On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Elizabeth Leach Gallery, the Oregonian art critic, D.K. Row, referred to Elizabeth Leach as the “queen of the local cultural world.” Ten years later, now celebrating the gallery’s 40th year, Elizabeth Leach is ten years wiser, perhaps more reflective, but still very much city royalty.
For a human, 40 years gets you to middle age. For an art gallery in Portland, 40 years get you to august city institution. I sat down with Leach in the gallery to get a sense of her view on the last 40 years as part of the Portland art community.
Leach opened her gallery in 1981 with the express purpose of bringing nationally recognized artists to Portland. She explained, “when we moved here in 1979, we didn’t find as vibrant of an art scene here as the ones that we had experienced in L.A. or New York or Europe. We were used to lots of contemporary art all the time. When I moved here, there was the Fountain Gallery and they represented 60 or 70 regional artists with some national artists but mostly regional artists. Blackfish was a great cooperative and Augen had just started in a house, but in my mind, I wanted something more contemporary. My husband at the time, who was a filmmaker and artist, convinced me to open the gallery. And our whole motive, our whole reason for opening was to bring in our friends, all the friends we knew – and nationally, we had a lot of contacts – and mix it with regional artists. That’s been the thesis of the gallery.”
Leach describes the early years of the gallery in the 1980s as “scrappy. They were hard, there was a thin, thin margin…but it was a lot of fun. Serious, but also fun.” Along with some other like-minded dealers, Leach started First Thursday in 1986 and recalls the collegiality of the gallery community in the 1980s and early 1990s.
When I asked about broad eras of the gallery, Leach characterized the 1990s as an expansion of the art scene and her gallery space. “There was an influx of people into Portland and everybody wanted what was new, so there was a kind of reinvention… I tripled the size of my space so that I wrapped the entire building.” In 1991, its 10th year, the gallery’s size grew from 2,300 square feet to 5,300 square feet.
The demand for artists’ work increased in the 1990s. Leach represented James Lavadour between 1988 and 1995, and recalls his rise as a “wild ride.” “The paintings went from $3,500 to thousands, maybe $1,500 to $3,500 to thousands overnight. It was amazing. That was the first time in Portland that there was this really hot rise by an artist. People were fighting over paintings. We arranged a show in Seattle; all these people were trying to get first in line. I called one of the curators in Seattle and said ‘this is unfair’ and the curator said, ‘I’ve been waiting for this to happen for decades.’ And I’m thinking ‘this is hell.’ So in some ways, the ’80s were really innocent and fun and then with the ’90s, the maturation, which meant some tougher things.”
Leach recalls strong connections between the Portland and Seattle art scenes in the 1980s and 1990s: “We had a lot of collectors coming from Seattle. There was a lot of city exchange…I always went up to Seattle a lot because in the ’80s, they had a stronger art scene, more curators and more serious collectors.” Leach took part in Art Fair/Seattle and even briefly opened a second location in Seattle.
The 1990s were equally a time of expansion of the art scene in Portland and Oregon. Leach was on the founding board of Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts in 1992, and was instrumental in the 1995 founding of PICA (Portland Institute for Contemporary Art).
The 2000s, or the “aughts,” as Leach refers to the decade, saw the rise of the Pearl District as the heart of the gallery scene in Portland. Bruce Guenther, the then-curator at the Portland Art Museum, tipped Leach off to the availability of the building on Northwest Ninth Avenue, and she purchased that space with a collector in 2004.
Part of the emergence of the Pearl as the center of Portland’s art scene was the Portland Art Dealers Association, or PADA. Leach was the founding chair of the organization in 2003. She says she founded PADA not as a dealers association but as a “loose affiliation of like-minded businesses.” First Thursday remained a cornerstone of the organization’s activities. Leach says that event is “important for the city as a place. It’s important just to allow people access, and that’s what it’s really become. We have a lot of cultural capital in Portland…We have a really healthy ecosystem when you compare Portland to other cities.”
Leach points to the “aughts” as a period in which she was able to bring “big names” to Portland. “We were showing Kusama. We had Oldenburg. Christo had dinner in my gallery…When I celebrated my 20th anniversary, we were offered a Color Field show, so I got to go back and pick out paintings by Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell. I had Louise Bourgeois. The kind of quality of work that I could bring to Portland was pretty special.”
At the same time, Leach was starting to attend the international art fairs. She had been participating in the national fairs regularly through the 1990s. She was even invited to Art Basel in the 1990s because of her connections with Art Chicago. Art Basel hadn’t yet become the juggernaut it is today, and with young children at home, the international fairs were out of reach. By 2004, the children were more independent; Leach expanded into the international scene with Art Cologne. This year, she will attend Paris Photo.
Perhaps it’s that there isn’t as much hindsight to rely upon, but Leach was more circumspect in characterizing the 2010s: “The ’80s were this, the ’90s were this, the aughts were this, and then all of the sudden, attention to the galleries seemed to shift. It was like, ‘Where is everybody? What happened?’” Leach attributes the change to “our phones and busy-ness because of our phones.” It does seem worth noting here that the first iPhone came out in 2007, so the 2010s can very aptly be characterized as the decade of the smartphone. From Leach’s perspective, smartphones changed how people engaged with art galleries: “People wanted to know, ‘What’s hot? What’s new?’ There was less of a willingness to dive into what was being presented, the art history and context of what was being presented.”
Leach is not easily discouraged, however, nor is she one to sit back. The shift in public attention was a major impetus in the founding of Converge 45 in 2016-2017. Leach cites Skulptur Projekte Münster as an inspiration for Converge:
“I wanted to do something in the city to call attention to the arts, both the galleries and the nonprofits, and to refresh ourselves. I’ve been to Münster which is this fabulous, every ten years, you get a map and you get on a bike and you go around the city and you find what curators have done…. It calls attention to the city, to place, to what artists have done.
“For the first one, I said: ‘It’s like a scavenger hunt.’ There’s so much going on. There are emerging spaces all the time and they need support and even the established galleries need support. Everybody needs attention – from the museum to PICA and beyond…I think we all know there needs to be more education and that people have to commit the time to look…It isn’t a move away from galleries, it is a move away from traditional art. People want experiences, they want events, they want parties. Converge isn’t just about the galleries, it’s about the nonprofits too – making sure that people know what is going on, whether it is established or emerging. It’s about having more contemporary art in Portland. It is important to show the regional art in the context of national and international art, keeping the edge. That’s my interest, keeping the edge for Portland.”
Converge 45 has year-round programming, but Leach described it as a biennial. The next installment, titled Social Forms: Art as Global Citizenship, is being curated by Christian Viveros-Fauné and is slated to open August 24, 2023.
Leach’s energy and commitment to keeping Portland’s “edge” is admirable, but the rosy picture she painted was at odds with what I often hear about the arts ecosystem in Portland, more utterances of the hand-wringing than celebratory variety. When I asked about this, Leach was thoughtful but undeterred:
“I think there’s probably reason for concern, but I’m a doer, so I just go out and try to create energy. I think that’s what a community needs to do. A community needs to converge. If you create energy, you attract energy.”
On Sunday, October 16, as part of the gallery’s 40th anniversary festivities, a panel conversation took place between Elizabeth Leach and Bruce Guenther, who wrote the essay for the anniversary catalog, and moderated by art historian Dr. Sue Taylor. In email correspondence after the event, Taylor celebrated precisely the energy that Leach referenced: “Lucky for all of us, her immense ambition to foster cultural opportunities in Portland is matched by her unflagging energy and tenacity. She has been–and continues to be–a truly visionary engine for change.”
The audience for the morning event, held at PNCA, was certainly the one typically associated with the blue-chip galleries (in short: lots of unironically doffed chinos and sports coats). This echelon of the art world has been criticized of late for its inaccessibility, gatekeeping, and interest in profits. The business end of art – money, investment, personal collections and collectors – was certainly the focus. At one point, Guenther referred to Sir Herbert Read’s comment that collectors are either “chimpanzees” (they like whatever is new and shiny) or “stamp collectors” (they collect by methodically filling in the squares in their album).
The blue-chip world is Leach’s background, and it may well be her most natural home. A pessimist would argue that there is an element of self-preservation, maybe even self-interest, in many of Leach’s activities over the years: PADA and Converge45 are undoubtedly good for the Elizabeth Leach Gallery’s bottom line. Leach certainly has her critics in the Portland art community, but in reflecting on this story it doesn’t strike me as hyperbole to say that Elizabeth Leach changed the course of the Portland art community over the past 40 years. The focus on bringing national artists to Portland, on situating local artists in a national or even international context, and on establishing the city as a cultural hub – that contribution should be undisputed. That Leach has lent her weight and cultural capital to entities like Crow’s Shadow and PICA means that her influence in the city is felt far beyond the blue-chip world.
“Ecosystem” is a term often used to describe the arts community. It has become so much of a buzzword that I don’t know that I’ve ever stopped to consider its intended implication: a network of interrelated and interdependent entities. The opening of the Elizabeth Leach Gallery in 1981 altered the Portland ecosystem. Times have changed, and the Portland art community has diversified in multiple ways over the past 40 years: alternative voices, spaces, goals, and intentions. That change is welcome. The new voices, spaces, goals, intentions – they can still have a place in the cultural landscape. Healthy ecosystems have many parts. They thrive because they’re interconnected; because they support one another and co-exist.
At 40, the Elizabeth Leach Gallery may not be the center of the art world that it once was; Elizabeth Leach may no longer be the “queen.” But thanks to the efforts of Leach and many others, Portland has a robust ecosystem – and thankfully, an ecosystem doesn’t need a monarch to thrive.