Michael Freed vividly remembers the first time the room hit capacity at Offroad Productions. It was the opening reception of I Want to Believe (Maybe), a group exhibition curated by local artist Erika Wanenmacher in January 2015. “I looked around at one point, and was just like, ‘Oh my god, this is packed,’” Freed says. He ended up recruiting the security guard who was checking IDs at the door to be the de facto bouncer. “It was crazy. When do you see a line to get into a gallery?” he says. At Offroad, it’s happened twice: There was a queue all the way to the street at Tim Jag’s Printed Matter show last January.

Once a season for the past five years, Freed has transformed his studio space off Siler Road into one of Santa Fe's most popular—and fleeting—gallery spaces. He curates a show each July, and engages local creatives to spearhead exhibitions in the winter, spring and fall. Each display is up for a week, hence the notoriously jam-packed openings. On the eve of Offroad's 18th show, Desperately Seeking Other, Freed took some time to reflect on the formation and ongoing mission of the artistic experiment.

Freed is originally from Oklahoma, where he spent summers working the family farm. "I always knew that I wasn't the same type of man as my dad or my grandfather, or most of the men that I saw," he says. Freed came out while attending the University of Oklahoma. After getting his BFA, he took a job as the director of an arts nonprofit for five years before following a boyfriend to San Francisco. "It was not a smart idea," he says. "I'd known him for three or four months or something."

A mere smattering of upcoming work at Offroad Productions: “Fame,” hand-cut analog
collage by Yon Hudson
A mere smattering of upcoming work at Offroad Productions: “Fame,” hand-cut analog
collage by Yon Hudson

The romance quickly flared out, but Freed stayed in the Bay Area to take care of a friend who was dying from AIDS. He'd lost many friends back in Oklahoma City, at the height of the epidemic. "I was going to a funeral every week or two, sometimes," Freed says. "Having survived the AIDS epidemic and watched so many people die, it's like having gone to a war." Freed's hospice watch in California ended on a joyful note when his friend started taking human growth hormone and recovered. Several of his pals had moved to Santa Fe, so he headed to the Southwest.

"Howling coyotes everywhere, and all the trim was painted bright turquoise," Freed says. That's how he remembers Santa Fe in 1995, the year he arrived. He dove straight into the art scene, working part-time at two galleries before taking a full-time position at Turner Carroll Gallery on Canyon Road. At the time, Santa Fe seemed on track to becoming a contemporary art mecca. "There were galleries that wanted to try something new, edgy and different," he says. "That worked really well for a lot of people through the '90s and into the beginning of the aughts."

In the economic turmoil of the George W Bush era, however, Freed saw Santa Fe's sense of daring dry up. "A lot of galleries don't take those chances anymore," he says. "When they hang a show, they know how much they need to sell to keep the doors open, and they select work accordingly." Freed left Turner Carroll in 2005 to focus on his own artistic practice, and his career soared. In 2008, he debuted an exhibition of monumental drawings at the Center for Contemporary Arts entitled A Penis Show: Razing the Metaphor. The works were depictions of his genitals, paired with phallic objects such as a pistol, a banana and a cigar.

Freed says his pointed meditation on modern masculinity got somewhat mixed reviews from his friends, but it launched a long-term artistic journey. In 2011, he bought a building on Trades West Road and worked for three months to transform it into three separate spaces. A year later, on a whim, he mounted a group exhibition called Man Made that challenged cultural conceptions of male identity. The show was a hit.

"The kind of work these guys did wasn't necessarily showing on Canyon Road anymore. There was a type of venue that was missing," he says. "I realized that I could afford to do this four times a year." He called the space Offroad Productions, a takeoff on the term "off the beaten path."

Since then, over a dozen curators and hundreds of artists have contributed to the project. Local art legends such as Kathryn Davis, Cyndi Conn and Linda Durham have put together shows at Offroad. Well-known names appear alongside emerging artists, and local creatives share the bill with others from across the country. Freed was particularly proud of Interstated: Santa Fe/Phoenix, an exhibition of artists from both cities that he co-curated with Arizona gallerist John Reyes. "It was really rewarding to see how, even with the big garage doors, it looked like a solid gallery," Freed says.

Next up is Desperately Seeking Other, a group show curated by local creator/DJ Yon Hudson inspired by his most recent body of work that explores the concept of the "other" in modern society. The show features 13 artists including Hudson, Harmony Hammond and Freed himself. Freed often shies away from participating in Offroad exhibitions, and only expects to break even on most shows. He offers a 60 percent cut of sales to featured artists, with the rest split between the curator and the gallery itself. That's usually just enough to cover the costs of a bar and required security, but Freed isn't in it for the money.

"It's about showing work that doesn't appear elsewhere," he says. "It's about the quality of the art, and giving the space to make it happen." He's not stopping anytime soon, either: Offroad's current schedule stretches through 2018.

Desperately Seeking Other Opening Reception:
6 pm Saturday Jan. 14. Free.
Offroad Productions,
2891-B Trades West Road,