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Sitting between tables of handmade jewelry vendors and raucous breakdancing crowds at Santa Ana's monthly Artwalk this February was a large canopy tent. A young, unassuming man stood by it, observing the casual visitors who strolled over, stopped in surprise and glanced inside to see a bona-fide art gallery. Occasionally, someone asked him about the art and the tent, and Noé Gaytán calmly explained it was his idea, constructed to showcase artwork by friends and contemporaries who still can't get into a "legitimate" gallery, but who nevertheless want to display their work. At the end of the night, he carefully disassembled the tent and walls, piled them into his mom's van and drove off into the night, planning the next pop-up gallery in his mind.
Gaytán calls his DIY approach to the gallery world the Nomad Art Project (NAP), the name coming from his vision of the exercise as incorporating the temporary occupation of space applied to the context of the vendor fair or art walk. Having staged seven pop-ups at Santa Ana and Pomona artwalks since May 2012, NAP has emerged as a cross between guerrilla street art and rarified art gallery, aligning itself with the cadre of independent artists and vendors that regularly, consciously tries to showcase works to the community in easily accessible venues.
Before starting NAP, Gaytán had plenty of experience in gallery spaces. At UC Irvine (where he majored in its acclaimed Studio Art program), he served as a docent for the Beale Center of Art and Technology, was active with the student-run gallery Catalyst, and earned a Getty Multicultural Scholarship to prepare exhibits for Pitzer College. He also did an independent-study program with artist/lecturer Daniel Joseph Martinez and dabbled in street art. But after he graduated, Gaytán ran into the eternal art-school-grad crisis. In the cocoon of college life, the Montclair native and his fellow majors were easily able to exhibit work at the school; outside of the university, though, those same students found it nigh-impossible to get so much as a response from curators. And in the real world, it was next-to-impossible to become a serious artist full-time, let alone stay in the habit of producing art, without the reality of making a living.
Gaytán's interests in curatorial work led him to the idea of helping to plan exhibitions of his friends' artwork as a solution to this problem, as a way to bring exposure to their art and as a way to connect with other galleries. But not having his own space, he decided to create one via the tent. Via a Kickstarter campaign, he raised more than $600 to buy a tent, walls and clip lights.
So far, NAP has included an eclectic variety ranging from photography to assemblage to video. "I'm not really interested in showing traditional painting or sculptures," Gaytán says. "I want to show artwork that's fresh and interesting to people, something they aren't likely to see anywhere else."
With very little hindrance to his vision—no pesky board of directors, no complaining donors—there's still some level of difficulty in operating NAP. "For starters," Gaytán says, "the setup alone is tough, since I have to build everything up myself with hammer and nails and take it apart afterward, then haul each part to my car."
Gaytán also admits it has been difficult to produce a show every month as he originally intended; with grad school on the way, it might be even more difficult to find the time to plan one. "I definitely want it to evolve from this," he says. "I want NAP to possibly go to the Long Beach Artwalk or the Los Angeles Artwalk. It is still a project, so I plan to find a way to incorporate it into my curatorial studies in public art."
Despite the arduous labor, Gaytán says, it's all worth it just to be able to create dialogue with people who take the NAP plunge. "Some people take a peek and walk away, and that's fine because I totally understand the art will not interest everyone," he says. "But what makes it all worth it to me is when someone comes in and starts a conversation, and they say, 'Oh, I've never seen this before!' I've had that conversation a number of times."