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Mark Woolley On Owning Art Gallery in Pioneer Place

Mark Woolley is approaching his 20th anniversary in the local art world and is settling into his latest art gallery in Pioneer Place in downtown Portland. See some artists set up their exhibitions in his gallery.

If you ascend the escalators to the third floor of Pioneer Place Mall, high above the food court, the GAP, Ann Taylor and other mall staples, you may be surprised to find a fine arts gallery owned by prominent art dealer Mark Woolley. From this unusual venue, Woolley will be celebrating his 20th anniversary in the Portland art world at the end of the year.

Woolley is well known for being on the forefront of establishing the lively art scene in the Pearl, once a light industrial area. He has opened and closed three galleries over 16 years and, more recently, has presented pop-up art shows in rented spaces. He says the biggest change in Portland’s art world over the past 20 years is the proliferation of non-traditional art venues.

“It’s an interesting thing that there are literally art shows in cafés, bakeries, bars, people’s homes, public spaces, insurance and realty offices, and online. It’s amazing. There is an explosion of ways that people are getting their art out there,” says Woolley. Art galleries have also sprung up on the east side of the Willamette River, whereas two decades ago, they were concentrated on the west side, he adds.

Woolley brought his weighty art credentials to Pioneer Place almost one year ago. His gallery is sandwiched between two other art galleries, the Peoples Art of Portland and Place. Together, they are called The Settlement.

“As a business model, if galleries cluster together like we have, then it’s viable. If it’s just one fine arts gallery in a mall, I personally would not do it,” says Woolley.

The three galleries hold art receptions every third Saturday from 5-9 p.m. These art openings give Woolley an opportunity to woo new buyers from the other galleries. “The challenge is that some of the people who came to my other galleries as collectors maybe don’t come to the mall on a regular basis.”

Woolley has to make adjustments to sell fine art in a mall. For one, his gallery has to offer a larger collection of smaller art pieces, because they are more affordable to the general public. He also has to consider content and product placement. Woolley says he has artistic free rein most of the time, except when it comes to showing sexually explicit art.

“In my other spaces I wouldn’t even think twice about it. The main thing is to be sensitive to a flow of people of all ages coming to the mall and not having something that’s too explicit. It’s not like we couldn’t have a show that had photographic nudes that were tasteful, but we probably wouldn’t have it in the front window because this is a family environment,” Woolley says.

His gallery made a creative concession before the last presidential election. Woolley decided to direct edgy political artwork away from the front window and position it inward toward the gallery. Even with the compromises, the unusual venue is working out for him.

“It’s nice to have a mix of retail and fine art galleries in the mall. There’s a lot of young people coming, so you’re really introducing them to art. For some people, it’s the first time they’ve ever been in a gallery,” says Woolley.

The Mark Woolley Gallery is open Thursday to Sunday from 12-6 p.m.

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