This is the story of the closing of the Oliver Art Gallery, a small and earnest business with which your writer has been associated since its inception. However, the tale actually begins a number of years ago as the result of another closure. In February, 2011 the Handworks Gallery on Main Street in Oliver, B.C. closed its doors forever. In retrospect, some would regard the demise of such a venture as a clue. Another entrepreneur, Steve Staresina, saw it as an opportunity – a chance to create a new gallery in the town and so continue the legacy of art as a community asset. He set about finding a small group of enthusiasts to create what would become the Oliver Art Gallery. The Main Street location he secured, while visible and with lots of glass, had a spotted history and needed a lot of work, including a new ceramic tile floor, to be serviceable. Three or four volunteers including yours truly stepped forward to trim, tile, scrub, saw, sweep and paint and within a month the upstart gallery was open for business. It was April, 2011.
Over the next four years, new members would join the group and others would leave but a nucleus of believers would stay and grow the organization. Around the end of year two, they became a registered Artists’ Co-operative under British Columbia Statutes joining a handful of other B.C. galleries in Nelson, Duncan and Granville Island organized in the same way. By the fourth year total membership had grown to 22 although only eight or nine would consistently be ‘Core’ members [meaning they paid more for the privilege of hanging and had to manage the operation of the gallery as well].
For a while all went well. Sales in year one were approximately as forecast. Sales grew in years two and three but then levelled off. Meanwhile membership was growing and the little gallery was becoming, frankly crowded. For months, the group looked for alternative premises in Oliver but nothing suitable could be found. At the regular monthly meeting in June, several members remarked how much better things were at the public gallery in Osoyoos and wouldn’t it be great if our gallery was located there instead of here? After a pregnant pause it transpired that everyone had been thinking the same thing but it took someone to actually say it to get the ball rolling. It has gradually become obvious to us that the major market for art in the valley is the tourism industry and despite the predominance of wineries in the Oliver area, tourists loped back to the sybaritic pleasures of Osoyoos at day’s end. Nothing in Oliver seemed to hold them for long and without tapping the tourist market more effectively; the Co-op could not hope to grow the business. With certain reluctance the group decided that if suitable premises could be found, the co-operative would be better off located in Osoyoos.
It took less than a week of sorting through real estate listings and a brief episode of tire kicking before a promising commercial premise on Osoyoos’ Main Street was found. The former offices of a local lawyer comprising over 2000 square feet in six separate rooms, the place actually looked like a gallery. Each back room was flooded with light from an overhead skylight. A coat of paint and cleaning of the tired carpets appeared to be the only significant work required. Like most illusions, this one too was short lived. Light switches in the wrong places were moved and patched; absent wall outlets were installed. The excellent air conditioning system seemed to be operating on only one lung. An existing tenant for one of the offices would become a tenant of the gallery and we figured all would get along just fine. We never had the opportunity to find out as she folded her tents in the night and quietly stole away leaving us to pick up her rent in addition to our own. Osoyoos may be a small town but it proved to be much more picky than Oliver about minutia like signs, insurance coverage and business licenses. Difficult but not impossible things to overcome in a short time and they have been dealt with.
And now it is time to move and it is August in the season of fire. Smoke from wildfires in Oliver, Osoyoos, Rock Creek and Tonasket, Washington – from all four directions – stings the eyes and fills the lungs. Some of us have had to leave our homes briefly under threat of burning, a diversion which can get in the way of renovating and moving; but that is how the weather was served up this year. We wonder why this bright idea hadn’t occurred to us months ago. Still the troops have rallied; several members of the co-op showed up for a work party to clean and cart out debris from the renovation. And now our enthusiasm is become evident in gifts of old furniture and rugs – cast offs that threaten to have the new venture looking like a garage sale – a rest home for retired detritus best consigned to the municipal land fill. And yet the venture stops just short of this outcome. Minimalism seems the best course and some gifts are voluntarily reclaimed by the donors leaving large spaces begging to be filled with art. The place is starting to look like a real gallery.