Golden nuggets 

Searching for art off the beaten path

It takes some time to find the Gold Dust Gallery on North First Street. From downtown, you have to walk north on Orange Street, pass through the Orange Street underpass, and then circle back around the block toward the railroad tracks. The sound of rail cars chugging and hitching fills the air, and in the distance there is the faint hum of traffic on Interstate 90. Although the actual distance is only a few blocks, it feels a long way from Higgins Avenue and the First Friday crowds that have become common at Missoula’s downtown galleries.

Off-the-beaten-path defines the Gold Dust Gallery in more ways than one. Nestled among the old warehouses that mark the beginning of Missoula’s Northside, the gallery has slowly established a niche for showcasing young and promising artists with an edgy aesthetic. The nonprofit operation, housed on the ground floor of a low-income apartment building, is run by three 20-something artists and is open only by appointment most of the month. But on First Fridays, the Gold Dust’s combination of eclectic live performances and progressive exhibits has made it a burgeoning attraction.

“This is a space that works outside of Missoula’s typical gallery scene,” says Eric Ashcraft, a full-time student whose postmodern portraits will be displayed with the work of Greta Jernberg at the Gold Dust starting with First Friday festivities on April 1. It’s his first art show. “It’s more a space for experiment,” he says. “It gives me an opportunity that nobody else provides.”

The Gold Dust is different in many ways from a typical gallery. Artists invited to display their work in the space are responsible for all promotional materials and setup costs. In return, the gallery does not take any percentage of the proceeds from pieces that sell. The people who have taken the initiative to run the gallery—Alicia Jones and Lonney White, who both live in the building, and Adelaide Morin—don’t receive a dime for their efforts.

“I think Adelaide said it best when she told me, ‘We’re volunteering for the love of art,’” says Jones, who had her work displayed at the gallery’s First Friday debut in October. “It’s hard enough to be an artist and make it work without someone taking 40 percent or 50 percent of the money. As an artist myself, I know how important that extra money can be.”

The unorthodox setup has made it an attractive option for unproven local artists, but it took time for the Gold Dust Gallery to reach the level of stepping stone. The building was constructed by HomeWORD, a Missoula nonprofit that develops affordable housing utilizing innovative and sustainable design methods. As part of HomeWORD’s mission, they worked with the North Missoula community to develop the Gold Dust in a manner that complemented the neighborhood.

“One of the first things we found was it was a large community of artists, and we wanted aspects of that to be reflected in the design of the building,” says Betsy Hands, a program manager for HomeWORD.

In addition to being energy-efficient and low-maintenance, Hands explains that the apartments were created to support an artistic mission, featuring a “new urban look” and “live/work” spaces with expansive work areas and high ceilings. The building’s common room, which is on the street level and has a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, was designed from the start as a place to display art. When construction was completed in 2003, HomeWORD looked first at filling the 18 rental units with those “most in need,” and then openly recruited artists (who were also in need) to fill the rest of the building.

White was one of the first artists to apply to live at the Gold Dust, and he immediately took an interest in how the building’s common room was being used—or, as was the case when he moved in, not being used. Hands encouraged White to take advantage of the space for an art exhibit, and the idea took off when Jones—who has spent time living in foster homes and, at one point, in her car—moved in to her Gold Dust apartment a short time later.

“Lonnie and Alicia started talking right away,” Hands says. “You could tell they were passionate about it. They deserve the credit for showing initiative.”

While the turnout for the Gold Dust’s first show was impressive, attendance suffered with ensuing events. Jones readily admits the group was learning on the fly, and they made mistakes in promotion and selecting featured artists. It wasn’t until the most recent shows, which featured the abstract paintings of Cherlyn Wilcox and Brooke Gherardini and, at a separate event, a live bellydancing performance, that they began to understand what it takes to run a successful event.

“So many people didn’t know where we were,” says Morin, who is now in charge of gallery publicity. “We learned the hard way.”

Jones quickly adds, “I’m glad we didn’t ask for more help. I kind of wanted to see what we could make on our own. We’re learning so much. If we had asked for more help I’m not sure it would have become what it is today.”

The gallery is currently booked through October, and Hands has helped oversee a review committee to evaluate new artist applications. While precedence is still given to promising local artists who have not had shows before, the Gold Dust has started receiving interest from the more established art community. The May show, for instance, will feature work dedicated to cancer survivors and cancer awareness, and includes established local artists David Morgan and George Ybarra. One month later University professor David James’ work will be on display.

“What I thought was awesome about the space was you drive by and from the street all you see is this art hanging on the walls and all these people and it was like, ‘Wow, this is cool,’” says James, who first went to the gallery to see the February show. “Every art gallery goes through growing pains and I’m sure they did, but when I was there everyone was so jazzed about it. It looked professional. It was packed. I think I basically told them, ‘I would love it if you let me show here sometime.’”

James is a former professor to Jones and White, but he’s careful to point out he didn’t know much of anything about their work at the Gold Dust until he arrived for February’s First Friday event. In fact, since that time his contact with Jones has been almost exclusively as artist-to-gallery coordinator, not teacher-student.

“I’m really impressed by what they’ve done,” he says. “It just goes to show that youthful enthusiasm cannot be replaced by money or knowledge or experience.”

Jones is not content with settling for the gallery’s current status as a hot spot for the nontraditional art crowd. She understands that the gallery’s mission is not only to showcase new artists, but to also help those artists succeed by selling work in a professional and appealing environment.

“It’s important to me to not just have a young, urban feel to this gallery,” Jones says. “I want to get buyers in here so the artists can get back what they’ve put into the show, if not more.”

The Gold Dust Gallery will feature the paintings of Eric Ashcraft and Greta Jernberg through Thursday, May 5. An opening reception will be held in conjunction with First Friday on April 1, starting at 5 PM. Music will be performed by Kristopher Koch, Jeff Kind and the Halo Brothers.

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