Monday, March 20, 2023
March 20, 2023

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Citing rising rents, downtown art galleries closing

Priced-out gallery owners bemoan increases, lack of city support

By , Columbian staff writer
8 Photos
Proprietor and abstract painter Tom Relth is closing the art gallery and studio that’s occupied the lower level at Boomerang on Main Street for the past two years.
Proprietor and abstract painter Tom Relth is closing the art gallery and studio that’s occupied the lower level at Boomerang on Main Street for the past two years. (Provided photo) Photo Gallery

This week, two different downtown Vancouver art galleries issued virtually identical statements about closing up shop: “Economic and other factors beyond the gallery’s control have made it necessary to leave.”

After two years occupying the lower level of the big Boomerang cafe and resale shop on Main Street, the gallery curated by abstract painter Tom Relth will move out. Relth will hold a final moving sale during this weekend’s Clark County Open Studios tour. “My dream was exposing Vancouver to all different kinds of art,” he said. “Creating some new patronage for art and for Boomerang.”

But business was never enough. Developer Ryan Hurley, who owns the Boomerang real estate, said by email that plans are still under wraps, but the gallery’s departure will “make way for a new concept we are rolling out at the first of the new year.”

A few blocks away, Gallery 360 will leave the historic Slocum House, in the southwest corner of Esther Short Park, at the end of this year — after a final “Deck the Halls” show and sale. While that won’t be the end of the nonprofit Mosaic Arts Alliance, which has leased and operated the space, it will be the first time since 2005 that Mosaic has no gallery and no base.

“Three 10 percent increases in rent in the last 2 1/2 years,” Mosaic’s Susan Williams said. “It’s taken all our reserves.”

Gallery attendance was great when doors opened three years ago, she said, but it’s steadily declined — even during monthly First Friday Art Walk events. Art lovers don’t seem willing to venture away from Main Street and across the park in the dark, she said.

That makes three major gallery departures from downtown Vancouver in one year. The seminal North Bank Artists Gallery, a cooperative and community-minded venue that lasted 14 years, was forced out by rising rent in May.

All of which makes John Turley, president of the Mosaic Arts Alliance, wonder: “Should we take down all the ‘Arts District’ signs?”

Both Mosaic and Relth say they’re looking for new gallery options and are eager for help. But North Bank pursued the same hunt for a long time and never did come up with a viable alternative.

The Slocum House is city of Vancouver property, and it used to house a theater company and then a wine-tasting room. But the master lease, now held by the Vancouver Farmers Market, includes a 10 percent rise every year; market master Jordan Boldt said he delayed passing those rises along to Gallery 360, and is looking forward to renegotiating the lease.

“Ten percent a year adds up, pretty quick,” Boldt said. The folks at Gallery 360 said they’re grateful for Boldt’s forbearance and “disappointed” in the city.

“We feel there should be more firm support for the arts from the city, not just lip service,” said Williams. “There should be some sort of economic commitment.” The Slocum House is different than other gallery spaces thanks to its location and its history, she added; the all-volunteer Gallery 360 staff regularly serves as the first point of contact for out-of-town visitors who wander over from the Hilton hotel to get a taste of grass-roots Vancouver, she said. She knows they’ve taken her advice about restaurants and other galleries downtown because they’ve written to thank her, she said.

“Whenever you have a strong arts community, you have a ripple effect,” Williams said. “I don’t know if the city regards us as ambassadors, but they should.”

An improving area

The departures of these galleries isn’t all bad news. For one thing, they signal the continued rise of the downtown landscape. As North Bank left the scene, it claimed some credit for transforming a depressed scene into today’s growing network of restaurants, cafes, breweries and startup businesses.

“Indirect economic stimulus is hard to measure, but the block of 10th and Main underwent a stunning revitalization” after North Bank arrived, it said in a statement. The gallery wasn’t the only reason, “but it sure helped,” former executive director Maureen Montague said. “It’s part of a whole buffet of things that’s helping the local economy thrive.”

Steve Becker, executive director of Vancouver’s Downtown Association, agreed. “The galleries in downtown Vancouver played a big role in the renaissance underway in our downtown business district,” he said. “It really would be tragic for them to be forced out by the prosperity they helped bring about.” But Becker had “no comment” about what might be done to help.

Artists are unfortunately accustomed to being victims of their own success, according to Andre Bouchard, a Vancouver resident who was recently appointed to the Washington State Arts Commission. “Artists are migrants, not developers,” he said.

But that only underscores the need for public support, he said. Bouchard and others who attended a recent summit on building arts infrastructure in Clark County point to Hillsboro, Ore., which enjoys an impressive public arts-and-culture center, and Beaverton, Ore., which has launched an $11 million capital campaign to build one. Compared to that, Bouchard said, Vancouver is lagging.

What’s the plan?

City Councilwoman and Mayor-elect Anne McEnerny-Ogle was surprised to hear about art galleries leaving downtown; she said a new arts, heritage and culture plan is being developed by city staff and a consultant. It will be presented to the city council early next year, according to program and policy development manager Jan Bader, who expects it to include “recommendations to more fully actualize our downtown arts district.

“Everybody recognizes that we are short on art-makers space and short on art-display space, whether it’s visual arts or performing arts,” Bader said.

Bader added that the city used to have two full-time staffers working on culture and the arts; now, it’s got just a few hours a week of her time. More staff and more resources would be welcome, she said.

New efforts

The news isn’t all closures. One major gallery recently opened with a flourish in downtown Vancouver: The spacious and elegant Art at the CAVE, 108 E. Evergreen Blvd., which grabbed the local exhibition spotlight by hosting the kickoff party for this weekend’s Open Studios tour.

And, two doors down and up a flight of stairs from the former North Bank is the new Artist Loft, a small studio space open to visitors Wednesday through Saturday afternoons, plus all day during the First Friday Art Walk.

Significantly, neither new outfit operates along North Bank’s cooperative model. They’re both the projects of artists with private deep pockets or family backers. Painter Anne John, the owner of Art at the CAVE, told The Columbian she doesn’t expect her gallery to last longer than a few years.

Meanwhile, downtown’s longest-lived galleries are one diminutive nonprofit (Art on the Boulevard) and two commercial spaces underwritten by cash-generating businesses (Aurora Gallery is a frame shop; Angst Gallery includes an art-supply store and is connected to a wine bar). The only downtown galleries that enjoy real public backing are the ones in public buildings: the lobby of Vancouver City Hall and the Rebecca Anstine Sixth Floor Gallery, up in a hallway in Clark County’s Public Service Center.

“All the art galleries that thrive have some other sort of business support,” Relth noted. He joked — or did he? — about launching a downtown gallery underwritten by as many fail-safe, people-pleasing businesses as possible: yoga and pilates classes, art lessons, coffee and wine — and what else?