Ray Lechelt and Jason Watson had long dreamt of opening their own art gallery, with its own mission. “Jason and I are both artists, and we kind of do more contemporary or political artwork,” Lechelt explains. “There isn’t really a lot of places that you can display artwork like that in the Tri-Cities.”
Thanks to their arts education at Washington State University, the couple felt “somewhat confident in creating a business model that involves displaying and selling artwork, having events, and doing classes,” Lechelt says. The couple also saw the need for a gallery that was accessible and inclusive for anyone who wanted to participate. “So that’s kind of where we decided to combine our various skills and open a business.”
In July of 2018, Spectra Art Gallery opened its doors. Located on Cascade Street in Kennewick’s historic downtown, it quickly became a fixture in the arts community and hosted events and monthly exhibitions. From the start, their goals were clear. “We didn’t open the gallery to become rich off of it,” Lechelt explains. “We opened the gallery to facilitate a community space — we broke even, you know? And I think that’s the best goal to have in a new business, especially in your first year, is to just pay the bills and keep the doors open.”
But by mid-2020, the pandemic had tested even this modest goal. Their last physical show in March didn’t get much of a turnout. “There were already people talking about being afraid to go out,” Watson says. Their final exhibition, June’s Pandemic: A Novel Art Show, was entirely virtual. At the end of the month, they gave up their lease. “We decided to close up because of the pandemic,” Lechelt says. “Ultimately, it was a smart move, because I remember closing and being like, ‘I’m going to be so embarrassed if this is all over in August and it’s still not over.’”
Luckily, the resourceful artists had an ace in the sleeve — an entirely mobile art gallery operating out of a 28-foot Streamline Empress travel trailer. This particular Empress is the “Imperial” edition, which “was the most opulent trim level,” Watson points out. Lechelt and Watson’s 1974 model was produced in the company’s last year. Clad in anodized aluminum, Streamlines are similar in appearance to Airstreams and have a devoted following.
“We were actually working on the idea before the pandemic hit,” Lechelt says. “Jason and I go to lots of festivals and we realized we could have a trailer that we just sell our arts and wares out of. We kind of felt that was the way art galleries were going.” Initially, the plan was to run both the storefront and the mobile gallery simultaneously. But as the pandemic dragged on and the storefront closed, the Streamline became the couple’s primary focus.
“Before the pandemic, we thought we could have a pretty seamless transition from running the gallery and then premiering the trailer,” Watson says. Of course, the virus altered both their first plan and their contingency plan. They were going to refurbish the trailer this past year with the help of skilled friends but didn’t want to put anyone at risk. “[With] less access to materials, less access to labor, all kinds of stuff, we kind of got hung up in 2020 just like everyone else did,” Lechelt adds.
The duo’s current plan is to begin renovations as soon as the weather cools down, and they expect to have the mobile gallery up and running by “next spring or summer,” Watson says. They ran a crowdfunding campaign last July. “We still have all the money that we got from our GoFundMe,” Lechelt explains. “We want to use all that money that the community so graciously donated to us for this project properly.”
They acknowledge it’s a big undertaking. “Fortunately for us, the trailer that we got was already gutted,” Lechelt says. “We just have to put stuff in more than we have to tear it out.” They’ve purchased the floor but still need to figure out the best solution for the walls, as sheetrock is too brittle to take on the road. They have folding tables that can be arranged inside or set up outdoors for additional working space.
Although there have been many challenges, Lechelt and Watson are hopeful about the project’s future and excited by the freedom a mobile gallery offers. Farmers markets, festivals, wine-and-paint nights, and partnerships with other galleries are only some of the possibilities on the horizon. “Cleaned up, I think it’d be a beautiful trailer,” Watson says. “If somebody wanted to use it as an event space or like a bridal beauty station at an outdoor wedding … yeah, we’re getting ready for that.”