Have art, will deliver
After leaving Alfred University with a graduate degree in fine arts and hefty student loans to pay off, Alleghany Meadows began thinking of ways to make some quick money from his artwork. He and a friend decided to drive a van full of their paintings across several states to try to sell them at a Tupperware party hosted by another friend’s parents. His idea paid off and today, nine years later, he has upgraded the concept to a mobile art gallery that he runs from within a converted 1967 Airstream trailer.
Many artists wanting to move beyond the reach of traditional galleries, have taken their work on the road, whether across town or across the country. The result is usually an art project in its own right, as the renovated trucks and trailers draw curious stares and inquisitive peeks inside.
That, say the artists, is precisely the point.
“We wanted to figure out a way to make our artistic interests functional in the world so they didn't seem removed and specialized and only for a privileged audience to go and look at,” said 25-year-old Brooke Chroman. Along with two fellow art school graduates, Chroman directs a new art project in Brooklyn called Parts and Labor Gallery (partsandlaborgallery.com).
The “gallery” occupies the back of a commercial moving truck, the walls of which have been replaced with large panes of Plexiglas and outfitted with generator-powered overhead lights. They drive the gallery into New York City neighborhoods that do not have ready access to art and its production.
The group has hosted four events since late last summer, including a drive-in movie screening in a vacant parking lot and displays of handmade cards and “mojo hands,” small luck-filled satchels inspired by an African hoodoo tradition. Made by a dozen local artists, the crafts were also handed out through a small take-away window in the truck’s side panel.
While pleased with the new art form they are creating, many of these artists on the move say the competitive art world pushed them to get more creative. “I think the work of these mobile artists attests to a frustration with the marketplace and the pitfalls of an overdriven art economy, where collectors and arts professionals often assert control over the process of artistic production,” said art scholar and independent curator Christina Vassallo. She is currently researching the implications of distribution methods in the art world for a book on the subject.
“I see mobile galleries as one of many survival tactics employed by artists,” she said. “It allows them to appeal to self-directed collectors on their own, affords a greater degree of flexibility in terms of marketing and self-promotion, and enables artists to seize their entrepreneurial spirit.”
Not every artist is an entrepreneur, of course, though some owners of mobile galleries say their self-contained spectacle-makers do the work for them. “It’s intrinsically magnetic, so it helps me in self-marketing,” said New Hampshire-based artist Ed Kimball of his revamped 5- by 13-feet V-nose trailer, which he and his partner, C.J. Stephens, use to project their Super-8 films and photography at stops throughout the Northeast (www.polisamericastudios.com).
But ultimately, he sees the movable minitheater as a reflection of today’s fast-moving culture. “We’re keeping pace with a quick, ephemeral world,” he said.
Some of the inspiration for it came to him as an art student, he said, “walking up to that giant fortress of the Whitney Museum and thinking, ‘How do you breach those walls?’”
Recognizing these challenges, San Francisco gallery owner Johnny Davis has tried to do something to help unknown artists. “I support grassroots level artists,” said Davis, 56, owner of Artwork SF, a fifteen-year-old art distribution business with over 1,200 pieces in rotation citywide.
That said, he admits not every new artist who walks in his door gets to see her work up on the walls. Galleries often lose money on artists who are not yet established, said Davis, so he needs to choose his displays carefully.
In addition, some artists need to hit the road in order to make it big, he said, as it can be harder to gain appeal in your own city. “Some San Franciscan artists who can’t make it happen here are huge in Chicago, for example, and vice versa,” he said. “There’s something more exotic about you that way, you’re imported.”
Meadows, now 35, lives in Aspen, Colo. with his wife and daughter, but drives his Airstream-cum-pottery gallery across the country four times a year, parking outside museums and universities (www.art-stream.com).
He designed his mobile gallery, in which he has logged 80,000 miles over five years, with its sleek apricot-colored paneling and rustic cherry wood floor, to feel like a “warm kitchen,” he said. He sells everything from $25 mugs to $1,500 sculptures—made by Meadows and other unknown artists—to a wide spectrum of visitors, from art collectors to curators to businesspeople on lunch break.
He said he is not opposed to galleries, and in fact shows his work in traditional settings as well, but is always looking for “a new interface with the public.” For example, he lets chefs use some of his ceramics to serve their food on in Aspen restaurants.
“There’s no one place to show your artwork,” he said.