Leaving Las Cruces: The Romance of Aaron Lewis and Paula Manning-Lewis, Part 2

Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive

They want to live somewhere warm, where the flies die in the winter and the tar doesn’t stick to the wheels.

Read Part I

Aaron Lewis, ComposerThat’s what lead to the move, as Paula tells me, “There was one day that Aaron was being crazy composter and doing stuff on his computer for hours without saving, dummy, and somebody turned on a space heater and it shut his computer down and he lost like eight hours worth of music he’d been working on and he was just like—by that time he was already ready to leave because it was kind of crappy. He was teaching private guitar students at the time and it was kind of embarrassing to bring parents in there with their kids because there was holes in the ceiling and stuff like that—So he just came into my studio all angry and said, ‘That’s it we’re leaving!’” Paula continues the story, telling me how it was that they went from renting studios in shit condition to running some of the best artist studio spaces available in Albuquerque:

“So him and I, and two other artists that had studios there, and two other artists that didn’t have studios there, got together and said, ‘Well let’s go find our own place because we can totally run it together. We’re artists and we know what we want, and we know what we need, and one of the things was heat, and air-conditioning, and a toilet—In the winter time, their toilet there would freeze up because there was no heat. We’d have to wait until it warmed up and thawed out before we could go to the bathroom…We would like to be treated like humans. We’re artists, that doesn’t mean we’re not human. We still would like to have a bathroom and heating and air-conditioning and all these things—“

Photograph by Karl HorodowichIt was Aaron and Paula who took the plunge and signed the lease to an office building up for rent in downtown Albuquerque, and two of their initial partners dropped out as Paula recalls, “Two weeks after that we were trying to get a hold of this one couple and we were like what’s going on? Calling them and calling them and finally, we were like okay I’m just gonna call and let it ring until somebody finally answers. I’m just gonna keep calling.” Thus began their adventures in running Chroma Studios.

The aforementioned couple had decided to open their own gallery after Paula and Aaron had already signed the lease. It was just another challenge to contend with. For a time, Chroma Studios was also the Chroma Gallery. The gallery was big and beautiful and located in the heart of downtown Albuquerque. Paula began telling me how it was that things didn’t work out and stopped saying, “—Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this.” and we laughed and laughed. It was funny because we were sitting in my gallery, walking distance from the old Chroma Gallery, that I just opened. It’s a daunting experience I can relate to. Needless to say I wanted to hear all about it!

Paula continued the story, “It ended up being four people after that, and then six months into it, we rented another space in the same building and opened the gallery, and the day after the Grand Opening, the other two people decided, ‘We don’t want to do this.’ and just bailed on us.” Paula was shaking her head a little remembering how four people had flaked on her and Aaron on such a serious undertaking.

Visual artist Paula Manning-LewisBoth Paula and I can relate running a gallery to being in the military. We joke about how easy it is to start a business in comparison to our military experience. If anything, it certainly put life into a unique perspective when it came to what appeared challenging. That’s not to say it doesn’t get scary though, as Paula can attest, “so we ended up, me and Aaron, with this whole—I think our rent for the two spaces at the time was like $2,800 a month—and we ended up finding people to rent the other studios. We had to at first. We were freaked out like, ‘Oh shit! What are we gonna do!? How are we gonna find people to rent these rooms?’ Because at first there was ten rooms and we had six people… but then it was like we were stuck—“ And this was also after Aaron quit teaching. Yikes! They managed though.

They soon found out that finding a professional art or music studio to rent in Albuquerque was hard for people. They had a line of tenants excited to rent a creative space that had, all those things—like heating and air-conditioning and working toilets, much less two hard working fellow artists who managed the units and understood their fellow tenants’ needs, work-habits, and struggles. But the gallery was another story altogether.

Chroma GalleryThe gallery started small, as just another part of Chroma Studios. But then, Paula tells me, “It was about the one year mark. After the gallery had been open for six months, and we had been in the studios for a year. The landlord said, ‘I have this space downtown that’s empty, and it’s been empty for months, and I just need to rent it, and I’ll give you a screaming deal on the rent if you’ll take it.’ “ This was the gallery they opened over on 1st and Roma, just a few blocks from where my own gallery is now, on 4th and Central. It was a two-story building with a gorgeous space. It had a performance space and all the room in the world for hanging fantastic exhibitions.

They soon realized the first problem though, which was that visitors didn’t feel safe in their gallery’s new location, “We were next door to this counseling center where they had thugs hanging outside all the time, so people would drive up and leave, and then tell me, ‘Well I got there, but it was really sketchy, so I didn’t want to get out of my car.’” It wasn’t unreasonable fear in downtown Albuquerque.

Artwork by Paula Manning-LewisI lucked out on my own location, just around the corner is a hefty and guarded parking garage where visitors have security and an easy walk to the gallery. Paula and Aaron had a gallery that was fabulous on the inside, but located in a scary corner of town without any guarded parking. They weren’t getting the walk-ins they needed to spread the word about Albuquerque’s new and amazing gallery space. It is known that the first several months to few years of a new business are rough, having a location people refuse to go into makes that challenge all the worse. If your patrons don’t feel safe, no amount of advertising or coaxing them to come to an art show will suffice to make it worth risking their well being, not realistically. We talked about the sense of helplessness that can set in.

Artwork by Paula Manning-LewisAll of us who have seen the homeless and felt our hearts go out know the feeling. And all of us who have been approached and threatened by the odd passer-bye know the conflict of wanting to help and wanting to be safe and wishing that the notion of giving more didn’t ever seem unreasonable. At the time that the Chroma Gallery was open over on Roma, my own location on 4th Street wasn’t a street-side location. There was a civic park area here, with trees and beautiful huge pots full of plants and a mosaic wall to sit on in the shade of the plaza. It’s also where a population of the homeless found rest and lived. Crime was a problem and remains a problem. Before I came into my gallery space here, the city mowed down the little civic plaza on this section of 4th Street and made it a road again. It’s a controversial move to this day. I often have visitors come in and talk with me about the sense of injustice they perceive in the move.

Artwork by Paula Manning-LewisThe homeless still live here, gathered in a huddled mass in front of the vents on the corner of Copper and 4th Street, keeping warm at night. Most mean no harm in their conquest to move on and find help, and a lot has been done in the area to give solace, care, and opportunity to the homeless, much of it walking distance from the Crossroads. Having the street side location is good for my own business now, and good for my neighbors, the Baca Boys Cafe and the Oasis Vapor Lounge. But the construction drove out some small businesses that were here before us, although it made our location at the Crossroads viable.


the Chroma Gallery performance spaceIt was a similar conflict for the Chroma Gallery, to be neighboring a counseling center whose patrons were often hostile folks that would flick cigarette butts at passers bye. We all wonder and hope that the city may one day be transformed in such a way as to alleviate these problems into a thing of the past. We do know that removing places that welcome rest and leisure does not remove those who need it. Paula continues:

“ We had the gallery there for a year-and-a-half after that, and it was just suckin’ all the money out of us. First of all, we couldn’t get people to come down there because it was in a shitty location…so we closed the upstairs gallery part in 2010, and then just had the studio—decided the gallery’s not working, plus it was stressing me out because I didn’t have time to paint. We had over 50 artists in this gallery it was so huge. I had to have that many artists to have all this space filled, and just dealing with the artists alone was taking up all my time.”

The Chroma Gallery was also changing the art every month to keep their First Friday exhibit fresh. I haven’t had the same headache, though I haven’t yet participated in a First Friday Art Scrawl. I believe that purchasing an original painting is an investment that patrons need time to consider and so I hang shows for a minimum of two months to give those interested time to return for the piece that caught their eye. It also means planning five or six shows over the course of a year instead of twelve. I couldn’t undergo the hassle of 12 one-month exhibitions, there’s just too much involved. I can see how Paula had no time to paint and how that would be a stressful conflict of interest in owning a gallery.

Artwork by Paula Manning-LewisAdvertising is what really killed the Chroma Gallery. Another lesson learned. Paula recalls it, still cringing, “What really killed us was I took out a full two-page—the worst decision ever! Total waste of money! We did an $8,000 ad. Each of the artists paid 300 bucks so that paid for part of it, and we just paid it off last year. They wanted $600/month. They gave me a payment plan but—stupid, stupid mistake! That was a long time ago too, print ads were still kind of relevant. If I were to go back, I would do just like a little quarter-page ad, just to try it out. But I had this thing, I wanted to have my art in the [magazine]. Stupid! Really, really stupid. Course’ now-a-days print ads are a total waste of money. If only I had known that”

Aaron said, “Eight thousand dollars for nuthin’.”

“Yeah, and then the other thing was, we didn’t get a single phone call, a single contact, a single anything, Nuthin’—not a single person walked into the gallery—Nothing”

“Yeah, it was a zero percent return on eight thousand dollars,” said Aaron. I’ve also been approached by advertising offers and have felt tempted. I appreciate their honesty in telling me about these lessons—Ricardo Chavez-Mendez has told me the same thing. He also took out a small ad in a magazine and admitted to me that it was a waste of money—and The Oro Gallery is one of the most astounding and beautiful little galleries I’ve ever seen in my life.

I wish I had been able to see The Chroma Gallery when it was open. They closed in the same year that I came back to Albuquerque, and I had gone to every gallery in Albuquerque after arriving from California. It sounds like even I would have been thrilled to see The Chroma Gallery, but would have been disenchanted by the location. It’s one of many lessons Aaron and Paula shared with me. If a landlord is desperately trying to rent you a space, find out why nobody is taking it on. I say this with some hypocrisy, having taken on a demised premises myself! Fingers are crossed. There’s still a lot I can learn from Aaron and Paula’s experience.

SunlightBut even without that gorgeous gallery, Paula and Aaron are still a vital part of the art scene and the community here in Albuquerque. Their studios offer artists and musicians a professional setting to work in and grant the potential for networking with fellow creatives. It’s the seed that leads to the most amazing shows and performances—when artists unite toward the mutual goal to present something awe inspiring. To see what Aaron and Paula have each accomplished as artists, and together as Sunlight and Chroma Studios, is proof of this fantastic phenomena.

Artists are not competitors in the way that other businesses creating similar products are. We don’t win by undercutting each other, copying each other, or using any other capitalist scheme to win the market over by numbers. The gallery hop can’t go unmentioned here. It’s fun as a community event but currently ill-conceived as a business proposition. Rushing patrons through in a flurry to glance at the work before rushing to the next event on the same night is stressful for patrons and puts pressure on galleries to do shorter exhibitions month-to-month in a race to give that crowd something new for next time.

Chroma GalleryAaron and Paula both support my suppositions on this matter, “The First Friday thing was a waste of money too. That was like a thousand dollars every year and the only people that ever showed up were just to drink the wine and eat the food, and then as soon as the food and wine was gone they were gone. They didn’t buy shit.” It’s a harsh observation to have to share when the community of artists and gallery owners voice so much support for the traditional event, and it’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with doing First Fridays—but it must be said that the idea isn’t working in favor of either sales or a truly moving experience for viewers.

To enjoy an entire art exhibition takes time, and if that exhibition is coupled with a meaningful event it adds to the amount of time necessary inside the gallery. First Fridays inadvertently cause galleries to compete for the amount of time spent by patrons on the same night every month. Buying an original work of art is not a small decision either, it’s not a compulsive purchase that happens on-the-spot. Patrons need time to consider which piece is the perfect fit for their needs and that may take more than one visit, and that may take more than a few small weeks before they return to invest in that unique treasure. If it’s gone when they return the artist loses the sale, the patron loses their desired piece, and the gallery loses all the time and effort invested in marketing the work. And there’s more than one tradition that needs some skepticism:

Chroma Gallery Reception“Our final opening for our gallery, which made us decide to close it, was our third year anniversary of Chroma. We paid somebody to cater it, we had all this food there was something like forty bottles of wine and the food was totally demolished, the wine was gone, and we sold one ten dollar print—and I was like fuck this shit! I’m done. I am so done. I am so done working my ass off for nothing! it was ridiculous.”

Wow! It doesn’t mean that visitors didn’t enjoy the experience or the art, or that they didn’t have a good time. But reality doesn’t care if you throw a good party, the bills remain. “My biggest lesson learned,” Paula continues, “is that I’m not a salesperson. I’m not good at selling things. I’m not good at talking to people about trying to get them to buy things.“ Many an artist can relate to this fact, myself included.

Aaron said the same thing, “My biggest lesson was the fact that I am a composer and a guitarist. I’m not a janitor. I’m not a maintenance guy. I’m not any of that other stuff. When I got to the point where I wasn’t able to focus on my art and everything else was happening—that was the biggest thing is like, No. We got to close this door because I don’t have time to make my art.” As Aaron and Paula discussed why it was their gallery failed, they bring up the magazine again and admit, “We jumped into the middle of the ocean and tried to swim to shore with that.”

“The thing with advertising is that it takes more than one ad,” Says Paula. Not only does advertising need to be consistent but it needs proper placement and it needs to be the right ad in the right magazine with the right readers. It can be helpful, as so many who consistently do invest in advertising would tell you. But it takes time and money to learn where and how to advertise and few small businesses can afford the luxury. It’s my hope that the advent of an organic following in social media will change the scales for the little guys like our galleries.

Photograph by Justin Thor SimensonIt also takes working with the right people—every step of the way. None of us accomplish anything alone. In order to succeed, a gallery needs professional artists as much as the artists need a professional gallery. Aaron and Paula tell me, “the artists who put the effort into bringing a crowd out to their show had good shows and good sales. The artists who expect you to sell anything for them and everything for them and be their mother and call them on Tuesday and make sure that they’ve taken a bath and all that stuff—they’re great artists, but they’re not business people and so they’re detrimental to what you’re trying to pull off.” Another harsh lesson. If an artist is difficult to work with it’s like with anything else any two or more people are trying to accomplish together—it’s harder. It’s also harder when it’s a month to month scenario because unless each show is booked and planned months in advance, both the artist and the gallery are always in a last-minute scenario.

“Now all I know is that I don’t know shit,” says Paula, smiling but not at all joking.

Me too, I agree, “The more I learn the dumber I feel,” I say, “I must be a fucking genius because I feel like a total idiot. If smart people feel stupid than I must be brilliant!” and, “At least I’m smart enough to know I’m stupid”

Aaron concludes, “That’s why they call it wisDUMB.”

From Las Cruces to Fort Collins to Albuquerque they’ve found a place to flourish as artists. From joining the Army to teaching, opening a gallery, and running Chroma Studios they’ve found a way to sustain their creative endeavors. Aaron Lewis and Paula Manning-Lewis have lived the dream of following their hearts as a couple and as artists. Their adventures in Albuquerque continue.

My thanks to Aaron Lewis and Paula Manning-Lewis for being so open, genuine, and courageous in sharing their story with us!

Experience the work of Aaron Lewis and Paula Manning-Lewis in the following places:

Visit the Aaron Lewis website
Visit the Paula Manning-Lewis Website
Paula Manning-Lewis on Facebook