Elizabeth Leach Gallery at 40
There's more to running an art gallery than borrowing a couple of dozen paintings from a starving artist, selling a handful at 50% commission (plus "fees"), and then giving the rest back. If anyone shows the web of relationships, as well as sales skills, that a gallery owner must have, it is Elizabeth Leach. She is the owner of the famed Elizabeth Leach Gallery at 417 N.W. Ninth Ave. in the Pearl District, which is celebrating 40 years in business this month.
To thrive now, a gallery must have contacts at museums and other galleries across the US; cultivate collectors and steer them toward art and artists they genuinely like; find and represent artists by paying them in cash, connections and encouragement; have immaculate online and brick and mortar presences; and convince elected officials and business leaders of the value of art in economic development. Elizabeth Leach has all this.
Her gallery storefront is lit up with pink, blue and orange lights, an artwork called "Light on the Horizon" by Hap Tivey, who is one of her earliest connections.
Leach was born in Monterey, California. She studied art history in high school and went to Scripps College in Claremont to study art and architectural history. She met Richard Gruetter, who connected her to the art scene in Los Angeles and introduced her to Light and Space artists such as Hap Tivey and James Turrell.
She moved from California with her then-husband, Gruetter, in 1979. She discovered the Lee Kelly's sculpture in Washington Park (by the Rose Garden) and determined to represent him, surprised that he lived in Oregon. She opened her gallery in 1982 downtown when there were very few places showing contemporary art — Arlene Schnitzer's Fountain Gallery, and Image Gallery — and none of it very radical. Leach knew what was going on in painting and sculpture in Europe and the coastal United States and blended that with discovering local artists.
"I was 24 and people didn't think I had credibility," Leach told Pamplin Media. "They didn't realize that I had contacts and I had expertise. I was very shy. When I opened the gallery, I had to borrow my mother-in-law's clothes, and I put my hair up in a bun. Every time somebody came in, I would go, 'OK, I can do it. Hello.' I had to learn to be more extroverted."
The gallery moved to the Pearl, in 2004 from Southwest Pine Street. She still believes in the retail floor, whether it is attracting people who just come to look, or people with money to spend at art fairs.
"I love talking to people about art. That's how Sarah Miller Meigs (collector, philanthropist and owner of the Lumber Room, upstairs from Leach's gallery) and I met. She came in and we started talking and she asked questions, and we had fun."
It's a sales job, but she doesn't size people up.
"That is probably the worst thing you can do, because you cannot judge a (book by its cover). Fashion is not a strong suit in the northwest. I think it's really important, and my staff embodies this, to welcome everybody, make everybody feel comfortable. We've had very many pleasant surprises, you'd be amazed at things that happen because we've been friendly and accessible. We have two sets of clients, the artists and the collectors, it's our job to be a catalyst for the artists, we do our best to explain their work to make it accessible."
Bruce Guenther says Leach arrived in Portland and immediately got on the board of the Portland Center for the Visual Arts and started a business group for the arts to try to build a sense of cohesion.
Art lovers who have not been in Portland for 40 years may not know this, but Leach has had a Zelig-like presence and many important moments in this city's arts history. Kristy Edmunds went to meet with Leach when Edmunds was frozen out of the Portland Art Museum by its director, John Buchanan. Leach encouraged Edmunds to found the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, which survives today. And when the Portland Art Museum opened its modern wing, the Mark Building, in 2005, it led with Guenther's acquisition of the famous art critic Clement Greenberg's personal collection of 159 mid-20th century works.
"With the Clement Greenberg show, Liz's 20th anniversary show played off the Greenberg exhibition in a way that invigorated collectors," Guenther said. "People bought Hans Hoffmans, they realized that Helen Frankenthaler was still alive and that work by Helen Frankenthaler could be part of their lives." Guenther says this kind of connective tissue between collectors, institutions and dealers takes time and skill to grow.
"What happens in the intersection between artists, galleries, institutions, and the public, is that almost pinball machine bounce of the ball from one pole to another pole to the goal."
In the commemorative book, "40 Years: The Elizabeth Leach Gallery," Guenther has the flagship essay. He says the book records "the hundreds of artists who have shown in the gallery and the context in which they were brought to this community, and its elaboration in public programs, and institutions that Liz has lent her support to."
That giant "Brushstroke" sculpture by Roy Lichtenstein outside the Portland Art Museum?
Guenther says he was on a road trip back east and was talking to a "major Minimalist sculptor" for that space and getting nowhere.
"When Liz and Sarah Meigs and I drove to that property to look at another artist's work on a trip to New York, there was the Lichtenstein, and it rang a bell for me. All of us pulled together" on that project, said Guenther.
"The Lichtenstein was a great example of a strong collaboration between the gallery, museum and a philanthropic collector family, and it ended up being positive for the city," Leach said.
Leach was also responsible for not just filling the Heathman Hotel with original art, but organizing talks there, too, so people could appreciate it.
"I'm of the philosophy that activity creates more activity, and education has always been part of that," she said.
Leach presented Sol LeWitt drawings, Joseph Cornell collages, Lee Krasner works on paper and Robert Motherwell paintings, and put them next to locals works such as Melody Owen collages.
Guenther rates Leach highly for that.
"It's her way of presenting local artists with national and international artists' work, so that we understood that the artists actively were working in the same intellectual, conceptual and material dialogue that characterized contemporary art over the last 40 years," Guenther said.
Ten more years
"The book's freed me up because we've been able to document and catalog all the work we've done. We're doing more museums," said Leach of the next 10 years. Next stop is another fair, Paris Photo, with Dinh Q Lê, her current hot photo-collagist.
"It's my job and our job at the gallery to continue promoting our regional artists and getting them out there. Which can mean a little bit higher prices, but again, it's supply and demand. And people should be happy that artists are getting more money."
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