MYS Oregon to Iberia

The Fall of Hillsboro’s Sequoia Gallery + Studios 

The artist-operated downtown institution’s closure after 16 years deprives Oregon of an important visual arts hub. 

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Sequoia Gallery’s final First Tuesday Art Walk.

On the first Tuesday night in March, scores of visual arts lovers converged on Sequoia Gallery + Studios. As a principal stop in downtown Hillsboro’s monthly First Tuesday Art Walks for more than a decade and a half, Sequoia offered visitors not just opportunities to admire and buy some of the most compelling art west of the Tualatin Hills, but also a chance to see the member-artists who created it at work in their studios, making more art.

Despite the usual presence of live music, snacks and wine, and of course the art and artists, though, this First Tuesday was different. More crowded than usual for this time of year, maybe because this show also featured works by some of Sequoia’s past member artists as well as the current contingent, it was also the last Art Walk for Sequoia. Many visitors had no doubt turned out for what turned out to be a farewell celebration, but for many others, the prominent art space’s imminent shutdown came as a complete surprise, announced only a few days earlier. March’s First Tuesday was Sequoia’s last, its exhibition and sales gallery closed April 6, and since then, the artists who managed it and created works there have been moving out of their studios. Their organization’s lease expires May 31. After 16 years anchoring downtown Hillsboro’s visual arts scene, Sequoia had fallen.

 


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But Sequoia’s demise is much more than a gallery closure. It also marked the loss of an important Oregon visual arts hub, a generator of Hillsboro’s artsy downtown vibe, and a major setback for West Side artists, many of whom occupied subsidized studio spaces there. It also represents a setback for an innovative public-private partnership model — and a lesson for artists who want to create cooperative ventures to make and sell their art.

Investment in the Arts

Sequoia’s origins stretch back to the early-2000s Great Recession. To boost the arts – and thereby other economic activity — in downtown Hillsboro, city officials decided to support an independently operated cooperative studio / gallery space for artists adjacent to Main Street. They found a building on SE Third in 2006, and began an extensive refurb.

“The city funded the initial tenant improvements for rehabilitating the Terrace Plaza Building with the intent to house an artist cooperative: gallery, artist studios, and classroom space,” explains Karla Antonini, the city’s Economic Development Project Manager. 

That investment in the Terrace Plaza Building was one of four initiatives in the city’s 2007 Downtown Renaissance Project, demonstrating Hillboro’s long-standing willingness to actively invest in the arts as a means of downtown development. Such arts investments remain a top priority for the city.

“With the Cultural Arts District’s constellation of creative assets, our goal is to have strong cultural hubs where we’re creating opportunities for artists and simultaneously connecting the arts to our downtown,” explains Hillsboro Cultural Arts District Manager Bridie Harrington.

Since opening in 2008, Sequoia had been a major part of that effort. In return for the city investing $350,000 to refurb the building, the owners agreed to charge affordable, below-market rent for a to-be-formed collective arts organization that would determine the artists’ rates, manage the individual studio agreements, and collect rent payment from the artists. 

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In response to the city’s invitation, a founding group of 15 local artists formed a 501c3 nonprofit organization and put together a business proposal that included three components: a gallery space, classrooms, and 13 studio spaces for individual artists, whose work would be displayed and sold at their studios and in the gallery. 

Over the next decade and a half, artist membership reached as high as 35 at a time, and any artist member was eligible to join Sequoia’s board of directors, which also included some volunteer community members. The organization had no paid employees. The artist members and volunteers handled all gallery and other operations. Members each contributed several hours a week as gallery staffers, and served on committees. 

It’s hard to think of another artist-run institution that simultaneously featured publicly open studio spaces for working artists, an art sales gallery connected to the studios, and classrooms for beginning and advanced fine arts instruction for children and adults, taught by members and guest artists.

The innovative tripartite arrangement reflected the city’s recognition of the value artists can bring to a central core that needed a boost in the wake of the Great Recession. “The city wanted to create a home for artists to help bring vitality to downtown, activate the visual arts community and support artists,” Harrington says. 

Main Street Arts Hub

Sequoia became a reliable highlight for attendees of Hillsboro’s many downtown arts festivals and markets and the monthly First Tuesday Art Walks. Downtowners sometimes spotted participants in Sequoia’s fall plein air class painting streetscapes.

Over the years, artists came and went, but the studio spaces were usually fully occupied by printmakers, painters (oil, acrylic, watercolor, sand), ceramicists, weavers, potters, mosaic makers, and artists working with fabric (crochet, weaving and more), jewelry, encaustic, pen and ink, glass, and various mixed media. 

One of them was Mia Hocking, who joined in 2009 and, over the years, used the space to create paper collages, often incorporating found objects, digital photos and more. “There was nothing comparable in Hillsboro or in surrounding areas,” Hocking says. “I saw the potential for a really robust art space.” 

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She also found something else, something many other Sequoia artists also treasured. 

“The folks drawn to Sequoia primarily join for the community,” she says. ”First Tuesday is exciting. You walk in and you’re chatting with the artists, and you’re charged with this surge of energy that just inspires you to want to create more.”

Making art, any art really, can be an isolating, even lonely process. Sharing that experience, seeking advice and support side by side with others who resonate to that same calling can make creating art that much more gratifying. That community feeling drew Hocking back when, like other Sequoia artists, she left and returned several times over the years according to various life changes. She eventually became chair of the organization’s governing board – a position she still held when it ceased operations this spring.

Artist Jen Champlin at work in one of Sequoia’s studios.

Sequoia’s benefits extended beyond its members and neighbors who admired and bought their art. It also inspired non-professionals to create their own art. 

“Art’s transformative,” Hocking says. “It’s not just a pretty painting or a sculpture you put in your house. It’s the journey of that creation. Because we’ve been so accessible, we’ve been able to encourage emerging artists. Members of the public that don’t consider themselves artists have been welcomed in the doors and they take that with them.”

City officials appreciated the public return on their investment in Sequoia’s building. “Sequoia created a home for artists, [and supported] the visual arts community and supported artists,” says Harrington. It also helped  to  “activate downtown” by bringing “people to come to connect with those retail and restaurant spaces” nearby.

Unstable Model

After Hocking took on a leadership role in the organization, she discovered that “the business model was delicate, because members can come and go without much notice,” she explains. “From year to year, you don’t really know who is going to be at the helm. So internally there’s a structural deficiency.”

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Even early on, the organization faced challenges. Sequoia “owed the city $26,000 after taxpayers helped the nonprofit pay its first year’s rent,” according to a 2015 story in The Oregonian. “After fundraisers designed to help Sequoia repay the city did not generate much money, [the city manager] allowed the gallery to donate artwork to the city’s Public Art Program to reduce its debt…. The art is displayed in public buildings across Hillsboro.”

A few years ago, the membership and board experienced exceptional turnover as some original members moved on. “Once those founding members and attachments started to break away,” Hocking recalls, “we discovered the fragility of its structure. We may have people willing to step into positions but have limited time, or maybe their skill set isn’t in an area where we need it. Then it becomes a domino effect. The members are either too busy and can’t fulfill their assigned roles, or they try anyway — and end up burned out. So you don’t sustain the leadership.” 

Looking down at the gallery from the studio level during a recent Art Walk.

Then, starting a few years ago, a series of blows staggered the already tottering Sequoia structure. A Washington County tax policy change (too complex to detail here) in the criteria for the nonprofit organization’s charitable activities eligible for credits resulted in a steep property tax increase. Hocking believes that impact might have been ameliorated, perhaps through an appeal or some changes in Sequoia operating policies or structure. “Our current board was working on that,” Hocking says, when in 2020, disease and disaster struck. 

The Covid-caused downtown shutdown, prolonged by a devastating Main Street fire that further disrupted its shaky comeback, pushed Sequoia too far to recover.

“When the pandemic hit, quite a few members broke away,” Hocking recalls, and the number of memberships plunged to a new low, reducing Sequoia’s revenue stream.

The city, which had also helped over the years with grant funding, consulting and other support, instituted a rent pause during the COVID 19 pandemic, and government-provided emergency funds helped Sequoia and other businesses stay afloat, but they expired, “and we still need time and resources to recover,” Hocking says. By the beginning of this year, declining memberships and sales had left Sequoia’s income about half of the amount needed to pay its discounted monthly rent.

The city wasn’t able to bail it out. “We’ve been in touch with the board, checking in on the artists’ health and well being during and after Covid,” says Hillsboro Senior Manager of Arts, Culture & Events Nancy Nye. “It’s a board of really dedicated folks who are working very hard through this current chapter with such integrity.” 

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With no clear path forward before the funding crunch became irreversible, Sequoia’s board decided it was time to cut losses. Nye says the organization notified the city of its decision to dissolve in late February. 

While the studios remained open after the gallery shuttered, the artists began moving out and have now all departed. Many have found new studio spaces elsewhere. The members have been selling, donating or disposing of all the furniture and supplies. The organization must be moved out by the end of May. 

Hocking says that the community of artists around Sequoia was left reeling, there was also a “feeling of gratitude for all the years of community support. It’s unfortunate that circumstances have delivered us to this point in which Sequoia needed a change, and the hard-working volunteers needed relief.”

Seeking a Successor

Sequoia’s demise deals a dispiriting blow to West Side visual arts enthusiasts. “I think of all the fun folks would have when they came through on First Tuesday,” Hocking fondly remembers. “Long after the doors have closed, people will be coming by and wondering, ‘where have they gone?’” On the art walks I’ve attended since, it’s felt like an essential element was missing. 

While Hillsboro arts lovers and downtown boosters mourn the departure of Sequoia’s economic and generative impact, Hocking laments a less tangible but no less significant loss — to the artists themselves. During the periods when she wasn’t involved in its artistic community, she learned how deep the deprivation runs.

 “I wound up filling my time with things not creative,” when she wasn’t part of Sequoia, Hocking recalls. “You just don’t really know how much you miss it until you’re back in it again. It’s precious, and probably the most devastating part of closing down the business.” Since Sequoia shuttered, she’s finding it difficult to create art. 

Sequoia after the fall.

City officials recognize the magnitude of the loss of such a vital part of Hillsboro’s downtown ecosystem, and are determined to maintain the building as an arts-centric place that also boosts the central city’s economic fortunes.

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“As champions of the arts and downtown revitalization, we want the space to continue as a home for creativity and career opportunity and storefront activation,” says Antonini, who’s played a major role in downtown Hillsboro’s revival. Later this year, the city plans to issue a Request for Proposals, hoping someone or some group would step forward with a new vision for the Terrace Plaza Building space. 

Hocking hopes a group of artists will do just that, though none has stepped up so far. But whatever entity replaces Sequoia’s former organization, “what needs to happen is a structural change that takes into account some of those factors we’ve been experiencing,” like the nonprofit’s fluctuating membership and inherently unstable business model, Hocking says. “We need to find different ways of bringing in different income streams, broaden our membership. Really, the business should be able to support itself. There are always going to be impacts you couldn’t expect, like the pandemic, but the structure of the business over that many years should be able to weather those and sustain it.”

City arts officials remain hopeful that a new Sequoia will grow from the root planted more than a decade ago, and endure as long as the towering nearby trees surrounding the venerable courthouse that gave the defunct arts space its name. 

“For the City, growing opportunities for artists and makers continues to be a priority for the revitalization of downtown,” says Harrington. “We want to continue to support a diverse creative community that incorporates learning and provides a space for artists to create work.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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2 Responses

  1. Perhaps a follow up to this would be: Where did the artist go to grow? A relocation of the Sequoia artist. I have heard that some went to the Artful Garden and others went to Crystal Heart Boutiques. I wonder if anyone went to the Walter’s gallery?

  2. A well documented article, thank you for sharing the history of Sequoia. It was a special place for our community and many friendships were made admist all the amazing creativity. Thank you Sequoia artists.

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