Standing on a sidewalk along a busy Northeast Portland street, a couple shield their eyes as they peer inside a window. Inside the gallery, a feast of artwork draws them in. For the 16th consecutive year, the Day of the Dead show is on view at Guardino Gallery on Northeast Alberta Street, and it’s hard for passersby to resist the temptation to enter the gallery and check out the art, which ranges from colorful and whimsical to dark and morbid. The popular annual show is a celebration of the Mexican Dias De Los Muertos observance as interpreted by 38 local artists. For a few, like assemblage artist Robyn Williams, this is the only show they participate in at Guardino Gallery. For others, including Melissa Monroe, whose work employs traditional rug-hooking techniques, this year’s show will be their inaugural appearance in the show and at the gallery.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Guardino Gallery in the heart of the busy Alberta Arts District. Over those years the gallery has become a landmark destination, drawing locals and tourists alike for the ever changing display of art within its three gallery spaces, as well as serving as a touchstone for a community that has reinvented itself in that time.
Open for business on “Killing Street”
There was a time when the Alberta District was a thriving business community, when streetcars ran up the street and connected neighborhoods. But by the time Donna Guardino and her late husband, Sal, arrived in 1996, the area had declined as gang violence and drug use took over the neighborhoods. Within months of their arrival, a television reporter would call Alberta Street “the most killing street in Portland.” No tourists walked the sidewalks, and few restaurants or retail businesses were even open for business.
But the Guardinos saw promise in the building at the corner of Alberta and NE 30th Avenue. Themselves artists, then gallery owners, in California before moving north to Portland, the Guardinos had a vision in mind for their next endeavor. Over the years, the space had been an old grocery store, an appliance store, and even a paint-your-own ceramics studio. But for Donna and Sal the building offered several advantages: the potential for a gallery with several rooms to enable simultaneous shows, as well as spaces for other businesses that could eventually provide rental income. Against the advice of their two adult sons, they purchased half of the block and began the transformation of their buildings and of the neighborhood, building a community as they built a business.
Donna Guardino joined a small group of local business owners who knew that if they wanted the area to change, it would have to come from the neighborhood itself, instead of waiting for the city to step in. Gradually more businesses, including other galleries, opened. Working together, they launched Alberta Street’s first Last Thursday event in May 1997. They created the nonprofit Art on Alberta and began to brand the Alberta Arts District as a destination. They encouraged other businesses along the street to join them by appearing on an Art Walk map free of charge, which they printed and distributed to visitors on Last Thursdays and in participating businesses.
As a result of Donna Guardino’s efforts and those of other business owners, today Alberta Street is one of the most vibrant and flourishing neighborhoods in Portland. Other galleries have joined Guardino along the stretch from Northeast 14th Avenue to Northeast 33rd Avenue, but none is quite like the gallery that started the Alberta Street renaissance.
A Unique Gallery Model
Years before coming to Portland, Guardino had visited a gallery in St. Louis, the model of which greatly appealed to her. “It was organized with the gallery up front, then behind it there was another, smaller gallery. And then even another room where there were just shelves and shelves of art, which was basically just a shop. But it struck me that there was a lot of turnover of the art, everything was always changing,” she recalls. “So when we came here and started our gallery, we followed the same principle that draws people in – seeing change all the time. That’s why we decided we were going to change the shows every single month.”
“Guardino is the perfect gallery model,” notes painter Hickory Mertsching. “The rotating monthly shows and the space in which represented artists are regularly being showcased are unique. Plus her location on Alberta Street can’t be beat.”
Guardino Gallery opened on April 24, 1997, timed for the very first Last Thursday. For 25 years, the gallery has followed the same model, changing the shows every month, with the opening for each new show on the Last Thursday of the month. Each month the gallery presents a show featuring two artists in the Main Gallery, as well as one or two more artists in the smaller gallery space known as the Feature Area. In addition, a rear room features works by all of the artists represented by the gallery. The gallery also features changing displays in the Window Gallery and in the Gift Shop area. As the Guardinos intended, the effect is of a space filled with art that is continually changing, enticing local residents, tourists, and fans of the Guardino Gallery to return time and again. “There is always something that draws your eye in here,” she notes.
Over the years, she has also given much thought to why and how people purchase art. “One of the reasons we started Last Thursday was that it gave people a reason to walk in your door one time. And I always thought that they could come in and look, but they don’t have to buy anything,” she says. “But if they come in once, they’ve got an idea about what I sell, and then maybe they’ll come back again. Maybe they’ll come back for a present. So, you know, you just have to get them in the door, whether you do it with an opening or a sale or whatever.”
One of Guardino’s most successful sales tools has been the concept shows. The Toy Show in July, the Day of the Dead Show in October, and the Little Things Show in December all feature multiple artists working off a single theme. Previous concept shows have included the Heart Show and an annual print show. The recurring concept shows also offer her a way to allow all of her artists to have a yearly opportunity to exhibit new work, and to try out the work of new artists.
These days it seems everyone has a Little Things show, but few of them are as carefully curated as Guardino Gallery’s. The concept shows feature many of the same artists who are featured in the two-artist shows in the main gallery. “Often people come in and see a work by an artist, but it’s too expensive for them to consider,” Guardino says. “But then in the Little Things show, where the works have to be seven inches or smaller, or even the Day of the Dead show, they can find something they like by the same artist that is very affordable. They’ll buy it just to have something by them.” She points out the work by Hickory Mertsching, which can normally sell for thousands of dollars, but whose pieces in the Day of the Dead show can be found for less than $1,000. “It’s like a gateway drug to art collecting,” she jokes. “People develop their favorite artists through these small-piece shows, and come back for more.”
Making Art Accessible, and Affordable
Donna Guardino’s business model extends to the kind of art the gallery exhibits, as well. Hers is one of the few galleries left in Portland that carries a mix of fine arts and crafts in a variety of mediums, from paintings to ceramics, metalworks, prints, textiles, and even jewelry. “I don’t want to be pegged as just doing abstract or just big works. I wanted art that was accessible and affordable.”
“When so many other galleries are inclusive and narrow in the work they show, Donna has a higher volume of artists,” adds assemblage sculptor Stephanie Brockway. “Always keeping quality in mind, she’ll jump in with sculpture, glass, wood, paintings. It’s really a feast for the senses.”
Kim Murton, who has been showing her ceramics at Guardino Gallery for over 20 years, says “Guardino is the only gallery left that I’ve been with for a long time. There aren’t a lot of galleries for both ceramics and fine craft. There used to be Graystone [on Hawthorne Boulevard], The Real Mother Goose [downtown and at the Portland airport], and the Mary Lou Zeek Gallery in Salem, but they’ve all retired.”
“Over the last 20 years, Portland has lost the only two other galleries that openly encouraged assemblage and outsider arts,” adds artist Shelly Caldwell, who works in mixed-media assemblage, “so without Guardino, I’m not sure where we would have the opportunities to show.”
Part of the gallery owner’s role, Guardino feels, is to educate your customers, but she doesn’t like to be a hard sell. “I can talk to you about the technique the artist used, but I don’t even want to get into why an artist makes something or what is their intended meaning. I think people should know their own response to a piece, but talking about an artist’s technique, such as how they used beads set in beeswax, that gives the customer more information and may make a connection for them.”
Both in the main gallery and in the smaller rooms, gallery visitors will find works that are priced in the thousands of dollars, as well as pieces that are well under $100. “I think because I have things that are less expensive, and others that are more expensive, I’m going to hit all the bases.”
For those expensive pieces that a customer just can’t pass up, she offers payment plans, almost unheard of in galleries. “My husband and I were looking at a piece of ceramic that we really wanted, but could not afford right then,” recalls assemblage artist Williams, “when Donna said ‘you know, we take payment plans.’ We walked away with a divine piece of art.”
Building a Community of Artists
As she was helping to revitalize the community on Alberta Street, Donna Guardino also gradually began building her own community of artists, many of whom have now exhibited with her for nearly as long as the gallery has been open.
“My first art show was at Guardino Gallery,” notes encaustic artist Paula Blackwell, who, like several others, first discovered the gallery during Art Walks on Alberta Street. “Donna took a chance with me, a relatively green artist, and it was the introduction and education I received that greatly paved the way for my success, as well as for many other artists.”
Guardino is a sweet spot for both emerging and established artists. Gail Owen, a fine art printmaker who works part time in the gallery, notes that Donna will interview any artist who will make an appointment with her, no matter their skill level.
“Being new to Portland, it took me a while to get to know artists,” Guardino says of the early days of the gallery. “But after a while there were artists who I really liked and I would ask back to the shop. You can’t get into the shop unless you’re involved in a show and you can’t get into a show unless I screen you first.”
These days she has an open call for artists in the summer and then sees their artwork by appointment. She doesn’t accept submissions with slides: “The artists come in, they show me their artwork, and in that visit we can talk and I can see the real work.” She carefully screens the portfolios of artists, asks about their techniques, what their history is, and when they’re available for shows. She is very clear on what she likes and doesn’t like. She decides how her next year is scheduled, which artists will be included in what shows, and by October she is sending out her 2023 schedule of shows.
She doesn’t select the individual works that will appear in each show, but trusts the artists to bring in work that is good. “I have always used the concept shows, in particular, to bring in new artists, like Melissa Monroe in the Day of the Dead show. There is always somebody new and I have to trust them to come through with work that I like.” Owen adds that it’s fun to see Guardino get excited about an unexpected, but fantastic artist who comes in for an interview, someone she’s never seen before.
“Donna trusts her gut and doesn’t look at the art degrees as much as she looks at the art. She has a good instinct for talent and passion,” adds Brockway, who has worked with the gallery for 16 years.
But once you are part of the Guardino Gallery community, she is there for you, forming a personal relationship with each of her artists. She’s invested in helping each artist be successful, including making the opening event special.
“I believe Donna is a different type of gallerist due to her experience working as a printmaker and paper sculptor artist in her past,” notes Owen. “She took her negative and her positive experiences as an artist and created her own gallery standards that are actually beneficial to artists trying to make a living.”
Owen points out that Guardino doesn’t trap her artists in restrictive contracts like “non-compete within 50 miles,” or exclusive contracts that would prevent artists from showing outside of her gallery. While some galleries demand a percentage for outside sales, which leaves the artist with no percentage, Guardino merely has an agreement with the artist for the month they show. If she likes their work, she might select a few of their pieces and keep them on display in the back gallery. Non-compete contracts can literally ruin an artist when a gallery doesn’t promote the artists out of the back rooms.
The result is a gallery owner who is a true artists’ gallerist – one who is very respected by the artists of Portland for her integrity and for her experience and history in the gallery scene.
Pivoting during the Pandemic
When the Covid pandemic hit and many businesses were forced to shutter, Donna Guardino resolutely kept the doors to her gallery open. But for a business that had relied solely on foot traffic, the pandemic meant a big change was required. She had always been on social media and had maintained a WordPress site for the gallery, but her assistant Gail Owen, who had left a career in aerospace, convinced her that a bigger step was needed.
“I was finally able to convince her we needed to start publishing the shows online. I have worked on parts catalogue teams in my corporate past, so building a catalog for the gallery was easy for me,” says Owen. Their first attempt in 2020 was to add her group shows onto her WordPress blog, but with concept shows that often have as many as 50 artists, just managing the digital photos was a nightmare.
As a result, in 2021 they decided it was time to go fully digital with the Shopify app that was made to handle a catalogue and online sales for small businesses. “We also found that we could barcode everything, which made handling sales and bookkeeping paperless and almost effortless,” adds Owen. “We were shocked that 2021 was the best sales year in her gallerist career, even though tourism had not returned.”
Each individual artwork is photographed and Owen creates a bar code, which is placed on the back of the work’s label. When a customer in the gallery purchases a work, a simple scan of the bar code puts the sale into the system. But the Shopify app opened up a new online sales world for the gallery, one which continues to grow, with people buying art both locally and across the nation and beyond. An online customer can add one or more works of art to their cart, then pay immediately with a variety of payment options. They then have the option to pick up the artwork at the gallery or have it shipped directly to them. Online purchases are not limited to the current shows; shoppers can browse through all of the artists that Guardino Gallery exhibits and carries online.
“I love the online catalogue because it makes Guardino Gallery accessible to worldwide audiences and no longer the best-kept secret in Portland,” says Owen.
The artists are happy, as well. “I think the way Donna adapted to online sales is amazing,” says Kim Murton. “The transition has been seamless for the artists and I think has been very successful for everyone. The combination of being able to visit the gallery and then go home and check again online seems to be the way people buy art now.”
“I’ve sold more since Donna began selling online,” adds Shelly Caldwell. “People seem to remember pieces better, too. After a show comes down, I will sometimes get inquiries through the gallery’s website about a piece. It’s been great.”
Stephanie Brockway points out, “Donna was the brilliant one who, at an older age, even impressed me by getting the latest technology and realizing the future was online. The amount of work to photograph and list so many pieces of art in a single month was daunting, but she didn’t waver. These times are a-changing and she rolled with it and changed, too. She is an absolute rock star!”
At age 79, Donna Guardino shows no signs of slowing down, and, with her 2023 shows already scheduled a year in advance, Shopify pages to be built, opening events to be planned, and new artists to meet, there’s no time for that. She does hope that Gail Owen will eventually take over the reins of the gallery. But that day is still to come.
- Address: 2939 N.E. Alberta St., Portland
- Contact: guardinogallery.com, (503) 281-9048
- The Day of the Dead show continues at Guardino Gallery, and online, through October 23.
- Opening October 27 are Elizabeth Shupe, mixed media, and Laura Barstow, beaded sculpture, in the Main Gallery, and Sara Waldron, oil paintings, in the Feature Area.
- Opening November 25 is the annual Little Things show in the Main Gallery and Feature Area.
- In addition to Guardino Gallery, the Guardino Complex also includes Claudio Starzak Jewelry, Redbird Studio card shop, DarSalam Iraqi Restaurant, and the Side Door Ceramic Gallery.