For most people who enter Axle Contemporary, the mobile art gallery housed within a retired delivery truck, the experience is one of serendipity. Stumbling onto the gallery, which habitually plants itself in pedestrian-friendly places, starts the happy accident, and what follows is an at-times-whimsical experience. Take their latest show, in which oil paintings by Greta Young were draped from the ceiling on unframed canvases, with visitors threading their way through the colorful curtains. Since 2010, the gallery’s mission has been to make art accessible and enjoyable, and to introduce New Mexican artists to the city’s many visitors. One of the more effective places they’ve done that is a parking space on Canyon Road. So the gallery’s owners, Matthew Chase-Daniel and Jerry Wellman, were stunned last week to hear about proposed changes to a city ordinance—one originally intended to police food trucks—that would all but shut them out of the cornerstone arts district.
"Having us there, we believe, enhances Santa Fe's reputation as a leader in the arts, as a city that's where the arts are important and valuable and current," Chase-Daniel says. "There's not a lot of mobile galleries around anywhere in the world, and so often we see that people who are visiting are surprised and delighted and glad to see us there. It's not something they've seen before, even if they're from large cities like Houston or Los Angeles or New York or Chicago."
City councilors and the Canyon Road Merchants Association framed the proposal to exclude mobile vendors from the busy area as addressing safety concerns, but Axle says the move is an overreaction to a problem they haven't seen during the five years they've parked on Canyon Road. Axle spends Sunday afternoons there a couple of times a month. And with few food trucks frequenting the street, it's hard not to feel personally targeted, though backers of the proposed rule insist that wasn't the intent.
On Wednesday, May 25, emerging artists, SITE Santa Fe's curator, the director of events and marketing for the Railyard and one of Meow Wolf's co-founders called for rules that would keep Axle operating as it is. An incensed Sondra Goodwin, a local artist, suggested making the whole street pedestrian-only, instead of banning Axle.
"All of those galleries on Canyon Road, with the exception of a very few, are schlock. They're kitsch ... I'm sorry, but they're crap. And I know, because I'm an artist. And I know when I see good art, and I don't see it a lot, but I see it in Axle Contemporary gallery," Goodwin said.
The proposal would allow one space for vehicle vendors in the municipal parking lot across the street from El Farol, where most people are simply headed to their cars. For every foot they are parked away from the main pedestrian thoroughfares, Chase-Daniel says, they lose visitors. And were a food truck to use that space, it might conflict with the existing ban on operating within 150 feet of a restaurant.
Axle Contemporary has made laps through local publications, as well as appearing in Town and Country Magazine, Sunset Magazine and The New York Times as what's perhaps the world's first mobile art gallery, housed in a 1970 aluminum stepvan not much larger than a Ford F-150. Mobility allows it to take art to schools, restaurants, grocery stores and city streets. Parking on Canyon Road, though, is about more than being in one of the few pedestrian concentrations in the city.
"I do want to acknowledge about Canyon Road … it has a very important history of artists doing what was contemporary at the time, and I think Axle is in that spirit," Wellman says.
"The feeling between us and many galleries is that we're able to reach people that don't often walk into their galleries," Chase-Daniel says. "We can increase visibility and business for them."
The Canyon Road Merchants Association has been working with the city on safety issues around the often-congested street for years, says Bonnie French, president of the association. Talks with city councilors led to the notion of expanding the existing vehicle vendor ordinance—one French concedes she still has not read—to cover the Canyon Road area in addition to the Plaza periphery that it regulates today. During her comments to City Council, she handed over an image of a wide truck on the narrow road. Whose truck? She declined to say.
"We weren't singling anyone out," she says. "We're not against anyone. We're not mad at anyone. It was only ever a safety issue."
Ditto the response from Councilor Joseph Maestas, who sponsored the bill along with Councilor Peter Ives. "My proposal wasn't intended to be punitive or restrict any type of vendor. It was truly a safety issue," Maestas says. "Our best-case scenario is to find additional spots and change the hours for additional vehicle vendors."
The issue is next due for a hearing at the City Council's Public Works Committee, and it will likely appear on the City Council's full agenda at the end of July.
Chase-Daniel says it was "a surprise" and "a disappointment" that no one thought to contact Axle in the first place.
The balance of growth and goodwill dominates their next show, a performance art piece, Talkos: Red or Green, in which Wellman will make sculptural "tacos" filled with metaphorical foodstuffs made from paper. Visitors essentially order an a la carte conversation. The red end covers the territory of the economy, conservative America and society at large, and green represents the environment.
"Although the property owners and established businesses on Canyon Road who deserve our respect will soon adapt to living with mobile vendors," MAKE Santa Fe's Zane Fischer says, "the city's character, vitality and economic potential will not adapt to losing that opportunity."