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News / Business / Clark County Business

Camas art galleries: Door closes, another opens

Artistic scene evolves in small city as long-time businesses pivot online, new gallery appears

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: March 30, 2024, 6:14am
3 Photos
Maria Gonser behind her desk at the Attic Gallery. Because of pressing family obligations and strong internet business, Gonser said, the gallery in Camas will close while its website remains alive.
Maria Gonser behind her desk at the Attic Gallery. Because of pressing family obligations and strong internet business, Gonser said, the gallery in Camas will close while its website remains alive. (Camas-Washougal Post-Record files) Photo Gallery

Depending on whom you ask, the closure of several art galleries in downtown Camas is either a sad coincidence or a gloomy economic indicator for brick-and-mortar art shops.

But plans have also been announced for a new gallery that will aim for sustainability by emphasizing art classes and community connections. The new RedDoor Gallery will replace the current 411 Art Collective, a gallery and studio, at 411 N.E. Dallas St.

“We are all teachers as well as professional artists,” said Liz Pike, one of the owners of the RedDoor Gallery, which plans a soft opening on May 3 and a grand opening on June 7. RedDoor will feature the artworks of its owners — Camas painters Pike, Heidi Curley and Tamra Sheline — plus others selected by a jury to show there.

“We don’t want it to be a flash in the pan. We want this to be here for years to come. We’re all Camas girls and we love this community,” Pike said.

Closed in Camas, still alive online

The Attic Gallery: atticgallery.com

The Camas Gallery: www.thecamasgallery.com

Alive online

The Camas Gallery on Fourth Avenue closed earlier this month. The Attic Gallery on Cedar Street will close at the end of April. Owners of both galleries plan to retain their gallery names, identities and signature artists online to keep their businesses alive.

That won’t be hard for the Attic Gallery, co-owner Maria Gonser said. One key to the Attic Gallery’s success as a venue for nationally known artists — whose works often command handsome prices — is a strong online presence and catalog with years of history.

While the downtown Camas location has been a great home base, Gonser said, the Attic Gallery business isn’t dependent on foot traffic.

The same has been true of the Camas Gallery, but owner Dennis Call wishes it had been otherwise. The place always drew browsers aplenty, he said, but never sufficient sales to balance out expenses.

“Most of the time we’d have ladies who’d come in and say, ‘I have 10 minutes before my hair appointment, can I walk your gallery?’ ” he said.

Call is the widower of Marquita Call, a beloved Camas community lynchpin. Marquita Call’s passion project from 2011 until she died in August 2023 was maintaining the gallery she launched with her friend, artist Sharon Ballard.

“Marquita was born and raised in Camas, and she knew everybody,” Dennis Call said.

Marquita was an art lover and a people person but not great at business, Dennis Call said. She was happiest greeting artists and visitors and diving into deep, personal conversations. She was a natural-born counselor, he said, but maybe not a natural-born art purveyor.

Marquita made a meager attempt at a Camas Gallery website, Call said, but when it got hacked, she just let it go. He said Camas Gallery didn’t have a web presence until just this year. It currently features a small handful of local and regional artists. Building a successful and popular commercial web presence takes time, he said.

Call said he’s been pouring money into the gallery storefront and haggling with the landlord about rent hikes. He said he decided to close the gallery doors this summer but a reality check from his accountant prompted him abruptly to call it quits on March 15.

Call, who lives in Portland, said he’s committed to continuing his late wife’s art business online, even though his devotion to art is not quite the same.

“Sure, I like a good picture,” he said. “My understanding of art is hanging a Playboy in the garage.”

Full circle

When The Attic Gallery doors close at the end of April, that will mark the first time since early childhood that Maria Gonser hasn’t been connected with a brick-and-mortar art gallery.

Gonser was all of 5 years old when her mother, Diana Faville, decided to honor an artist friend by opening an informal showroom on the top floor of her family home in Portland. Gonser likes to say she grew up in an art gallery, with patrons and visitors always tromping up and down the stairs to see what was on display in the attic.

The business thrived. Repeat visitors started asking whether there really was a home beneath their beloved gallery. Still just a kid, the young Gonser displayed business savvy by diverting visitors to her own childhood art exhibits in the pantry where she made some sales.

The Attic Gallery outgrew its original family home and bounced all over Portland. Maria and her husband, painter Tommer Gonser, bought acreage in Washougal. They also rejoined the Attic Gallery business and wound up moving it to Camas in 2016. They found Camas surprisingly welcoming and friendly compared to Portland’s more competitive gallery scene.

A few years ago, Maria and Tommer Gonser bought the building on Cedar Street where the Attic Gallery resides. Now, Maria said, the building is already under contract for resale to a local buyer.

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Unfortunately, she said, that’s because of death and illness in their family. Over the past couple of years, Maria’s father and Tommer’s mother have both died. The Gonsers live with Maria’s mother and Tommer’s father.

“That has really been straining for us,” Gonser said. “We had a record year last year, but we happen to be exhausted. I just want a sabbatical. I want to be able to spend time with my aging family members. I just want time.”

Fortunately, Gonser added, she’s spent a lifetime developing warm friendships with the Attic Gallery’s staple artists.

“These are people who are mid-career to late-career artists,” she said. “We have relationships with all of them. We’ve been friends for all these years.”

Especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, those artists and their fans have happily migrated to online sales, she said. Gonser only sees that increasing.

“We will miss having a brick-and-mortar store, but people who collect are already familiar with our artists and know how to find them,” she said. “People who fall in love with a particular artist learn to go to the website.”

Meanwhile, the final scheduled Attic Gallery show will be its April one: a retrospective of works by Portland painter Sidonie Caron. She’s the long-standing family friend who, back in 1973, first inspired Gonser’s mother to turn her top floor into an art gallery. The Attic Gallery will host a reception with Caron from 5 to 8 p.m. April 5.

Next phase

While watching galleries come and go is always tough, Downtown Camas Association executive director Carrie Schulstad has no doubts about the continued appeal of art in town.

“Art is important in our community. We certainly value it, and that’s not going to change,” she said. “What’s the next phase? Will it be galleries? Maybe the way towns showcase art will be different now.”