Once upon a time in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, Jennifer Rowland and Michael Gullberg rented a space and turned it into a gallery. The 1,000-square-foot room had been the office of a termite exterminator, and it was tucked between an auto repair shop and a cabinetmaker’s workshop. “The termite guy had recently retired, and was in that place for 30 years,” says Gullberg. “The chair behind his desk had worn these tracks into the tile.” They gutted and replaced the ceiling, walls and floor over the summer of 2001, and opened Gallery Figueroa (named for Figueroa Street) two days after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"People were still walking around in a daze," says Rowland. "They were so grateful that they could go in and see some art. It was a one-woman show, and the work had an ethereal quality to it that allowed people to get outside of that 9/11 space." The exhibition kicked off two wild years of curating, an experience that the couple refers to as their "MBA program." They worked full-time jobs during the day and ran the gallery at night, learning how to operate a business by trial and error. At one point, they had to pay their property taxes with a credit card. "It showed us what not to do in business," says Gullberg with a chuckle. "Don't show artwork that you like—show artwork that sells."
Gallery Figueroa closed in 2003, but one aspect of the short-lived project stuck in their heads: Rowland had maintained a little gift shop in one corner of the space, and it almost single-handedly kept the gallery afloat. Years later, after the couple's move to New Mexico in 2012, they decided to open a consignment shop—this time, with a gallery in a little room adjoining the space. "We flipped the equation," Rowland explains. They'd discovered a way to exhibit whatever art they wanted—and still pay the bills. Art.i.fact opened at 930 Baca St. in November 2014, and ART.i.factory Gallery had its first show soon after.
"We didn't just want to be outsiders who moved to Santa Fe and started a business," says Gullberg. "We wanted to give back, and show artwork that has a viewpoint and resonates with us." They engaged local emerging artists to curate shows and submit to group exhibitions. Early on, popular local Instagram account @SimplySantaFeNM exhibited work by local photographers on the walls.
ART.i.factory has hosted solo or group exhibitions with local artists such as Meg Gold, Andrea Vargas-Mendoza, Patti Levey, Todd Christensen, SCUBA and many others. Rowland and Gullberg have also teamed up with neighboring Baca Street businesses to host the annual Baca Street Bash block party each July. "The International Folk Art Market, the Spanish Market and the Indian Market attract people from outside of Santa Fe," says Gullberg. "We envisioned the Baca Street Bash as a community thing, as a block party for Santa Fe."
So far, the new model has worked. "I think the community has started to understand ART.i.factory as a space that's different, that's going to take risks," says Rowland. "We're not financially beholden to the art space, which allows us to do what we want." Next up is COLOR: A Painting Exhibition Against Hate, a group show by freshman students from the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. Sarah Stolar, an adjunct painting professor at SFUAD who exhibited in one of ART.i.factory's group shows, contacted Rowland and Gullberg with an idea for a very unconventional final exam.
"I taught a class the day after the election. I was unapologetically distraught, but tried to hold it together for my students," says Stolar. "During that class, they created these portraits that were really beautiful and expressive." They talked about how art could be a catalyst for social change, and Stolar decided to scrap their final research paper in favor of a group exhibition to benefit a local charity. ART.i.factory seemed like the perfect place to do it. "A lightness came back to the classroom," Stolar says. "We took something that was very hard and very heavy, and harnessed our creativity for positive social change."
The opening of the COLOR show fell after the fall semester ended, so Stolar gave everyone in the class a final grade and trusted they'd stick around to complete the project. The students exceeded her expectations, taking on every aspect of the planning process from writing the press release to installation. Dani Sanchez, a freshman in SFUAD's BFA studio arts program, says putting together the exhibition has been a good way to harness her restless energy since the election.
"The timing does have to do with it," Sanchez says. "All of my colleagues that are in the show are between 18 and 20. This was our first election, and we're having a really hard time coping with the situation." With Stolar's help, they selected the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund as the benefactor of COLOR—in response to Donald Trump's mockery of a disabled reporter during the campaign season. The choice personally resonated with Sanchez, who has a learning disability.
"To me, the show is about not only spreading my emotional expression into the world, but also feeling like I can participate in what's going on in society today," says Sanchez. "Being a part of the art community is very important right now, because art speaks louder in times of struggle."