First things first for Tawni Shuler: the promising young artist is troubled about the November closing of Gallery Blue, the venerable gallery that represented her since she graduated from the University of Montana last May. But before she can tackle the problem of finding a new place to show her work, she needs to figure out how to just get her art back.
“Finding another gallery to represent me is important, but it’s kind of taking a backseat for now,” says Shuler, who’s currently working toward her masters on scholarship at Arizona State University. “I’m not in Missoula, and I don’t really have room for more [large-scale paintings] at school, so I’m trying to get everything shipped to my parent’s place. They’ll sit in storage there until I figure out what to do next.”
Shuler, who last August was tabbed by Southwest Art magazine as one of the country’s top 21 artists under 31, has gone from the excitement and prestige of being represented by a gallery right out of undergrad studies to the uncertainty of being an artist without a venue. “Without a gallery, I’m basically invisible,” she says.
Shuler is not alone in the aftermath of Gallery Blue’s closing. When the venue shut down after almost 24 years of business—it originally opened as the Clark Fork Gallery in 1982, then became Sutton West and has operated as Gallery Blue since 2003—more than 60 artists previously under contract became free agents, available to sign with any other gallery in Missoula. The problem is that although Missoula’s art scene is reportedly thriving, the majority of venues currently comprising the arts scene are studios featuring one resident artist, not traditional galleries that showcase numerous artists. That leaves the bulk of those formerly showing at Gallery Blue homeless.
“It provided half of my income and was my highest-selling gallery,” says Louise Lamontagne, an artist based in St. Ignatius who last year began spending her winters in Cape Cod. Her work had been displayed at Gallery Blue since 1994, when it was still owned by Geoff Sutton and called Sutton West. “I will feel a pinch, but I’ve decided—and I had been considering this before the gallery closed—to go in a different direction. I don’t plan on looking for gallery representation in Missoula. The long-time clients I have I’ll steer to the gallery in Bigfork [that represents my work].”
Nancy Erickson, an even longer-tenured local artist, also plans to go without local gallery representation. Her work was shown at Sutton West and Gallery Blue for more than 20 years but, like Lamontagne, she’s decided not to pursue another local contract; instead she’ll invite clients to call her directly to arrange viewings at her home studio in Missoula.
“I just said no for now,” explains Erickson, whose paintings, drawings and fabrics are on display in galleries and museums across the country. “I’m busy with other shows and I don’t want to get tied up with anything long-term right now. I’ll pursue other things for awhile.”
Shuler, Lamontagne and Erickson are just three examples of prominent artists with local connections now unavailable to Missoula’s general art-seeking public. What’s worse is that the prospect of them—or any of Gallery Blue’s other former artists—getting picked up by a different local gallery is slim, since few traditional options remain in town: All Around Art, a non-exclusive gallery that shows more than 20 artists, and The Dana Gallery, which is exclusive and similar to Gallery Blue.
“I can’t represent everybody,” says Dudley Dana, almost apologetically. “I was in the process of streamlining the gallery when this happened, so I was already trying to carry fewer artists.”
When Gallery Blue closed, Dana received “about 15 to 20” calls from artists gauging his interest in their work. When fielding the inquiries, Dana’s challenge was to determine if the artists came too close to duplicating the style of artists he already represents. And if he was to take on any new talent, he insisted on showing only new work, not unsold items leftover from Gallery Blue. So far, he’s added four artists: Susan Barnes, Kent Lovelace, Arin Waddell and Karl Stein; only the latter two are currently hanging in The Dana Gallery because the others can’t provide Dana with new work right away.
“We’re known as an eclectic gallery and it’s up to me to make sure we maintain that identity,” says Dana, who’s in his tenth year of operation. “I had to look at what each artist does and compare that to the more than 40 artists I’m already representing. If you look at the four we’ve brought on, each person is really unique.” Dana adds that he’s still talking with a few additional artists about the possibility of joining the gallery.
Matthew Mullendor, owner of All Around Art, located next to Gallery Blue, has picked up two new artists—Jin Huang and Amy Burnett—since his neighbor closed. While he’s already sold three paintings by the two new additions, Mullendor isn’t sure how the loss of an attraction like Gallery Blue will impact his gallery long-term.
“It’s too early to tell, but there was extra incentive for people to come by my gallery on, say, First Fridays because we were next door,” he says. “I’m not sure yet if our traffic will drop off.”
Dana is more concerned about how Gallery Blue’s closing will impact the overall arts scene in Missoula. His gallery is doing well—he reported a profit in 2005—and he acknowledges that studios around town are prospering. The issue for Dana is variety.
“A gallery presence downtown creates an energy—30-plus artists under one roof attract tourists who come to town wanting to see a variety of artists and a variety of art,” he says. “The overall ambiance, the identity of Missoula’s arts scene—I think you lose that without a large gallery presence.”
Geoff Sutton has been out of the gallery business since selling Sutton West in 2002, but as a long-time stalwart in the local scene he shares Dana’s concern. His hope is that a new gallery will move into Gallery Blue’s space, but acknowledges that it’s difficult to find someone willing to make that sort of long-term investment. For instance, Gallery Blue’s last owner, Miriam Richmond, attempted to sell the business before closing shop, but, according to Sutton, was unable to find a buyer.
“It takes at least seven years for a community to believe a gallery is trustworthy,” says Sutton. “Unless there’s a built-in reputation or someone already with ties to the area, it’s hard to get people to believe what they’re buying is worth something…But I think someone will emerge. Some young, hot person will come in and maybe make it an even bigger and better gallery space. At least, that’s what I’m hoping.”
In the meantime, Missoula’s now-homeless artists are seeking out alternative ways to show their work around town. The Artist’s Shop, a collectively owned store open eight months of the year, sells crafts and some fine art. Another option is to follow the example of the Saltmine, a group of artists who temporarily rent empty downtown storefronts to showcase work. Then there’s a bevy of smaller, short-term showing options in less mainstream locations such as cafes and businesses. None offer the typical gallery setup, but they are a way to stay in the public eye.
“My best option right now—maybe my only option—is to try and set up something where I’m only locked in for one month somewhere,” says Shuler. “I’ve thought about the UC Gallery [at the University of Montana] and the Gold Dust Gallery, and spaces like that. It’s not the same deal, or a long-term fix, but at least it keeps my work out there.”
Lamontagne believes whether a new gallery space opens or not, artists will find some way to have their work seen.
“Artists are resilient,” she says. “I may have a hard time the next few months, the next year, but I see this as a great opportunity. I understand it’s not going to happen there. So the question is, where is it going to happen? It’s not easy, but that can be an exciting question to answer.”