa Fe to grocery stores on the edge of town. When weather permits, doors are left open and passersby are invited to enter the space, which looks surprisingly similar to more traditional galleries. In colder window months, the back of the truck is covered in glass, so viewers can see in from outside.
Axle features shows by artists with ties to New Mexico, as well as a weekly experimental performance series and other projects that draw in community involvement — part of Chase-Daniel and Wellman’s commitment to integrating non-art world participants into the space. “I think people sometimes don’t go to art galleries or museums because they don’t feel particularly welcome. They feel like it’s an exclusive, fancy thing and that they should think a certain way or look a certain way,” Chase-Daniel explains. “Axle is very non-intimidating.”
Santa Fe galleries and art organizations have been supportive of Axle and enthusiastic about the community art projects they’ve organized. For the gallery’s 2011 Haiku Roadsign Project, New Mexico poet laureate Joan Logghe selected 32 haikus from over 200 submissions, which Axle then featured on a temporary roadsign and alsos placed in random spots throughout the city. For last year’s E Pluribus Unum, Chase-Daniel and Wellman took over 500 portraits of visitors in the gallery, giving one copy to each subject and using the other for a giant portrait covering the interior and exterior of the truck.
MAKING IT WORK
The initial financial needs for Axle were low: gas, insurance, the cost of permits. For the first year and half, bills were paid through the sale of T-shirts, books and artwork (ranging from $50 to $4,000) with 50 percent going to artists and 50 percent to fund gallery projects. Axle does not have non-profit status, but they do have a fiscal sponsor, which has enabled them to receive federal, state, and local grants over the past year.
“All along, from the very beginning of this whole project we see this as an art expression, not unlike the way Christo does this or the way Joseph Beuys might see things. Every aspect of it has to do with art making,” concluded Wellman.