Thursday, May 29, 2008

Avant on Guard

Alex Walker, a volunteer at the Black Front Gallery in Olympia, knows avant-garde art.
Photo: J.M. Simpson
Alex Walker, a volunteer at the Black Front Gallery in Olympia, knows avant-garde art.
Jennifer Bullo, owner of Underground Green – Eco Clothier, checks out the art at the Lark Gallery, which is across the hall from her shop at Sanford & Son’s Middle Floor Merchants in Tacoma.
Photo: J.M. Simpson
Jennifer Bullo, owner of Underground Green – Eco Clothier, checks out the art at the Lark Gallery, which is across the hall from her shop at Sanford & Son’s Middle Floor Merchants in Tacoma.

Galleries in Olympia and Tacoma struggle to survive.

Published in th Weekly Volcano, May 29, 2008

Perry Onorio is trying his best to keep the Black Front Gallery in Olympia alive. I’m afraid his chances for success are slim to none. Keeping a small art gallery alive anywhere in the South Sound is tough — especially if it’s a gallery that shows risky, young artists.

The last show at Black Front featured weird sculptural pieces like something out of a horror flick crawling across the walls and hanging from the ceiling. What’s the chance of someone paying money for something like that? Art buyers, few and far between to start with, generally spend their money on safe, non-offensive pictures to hang over their couches, not on experimental monstrosities that might take over their homes and scare their cats.

“I thought that the gallery would only run for one year,” writes Black Front founder Jason Sieling on the gallery Web site. “That’s all that I had money for and we made it almost two years. … I certainly never expected it to be a money making venture. It was always for you, the community.”

Now there is a slim chance that it can continue under a collective ownership made up of previous volunteers with Sieling operating as a silent partner. But only if they can round up some kind of financial backing.

“The whole community supports us and has expressed dismay that we might be gone, but none of the individuals or businesses has stepped in to sponsor us,” says Onorio, who is spearheading the movement to keep the gallery going.

The patient is fading fast, and the prognosis is not good.

The South Sound arts community does not have a good record for doctoring ailing galleries. The latest case — the former Art on Center Gallery — is barely hanging on under a new name and new cooperative ownership. For a couple of years it was among the best contemporary art venues in Tacoma. But it was a financial drain on owners CJ Swanson and David Goldberg. They moved it to a better location two doors down from the Grand Cinema and changed the name to A.O.C., sought other artists to go in with them on a cooperative venture, and eventually opted out. The co-op gallery that took its place is now called Grand Impromptu — or just Impromptu (they can’t agree on a name). It’s surviving, but not thriving.

When I started reviewing area art galleries around 1995, there was a lively gallery scene in Tacoma’s Theater district. Galleria on Broadway, Aesthetics Art Gallery, and Commencement all went belly-up as did Penny Loucas Gallery near where Grand Impromptu and Two Vaults are now. At the same time, the hottest galleries in Olympia were Childhood’s End and Marianne Partlow. The Partlow gallery was taken over by State of the Arts, which morphed into a gift shop, and Childhood’s End has survived only because it is attached to a gift shop. Since curator Stephanie Johnson left to go to work with the Olympia Arts Commission the quality of Childhood’s shows has gone down.

Another great Tacoma gallery that bit the dust was Random Modern. Ironically, it failed (so it seemed at the time) because it was too successful. The owners ran another business and wanted the gallery as a tax write-off. It started off slowly but was beginning to sell a lot of paintings when it suddenly went out of business.

More recently we’ve seen the demise of Ice Box Gallery and Critical Line in Tacoma, both of which really pushed the envelope, and Side Door Studio in Olympia, which was not exactly avant-garde but was a good venue for local artists. It seems like the only galleries that can survive are those with safe (read boring) arts and crafts or those attached to a related business that pays the bills, such as a gift or frame shop.

On the positive side, avant-garde art is like the legendary phoenix constantly arising from the ashes. Every time an exhibition venue closes one or two more pop up. Folks in the arts are nothing if not optimistic. The newest to pop up in Tacoma have been The Helm, Lark and Fulcrum.

Sean Alexander, co-founder of The Helm, says it is “the most important small arts venue in Tacoma.”

“We are the only serious local arts venue that is focusing its energy on young people and young ideas,” Alexander says. “I strongly believe that the most interesting developments in our culture are occurring within those younger circles. We have mainly focused on showing art made by early career artists; within that category a lot of pop, conceptual and folk-influenced work is being made. We think that as a burgeoning city, Tacoma must have access to current visual ideas now, so that those ideas are carried with it during its development.”

Alexander says they are out of money and are working on a fund-raiser and that if that doesn’t work he will probably move to an area that is “either more or less progressive.” Exactly what he means by that I don’t know, but what I do know is that it will be Tacoma’s loss.

The Lark Gallery inside Sandford & Son was started in November 2007 by Gretchen Bailey and her partners, Chaundra and Adam Pospychalla. “The name of the gallery is apt because it was, in the truest sense, on a lark,” Bailey says. “Our initial goal was to showcase up-and-coming artists and be able to offer great art with an entry level price tag. We all wanted to see the usual Art Walk attendees be able to purchase the art they go to see. As artists ourselves, we just wanted to be able to make enough to support the gallery and give artists a way to showcase their work, make enough money to buy art supplies, create energy around their work, and build a resume.”

So far they’ve been relatively successful, but personal tragedy struck when Chaundra’s father was killed in a freak accident. The Pospychallas have not been able to continue with the gallery, and Bailey says she can’t do it alone. Beginning next month additional artists will be stepping in to share the work and the finances.

She doesn’t yet know what direction the gallery will take but hopes to be able to do more theme shows such as the Bad Girls and Bold Boys show and the current show, Family Portraits: Current and Future Works, which Bailey describes as a provoking and slightly tongue-in-cheek installation.

Fulcrum Gallery opened around Christmastime 2007. Founded by glass artist Oliver Doriss, the gallery on MLK Way specializes in sculptural and installation work. “I run a bare bones, underground fine art gallery,” Doriss says. “The Fulcrum project is a constantly evolving amalgamation of gallery/installation space, fine art retail, as well as an artistic community hub. As little Tacoma grows and develops, it becomes fertile ground for these avant-garde galleries. The amount of support I have received from my community has been staggering. I feel Tacoma wants and is mature enough to handle a gallery of this nature, and as a member of this same community I intend to bring it on.”

I haven’t seen the current installation at Fulcrum, Karla Melo Santos’ The Road to Heaven, but it is described as a multimedia installation video, found and original recorded media, experimental theater, writing, still images, light, tile and sod. That sounds pretty avant-garde to me. Fulcrum is also showing paintings by Julia Ricketts, reviewed in my Visual Edge column this week.

With the vision and energy of people such as Doriss, Bailey and others, the art scene in Tacoma may blossom after all. And if the Black Front in Olympia doesn’t make it — as sad as that may be — some other starry-eyed artistic entrepreneur is sure to come along and open another hot art space.

Writer’s note: Two days after sending this article in to my editor I received an e-mail from Perry Onorio saying they have given up on finding sponsorship and will be closing the Black Front Gallery at the end of this week.

[Black Front Gallery, 106 Fourth Ave. E., Olympia, 360.786.6032]
[Grand Impromptu, 608 S. Fawcett, Tacoma, 253.307.1011]
[Childhood’s End Gallery, 222 Fourth Ave. W., Olympia, 360.943.3724]
[The Helm, 760 Broadway, Tacoma, 253.627.8845]
[The Lark Gallery, 743 Broadway inside Sanford & Son, Tacoma, 253.383.3168]
[Fulcrum Gallery, 1308 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma, 253.250.0520]

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