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In Flux: Vancouver’s North Bank Artists Gallery Sees No Path Forward

Maureen Montague noted the downtown arts district designation would not have happened without North Bank's advocacy. "I'm really proud that our community achieved that," she said. "The day we went before City Council was one of the finer moments of my life so far."

Maureen Montague noted the downtown arts district designation would not have happened without North Bank’s advocacy. “I’m really proud that our community achieved that,” she said. “The day we went before City Council was one of the finer moments of my life so far.”

April Baer/OPB

A major driver on Vancouver’s cultural scene is closing its doors this spring.

North Bank Artists is a co-op gallery on Vancouver’s Main Street. Board member Maureen Montague took me below the slick white-box gallery to the warren of studio spaces in the basement. Many are packed to the rafters with paint, paper and other art supplies.

“I love Mary Clearwater’s work,” Montague said. “She uses mixed media, there’s ribbon glitter, a million kinds of paper.”

We picked our way through old Halloween decorations and swatches of fabric.

Other studios are already stripped down to the bare walls, their resident artists gone in anticipation of the gallery’s final closing at the end of May.

An empty studio at North Bank. Some artists chose to clear out their spaces in advance of the May 29 closing date.

An empty studio at North Bank. Some artists chose to clear out their spaces in advance of the May 29 closing date.

April Baer/OPB

The story of North Bank’s impending closure is not a simple one, but its layers of interlacing complications show why it’s so hard to keep arts strong on the Northwest’s Main Streets. Since its founding in 2003, North Bank has shown works by dozens of local artists of standing. But the nonprofit’s impact manifested as much outside the gallery as inside it.

Greg Lueck has been working on Vancouver’s Lower Main Street corridor since 1999. The owner of Firehouse Glass, a nearby studio for blown and fused glass artists down the street, he founded North Bank in 2003 with his wife — the artist Rebecca Seymour — and artist Maya Jones. It was an oasis where art could be made and sold in a downtown few cared to visit.

Seymour’s original vision was to find a space that had been heavily used and take on renovation with sweat equity. Rents on the basement studio spaces were very low, and covered the lease on the gallery space.

“We had it down to the penny,” Montague said of how much artists had to pay to keep the lease going. “It meant this gallery could do political shows, student shows, because we didn’t need the gallery to be profitable.”

Fourteen years ago when North Bank moved into its space, Greg Lueck recalled, downtown was a radically different place.

“I think we had six pawn shops, second-hand clothing stores,” he said. “Oh yes! McDonalds across the street. I forgot.”

Now, things are very different. All along Main Street, banners proclaim this the city’s arts district. Once a month, a First Friday Art Walk packs the streets with curious customers. North Bank led the fight for both those initiatives, and provided grist and expertise for other kinds of advocacy. And yet, its final show on Main opens in May.

To learn why, you have to go two doors up the road to another business that’s stood side-by-side with North Bank in pioneering the downtown cultural scene.

The Kiggins Theatre is Vancouver’s one-screen arthouse. Its big red marquee that’s a historic fixture in Vancouver. Owner Dan Wyatt bought the business in 2012, and realized immediately he was going to have to take different steps to break even.

“I fell into landlording by accident,” he said, somewhat sheepishly.

Nine months after buying the business, he decided to buy the building. That saved him several thousand dollars a month on lease payments. But the economics of running an independent movie house are harsh. At some point, Wyatt said, he’s going to have to expand the Kiggins. He talked to other small-town theaters.

“Second screens, third screens, looking at other arthouses around the country,” Wyatt said, “that was the make-it-or-break-it determining factor.”

North Bank Artists (right) and the Kiggins have been neighbors for more than a decade.

North Bank Artists (right) and the Kiggins have been neighbors for more than a decade.

April Baer/OPB

In 2014, when he had a chance to acquire the rest of the block, Wyatt took it. That’s how North Bank’s comrade in the downtown cultural renaissance became its landlord.

Wyatt raised North Bank’s rent slightly when he bought the building. Greg Lueck says North Bank still pays well below market rate, but it was enough of a bump that the board needed to re-examine its business model.

North Bank spent the last two years doing heavy fundraising and researching new locations. It found its first roadblock downtown. Lease rates on commercial space have reached the point where the gallery sales and studio rents combined can’t support a market rate lease.

But there were two other options that looked good.

“The Fort and the Port,” Lueck said.

The Fort Vancouver National Historic Site is redeveloping its old West Barracks as apartments, with some room for gallery space. Hopes were high on both sides North Bank might move in, but it didn’t pan out.

“I was always concerned about turning loose a bunch of crazy artists, who want to paint flowers on the building … into this historic reserve,” Lueck said. “I was never 100 percent convinced that was going to be a good fit.”

Other board members had concerns about how long it might take for the barracks to populate with the shops, restaurants and other galleries to bring enough foot traffic into North Bank — the kind of stuff that makes Main Street such a desirable spot.

Then there were talks with the Port of Vancouver about a spot in the old Red Lion hotel, gorgeously positioned on the waterfront. But Lueck said there was no ready-made gallery space on the property, and the Port hasn’t ruled out demolishing the old hotel as part of its broader redevelopment.

In each scenario the board discussed, the specter of rising lease rates loomed. The Port and other prospective landlords charge market rates. To keep that kind of money flowing in, the board says something fundamental would have to change, in terms of the kind of art the gallery sells, or the staffing structure.

While the real estate chase played out, Lueck said, the intensive fundraising and effort was taking its toll on the board.

“It worked for about two years, but the problem is eventually you just run out of energy,” he said.

When North Bank’s lease was up this spring, the board made a hard decision not to renew its lease.

Landlord Dan Wyatt is letting artists with studio space in the basement stay, with an option for either side to cancel on 30 days notice. But North Bank will not. Its last show opens May 5.

Wyatt said he’s sorry to see North Bank go.

“They’ve been the creative component to the block,” Wyatt said. “I’m not much of a corporate guy, myself.”

He said he’s still looking for a new tenant for the space, and is in talks with a few potential tenants — including some creatives.

North Bank board member Maureen Montague said it’s not the end for downtown Vancouver’s art scene. But it is a blow.

“My concern isn’t that we’re going to lose art, it’s that we’re going to make it more difficult for people to go and enjoy,” Montague said. “That said, artists aren’t leaving and artists have a very tenacious attitude toward organizing.”

Map: Vancouver, Washington Art Galleries

Click on the points on our map to learn more about the various gallery spaces that make up Vancouver’s arts scene. 

Karen Madsen, chair of Arts of Clark County, said Southwest Washington is due for a conversation about space for art. She said market forces are making it hard for artists and art lovers who’d rather stay in town, instead of crossing the river into Portland.

“We don’t get audience-building asking people to travel,” Madsen said. “It’s getting every single community committed to supporting their arts community, their artists. That happens because there’s places for the community to go to.”

She’s organizing an arts summit for September to talk about this very issue.

Montague says North Bank as a 501(c)(3) will stay active at least through the end of the year. North Bank’s board members will keep up their search for a possible home during that time.

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