State of the Gallery: the Preslar Gallery 2018 in review

The year 2018 is ending soon in just over a month, so I’d like to take this moment to reflect on this first season of the Preslar Gallery and how the future of the gallery might look for the coming years.

The idea of opening an art gallery came to me rather as a random thought, considering that there exists a large underutilized space in the Alice Tarbell Cultural Space (which was in the past utilized for several art workshops and art therapy sessions) and I felt it could be a good match.

In prior, I had organized and curated several art shows at a various locations, such as a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon. For many years, I was very closely connected to the Portland fine art scene and I had exhibited in many shows as well.

I have, so to speak, both “good news” and “bad news.”

The bad news first:

The Preslar Gallery was launched based on a series of faulty assumptions that were informed solely by my own limited experience inside the Portland art bubble. I made a big mistake of simply exporting Alberta Street and Pearl District to a warehouse in the middle of nowhere and thought people would line up to see the shows.

How wrong I was. I’ve learned the first lesson on the first day of the February exhibit. I planned a big opening reception to run from 4 to 8 p.m. in early February — after dark and when the internal temperature of the building was close to freezing. Aside from the artists themselves, nobody came (and some artists even didn’t bother to show up).

I spent the remainder of the year, tweaking the gallery program by trial and error. There were signs of things looking up, but in the grand scheme of things, I would not consider it a success. I like to call failure a failure, and I do not go into a mental gymnastic to justify the continuing failure for the sake of a consolation prize.

At the very fundamental level, the business model of the Preslar Gallery hinged on one important premise: that artists gain exposure and possibly generating sales because of the events held at the Alice Tarbell Cultural Space. Otherwise, this would be patently unfair to the artists. It is an absurd proposition to ask artists to drive all the way here (70 miles round-trip if they live in Portland, one artist came all the way from Edmonds, Washington) to deposit their artwork at a warehouse in the middle of nowhere, to be seen by nobody for a whole month. The only good thing that came out is of pure vanity: a bragging right for the artists to be able to say that they had a show at a gallery. They might as well go find a self-storage unit nearby and name it the “Foobar Gallery,” that might cost them less and they get the exact same outcome: no exposure, no sales. I really struggled with this situation. Despite my best intentions, the gallery felt like one big scam as far as I am concerned. For the majority of this year, the Alice Tarbell Cultural Space remained vacant and unused for events or retreats, and now it has literally morphed into a warehouse to store random building materials and furniture. My conscience simply won’t allow me to continue this charade as it is.

Earlier this year, I sought to ameliorate the problem by reaching out to local businesses in south Columbia County under the name of “Art on the Go” program. Sadly, there are not enough businesses suitable for this program in the area and many of them don’t even survive for more than a few months. I’ve already given up on having anything to do with Columbia County businesses or organizations. They are beyond redemption, despite some really good intentions on the side of a few people and a handful of disjointed and incoherent initiatives that achieve very little.

I would be lying if I said I am happy with this.

Also, I am a practical person. I’m not a kind of person who “follows their heart” or “follows their passion.” I didn’t start a gallery because I particularly liked art or doing so would make me happy (Yes, I have been an artist for many years, but actually I do not enjoy creating art — to me, it’s a “work” — and I started it as a way to generate some income at a time when I had no source of income and I was broke. At that time, art was perhaps the only way I could make money in a legal, honest, and ethical way.). Rather, I started it because it fit into the big picture of what I was doing: creating DIY economic opportunities (in other words, sort of building on my own experience). In other words, a gallery that does not make sales would not meet this goal. I hate to ruin the dream, but this is my brutally honest admission.

In other words, I see no reason to continue this path of abject failure.

Now for the good news:

Since February of this year, I was truly delighted to see such a diverse selection of art and a group of emerging artists with such a potential. The highlight of each month for me was the day before the opening receptions, usually 3 or 4 in the morning, putting together the exhibits and hanging the paintings. It has always been such an exhilarating moment. Many of these artists have never had their works shown in a professional gallery setting. Their artwork looked amazing. Most artists truly enjoyed this experience.

A couple of times, we were able to host great hands-on art workshops in conjunction with the opening reception (watercolor class for April, acrylic class for August). They were well-received by local residents and helped boost the attendance at the gallery.

For the month of June, in honor of the LGBTQ+ Pride Month, we hosted an informal queer art camp weekend. The participants truly loved the weekend in nature, looking at the exhibit and also engaging in creative activities themselves.

These were the positives of this inaugural season. It is foolish to expect that a brand new gallery that is yet to be well-known — especially outside the established arts district where one can count on the built-in foot traffic — to be wildly successful in a matter of a few months. Things like this takes time to build up. I’m a realistic person. Especially considering the near-zero budget (the gallery program has been entirely self-funding this year, from administrative fees and art sales commission) and very limited ad buys (I have relied mostly on a “guerrilla” approach), people even knowing about the existence of the Preslar Gallery is a good news.

The greatest accomplishment this year was that we offered the artists an experience of what it is like to be having their shows in a gallery. I have run the gallery in the same way as most other professionally-managed galleries do, so it was a learning experience for them, as well as having a place to invite their friends and families to come see their works.

Possible way ahead for 2019 and beyond:

  • Less emphasis on art exhibits, more emphasis on events: possibly reducing the number and/or size of art exhibits, but creating more events that encourage people to visit the gallery from both the immediate vicinity and from the Seattle-Portland-Eugene corridor, such as: open shoot days for photographers, figure drawing groups, art classes, artists’ weekends and retreats, etc.
  • Artists will need to do their part in promoting their shows. Those who did had a better turnout this year. Based on the experiences this year, the difference between a gallery and a storage unit really hinges on the artists’ ability to use their existing contacts to start building the publicity and following. These people already know the artists, thus they are more likely to turn out than total strangers.
  • Possible volunteer curatorial assistant program to train people how to manage and operate an art gallery (and even creating a mini-gallery alongside the main Preslar Gallery to empower them to put together exhibits on their own)
  • Improvement and more emphasis on the gallery’s digital programs, such as the virtual gallery and online art catalogue.
  • Evolution from a “gallery” to a “studio” (a long-range plan; may require fundraising for remodeling): relocating the gallery to another building where a permanent art studio could be housed
  • Potential rebranding (for 2020 or later) of the gallery/studio to better align with the larger mission.

Thanks to all 2018 artists!

  • Habiba Abdul Rahim — February and March
  • Helana Shull — February
  • Phoenyx — February
  • Bethany Lang — February
  • Tera Stenzel — February
  • Mary Ann Antenucci — February and October
  • Emily Thornton — March and April
  • Lew Jones — April
  • Andrea Vidrine — May
  • M Prull — June
  • Hampton Rodriguez — July
  • Olga Guse — July and August
  • Danell Ellingson — August
  • Terika White — September

Happy holidays,

Willow

Director/Curator, The Preslar Gallery

Helana Shull (February 2018)
Andrea Vidrine (May 2018)
Danell Ellingson (August 2018)
Terika White (September 2018)