A downtown diversification of art

Vancouver galleries proudly support the work of local artists and offer other avenues of creativity to draw visitors

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

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Vancouver’s Downtown Galleries:

Aurora Gallery, 1004 Main St., 360-696-0449, http://www.auroragalleryonline.com/.

Northbank Artist Community, 1005 Main St., 360-693-1840, http://www.northbankartistsgallery.com/.

Gallery 360, 111 West Ninth St., 360-693-7340, http://www.gallery360.org/.

Art on the Boulevard, 210 W. Evergreen Blvd. #300, 360-750-4499, http://www.artontheboulevard.org/.

Angst Gallery, 1015 Main St., 360-253-1742, http://angstgallery.com/.

The rows of carefully selected vintages at Leah Jackson’s Niche wine bar have a larger purpose beyond just drawing thirsty visitors to the woody venue on Main Street downtown.

They help keep Vancouver’s art scene lubricated.

Galleries -- such as Angst, also owned by Jackson -- have struggled as much as any businesses during the economic downturn.

Things are starting to improve, albeit slowly, most owners agree, but the real key to their galleries’ survival has been diversification.

For Angst, that meant first adding a tea bar in the back and then a wine bar next door. For the Aurora Gallery, it meant supporting art through the more stable business of framing. And for the Northbank Artist Community, it meant renting out studios to support gallery space for the group’s cooperative members.

“It’s much more positive having all three of my businesses here,” Jackson said. “It means I can have something I really love with the gallery, but I can also support myself.”

Jackson, who’s also an artist, used to make jewelry, paint and work with a variety of other mediums. Today, she uses her artistic sense to display other artists’ work and to create interesting spaces “where you feel comfortable hanging out,” she said.

But what’s really important is making sure that Vancouver continues to be a place that supports the work of local artists, she said.

“I love the art scene in Vancouver because it’s so open,” Jackson said. “People are willing to come into a gallery here and talk about art. They’re not intimidated. And the gallery owners here, everyone is friendly and eager to talk about the work.”

Keeping it local

There are easily more than 100 artists, including

some who are internationally recognized, right here in Clark County, said Elizabeth Steinbaugh, owner of Aurora Gallery.

“I have 45 local artists showing in my gallery alone, and I know there’s at least 50 at Art on the Boulevard, and they’re all different,” she said. “The quality of the work is very good. We have nationally renowned artists showing in most of our galleries.”

The problem is, it can be hard to get people to realize that they can get locally-made, unique artwork right here for less than they’d pay at a large chain store, she said.

“You can start a collection of local work for a couple hundred dollars, and you’re buying something nobody else has,” Steinbaugh said. “It’s original and it’s very inexpensive. Plus, as a local gallery owner, I can cut you a deal. You can’t go in to a big retailer as an individual and negotiate a discount. They don’t do that for one person.”

Steinbaugh loves working with artists and fostering the art scene, but she also has to find a way to pay her bills. Framing, which she’s been doing for about 30 years, makes up about 75 percent of her revenue. The gallery? That’s more like 25 percent, she said.

“You have to have something else in this economy to keep you going,” Steinbaugh said. “You have to be creative when you have an art gallery. Art’s just not going to pay the rent.”

Still, there’s such a thing as being too creative, she said.

About four years ago, Steinbaugh noticed several new galleries opening with odd business models. One doubled as a practice space for a rock band, one was a clothing store that had some art above its clothing racks and called itself a gallery, some just seemed to open up as party spaces, she said.

None of them stayed in business for very long, she added.

“It’s like anything, if you don’t know what you’re doing and you don’t have a two-year plan and six months’ rent in the bank, you’re not going to be successful,” Steinbaugh said.

Walk on in

One of the best things helping the arts scene in Vancouver, all the gallery owners agreed, is the First Friday Art Walk at the beginning of every month.

Even if visitors don’t buy anything, the events bring between 200 and 500 people through each downtown gallery -- and some of those people catch the art bug and come back to buy works later on, said Kevin Weaver, gallery director at Art on the Boulevard.

“First Friday is a great draw and exposure for all of downtown,” Weaver said. “We actually don’t sell all that much on those nights, but we get a lot of return visitors from it that do buy. Art Walks, they can do nothing but help all of us.”

Art on the Boulevard is the only Vancouver gallery that isn’t an artist cooperative and doesn’t have a side business keeping it afloat. Over the past few hard years, that’s led to a lot of budget trimming efforts that have kept the venue in business, he said.

“We just sell artwork, and you know, like any business, you find ways to get creative and save where you can,” Weaver said. “You try different shows, different artists, things like that.”

To stay in business, Weaver has switched from one-month-long to two-month-long art shows, which gives artists more time to display their work and saves on advertising costs, he said.

Yet even though things are financially tight, Weaver said there’s room for more galleries to open.

“The more galleries there are, the more people will know the area and come look for art,” Weaver said. “So yes, I’d love to see more galleries open.”

Pushing the envelope

The other two downtown galleries, Gallery 360 and Northbank Artist Community, are operated by artist cooperatives. Member artists volunteer time and pay dues to keep the galleries going and in turn have a place to show their work.

At Northbank, some of the costs are also offset by renting studio space to artists, musicians or others that need it, said Kathi Rick, a member.

“People don’t have to be members to rent the studio space, but that’s how we stay in business,” Rick said. “And that allows the member artists to do things they really want to do, show their work and not worry about whether it’s going to sell or not.”

Mixed mediums and multi-media art can often be hard to sell, as can controversial works of art, she said.

“Not all art is pretty, not all art is meant to be pretty,” Rick said. “Some is ugly. Some is political. Nice work for your walls is wonderful, but a lot of the things we like to do are good for dialogue. Part of our mission is to get work out that people might not consider to be art.”

Still, sometimes visitors coming through on a First Friday will buy more work than the artists expect, she said.

“We’ve had shows that have almost sold out,” Rick said.

That’s probably a good sign that First Friday is helping the community learn more about art -- and widening the local appreciation for it, she added.

“The scene here keeps getting better,” Rick said. “Everybody works well together. All the gallery owners talk to each other. Everything’s a little different. It’s just a nice diverse group.”

Sue Vorenberg: 360-735-4457; sue.vorenberg@columbian.com;http://www.twitter.com/col_suevo