The space was never meant to be a gallery. But innovations—Post-It Notes and penicillin, for example—are often just happy accidents. “The more we looked at the walls, the more we thought, Oh my gosh, this would be a really cool place,” says Sandra Becker, who owns Iris Gallery with her partner Jeanne Engelmann.
Together, they came up with a curatorial concept based on the knowledge that plenty of New Mexicans don't have a place to display work.
Here's how it typically works: If an artist has pieces to be seen and sold, the best bet is to hang them in a gallery. Normally, galleries select art based on factors like quality, the degree to which an artist’s name is established, whether the work fits in with other represented artists’ work and, of course, the owner's personal taste. In return for displaying the art, the gallery takes a significant commission on any piece that’s sold. “We thought, Well, what if we came up with a different model?” says Becker. "We could essentially rent the walls and just take a lower commission.”
The rental model is not only good news for underrepresented new artists but also established folks who want the freedom to break rules or take risks, Becker points out. It’s a safe space for people to try new directions without gambling with their careers. “What if someone just wants to totally break off from what they've done and put up a big show of just new stuff?”
Becker has considerable experience in heavy-duty PR, she says, and artists can contract with her to handle that work for them. She and Engelmann are also happy to cater an opening for a fee and provide credit card service. Interested creative folks can simply reach out to Becker directly.“I’m sure this has been done before,” she says, “I can’t imagine it’s anything new. But I haven’t heard of anything like it.”
“I cant imagine its anything new. But I haven’t heard of anything like it”
Among her PR credits, Becker spent years managing Engelmann's photography career. The couple moved to the desert from Minnesota. In their previous lives, Becker was the business force behind the duo, handling publicity, sales and shows, while Engelmann focused on creating work for the art fair circuit. The lifestyle got grueling, so they settled in Albuquerque.
Iris was originally intended to be a studio for Engelmann, who hand-colors black-and-white photographs. After searching high and low, the couple finally found a space that felt right in the clean, spacious rooms of the Artisan at Sawmill Village. The development is at the old Ponderosa Wood Company industrial complex in Old Town.
Sawmill Village is a part of a growing project by a private nonprofit, which purchased the abandoned site to expand and revitalize the neighborhood. “The top two floors are apartments, and the bottom floor is commercial space,” says Becker. So far, that commercial space includes a small boutique, a music store and a soon-to-be-opened performance space. More tenants are on the way. “Rumor has it there’s going be a restaurant or a brew pub or something like that,” in the adjacent building, says Becker. “It’s kind of exciting to be in a place that feels more urban.”
“Rumor has it there is going to be a resaurant or a brew pub or something like that,”
Engelmann’s work hangs in Iris Gallery's inaugural show, along with pieces by three colleagues who helped open the gallery. The artists have an astonishingly eclectic range; there are whimsical papier-mâché mobiles by Sarena Mann, original textured silver and pearl jewelry by Carolyn Van Housen and striking, abstract sculptures and wall hangings made of etchings and patinas on salvaged metal by Gail Gering.
Becker and Engelmann even have their sights on expanding the space to include other media. Iris can be used as a meeting spot for nonprofits, Becker suggests, for book launch parties (like the one scheduled in February) or as a performance venue.
The show ends in December, and the next doesn’t open until mid-February, which means the gallery is open for the month of January.
What happens at Iris next is up to you.