For well over a decade now, the most spacious, central and visible node for artists and art lovers on the north bank has been North Bank.
But the North Bank Artists Gallery at 1005 Main St. in downtown Vancouver has announced its upcoming closure. May 31 will be its last day. The nonprofit’s board of directors has been struggling to avoid this for several years, but in the end, rising rents in a downtown recovering from economic recession simply priced North Bank out of its prime location.
“It feels like an uphill battle, with market rents rising in downtown Vancouver,” said longtime board member Maureen Montague. “The owners of the building have every right to ask for market rate for their investment. I know they have mortgage payments to make.”
The owner of the property, and many others on that block, is Kiggins Properties LLC, the family business of Kiggins Theatre owner Dan Wyatt. Montague said that Wyatt will continue to rent, on a monthly basis, the property’s basement studio spaces to working artists who want to stay. But the gallery itself will close.
It’s a painful decision for North Bank and a worrisome one for the whole downtown arts scene, Montague said. Even after devoting “hundreds and hundreds of volunteer hours and staff time to exploring other possibilities, and developing schematics, and negotiating with private property owners,” no viable plan to relocate ever penciled out, she said.
“We never found adequate space for our needs,” Montague said. The disused buildings in the historic reserve area are tantalizing and fun to fantasize about, she said, but expensive renovations would be a prerequisite for turning any of them into art spaces. And those buildings are all across Interstate 5 and isolated from downtown’s natural foot traffic.
All of which brings up a “larger conversation,” Montague said. With rents rising and space at a premium, “How do we keep our artists in Clark County?”
That conversation is underway now, she said. In February, Montague and Clark Creativity Support, a little “think tank” she’s convened to work on professional arts development, hosted a stakeholders meeting to brainstorm ideas for a local performance and visual arts facility. Look for an all-day symposium in September, hosted by Arts of Clark County and the county arts commission, that will continue to explore the question.
Meanwhile, North Bank is planning a retrospective, farewell art exhibit for May.
Across the street from North Bank is the Aurora Gallery, which keeps itself in business by selling professional framing services. Around the corner on Evergreen, Art on the Boulevard stays afloat partially because it’s a diminutive storefront space with a sharp focus on sales — and barely a blank space to be found on its walls. Over in Camas is the Attic Gallery, a new arrival that was recently priced out of downtown Portland.
But the strictly nonprofit North Bank, which opened in 2003, has always focused on supporting artists through affordable studio spaces and spacious, comfortable, inclusive exhibits — everything from high school artists to serious local professionals to topical, themed shows open to all contributors, like 2012’s “Occupy North Bank” and October’s pre-election “Political Art.”
“It was really important to us that we not be so focused on sales, the way most galleries are,” said founding member Rebecca Seymour. “The way the business model was set up, the studio rents paid for the gallery space. That freed us up to show all kinds of different art you wouldn’t normally see — installations, things that weren’t saleable and more edgy. We did a lot of really creative things.
“But that’s just not sustainable when rents are rising,” Seymour said. “That’s what always happens: artists come into an area when rents are low, they add value, then they have to move along.”
Has North Bank been a victim of its own success? The gallery has been “a leader in the creative economy,” according to a statement issued on Monday. “Indirect economic stimulus is hard to measure, but the block of 10th and Main underwent a stunning revitalization” since North Bank opened and started drawing art lovers to local bars and restaurants.
North Bank isn’t the only thing that’s driven downtown rents higher, “but it sure helped,” Montague said. “It’s part of a whole buffet of things that’s helping the local economy thrive.” Including Vancouver’s Downtown Association, which gets high marks from Montague for its efforts to punch up downtown.
Lee Rafferty, the outgoing executive director of Vancouver’s Downtown Association, takes the long view about rising rents versus the arts.
“Downtown is changing very rapidly,” she said. “There are people coming and going with different visions and business plans and approaches all the time. We will certainly miss North Bank and their participation … but a little bit of flex is part of a healthy downtown.”
Rafferty is not worried about rising rents driving the arts from downtown. “I believe our arts district will remain very strong,” she said — partially because its boundaries are quite broad. Artists who can no longer afford Main Street should have plenty more options, she said.
It may never have generated much cash flow, but North Bank has generated lots of creativity and community. That was the aim when it was dreamed up by local artists Seymour, her husband, Greg Lueck, and Maya Jones: develop a real arts scene. This was a time when downtown was a land of pawn shops and second-hand stores, Seymour said.
Mission accomplished, Seymour said on Monday. There are now sister galleries as well as restaurants and bars all over downtown. “I think we helped a lot,” Seymour said.
Its prime downtown location, and big picture windows that show off what’s inside, made North Bank the de facto anchor of the monthly First Friday Art Walk. It’s been the leading local host of artist talks, internships and other educational outreach activities. North Bank has maintained a connection with teachers and students at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics as well as arts and nonprofit partners all over the region — such as the Battle Ground Arts Alliance, the Clark County Recycled Arts Festival and the Inner Light Photographic Society.
North Bank estimates — conservatively, it says — that it generated a total of $150,000 in art sales across its whole history and welcomed approximately 5,000 visitors per year.
Now, Montague said, North Bank Artists will continue as a nonprofit organization — its mission to cross its fingers and keep hunting for real estate — but only through the end of this calendar year. If no Plan B materializes by then, Montague said, the group will formally dissolve.
“The creative collaborations that happened at 1005 Main St. were innumerable,” says the North Bank announcement. “It is impossible to measure how many works of art, moments of inspiration, and lifelong friendships happened. … Those who were a part of it witnessed these acts of community creation time and time again.”