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Ashland gallery to close after 23 years

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Betty Barss, left, Charlotte Peterson and Linda Boutacoff are the founders of Art & Soul art gallery in Ashland. After 23 years, the gallery will close Dec. 24.

After 23 years exhibiting fine art in downtown Ashland, Art & Soul Gallery is slated to close permanently Christmas Eve — the latest business casualty on the local art scene brought on by summers of wildfire smoke and an ongoing pandemic, adding to the challenge for artists in search of a sustainable path forward.

The building owner discounted rent for Art & Soul Gallery every month since April 2020, when arts organizations began to feel the impact of pandemic shutdowns, said gallery owner Peter Stone. Still, knowing a three-year lease was about to expire, Stone said he decided against struggling to survive another year.

“We were having a nice little recovery through the spring, but when end of July hit with smoke season and delta variant, that double whammy — for us, it was like the beginning of COVID time a second time around,” Stone said. “That was when I really started to question the viability of the gallery.”

When COVID-19 vaccination became available for adults, the gallery hosted a First Friday event for the first time in a year. Throughout the spring, Stone observed a “steady reemergence” of people getting out and shopping more, with a bit of normalcy seemingly within reach.

He stayed the course through the fall to see whether a lift in smoke would bring business back, with no luck. If $30,000 had materialized, Stone said he would have had the means to reopen the doors after closing through the winter, or to sell the business to someone willing to continue operating the gallery.

For now, the gallery is slated to close at the end of the year. An open house was held Dec. 3 as an opportunity for the public to “say a final farewell.”

“Our clientele, in previous years, is very much tied to the OSF clientele,” Stone said. “Without OSF running at full steam, if I tried to keep the gallery open for another year, it would be so similar to this year, which has just felt like constantly squeaking by.”

Disappointed artists featured in the gallery wonder where to go next, he said. Stone makes suggestions for the few locations left to exhibit around the Rogue Valley, and encourages active outreach to keep artists’ work visible.

Stone, who is also a music teacher, plans to start a new career as a school bus driver for the Phoenix-Talent School District, with the hope he can form connections with potential music students.

For the last month, Stone said, he has focused on “relishing” being in the gallery space. Across from the front desk, a wall displays one painting from every artist with work in the gallery — the middle row of artwork all framed by Stone.

The gallery included some artists with international accolades, representing an “incredible amount” of talent that has lost another place to exhibit work, said Lynda Hoffman-Snodgrass, former co-owner and gallery artist.

In October, Hoffman-Snodgrass received a third-place award for her painting “Riding the Wave” in the Northwest Watercolor Society annual international open exhibition.

Hoffman-Snodgrass said wildfires and smoke took their toll on arts organizations in addition to the pandemic, specifically regarding summer tourism. The last time she witnessed such a severe impact on the arts was the economic crash of 2008, she said.

When the Ashland Art Center closed, the board donated the last of its money to the Ashland High School Truth to Power Club during the creation of its celebration mural, according to Ashland City Councilor Stefani Seffinger.

Eve Withrow, former gallery co-owner and artist, said essentially nowhere is left locally to show fine art, but artists cannot stop creating. This year, she plans to skip a traditional gray winter series to keep colors in her creative palette vibrant.

Withrow recalled a healthy gallery and packed, joyous First Friday events with wine, snacks and a featured artist mingling. Today, she considers spendy entry fees for online art shows.

“I always thought of [the gallery] as a bright place on the sidewalk,” Withrow said.

After losing the Ashland Art Center and other local galleries, Hoffman-Snodgrass said the winter will be spent exploring regional opportunities and “putting out feelers” for new ways to work. She recently celebrated reaching 500 Instagram followers — a success in the slow process of establishing a presence on social media, where money seems to flow away from the artist instead of toward, she said.

“I would love to continue to show locally, but it doesn’t seem viable,” she said. “I need to find someplace where there’s more traffic. It’s a dilemma.”

With varying color settings on each device, viewing artwork online will never be the same as experiencing it in person, no matter how expertly the colors are matched, Hoffman-Snodgrass said.

Still, Stone said the artists who have been most successful in the past year are those with online marketing skills.

“Going forward, especially during just the coming year, any artist who has those skills or learns to do it for themselves will be at a great advantage,” he said.

In the past two months, artists have emerged from all corners looking for a place to show their work, but the same cannot be said for customers buying art, Stone said.

Some new businesses, like the Fiber Arts Collective, are tapping into a combination of services and art — a different model that may offer some resilience in a recession environment, he said. Yet at least one coffee shop/art gallery on the downtown strip closed at the beginning of the pandemic.

“Thank you for all of your support over the years. It has been a great pleasure to see you from time to time and to offer you a place of respite and inspiration,” Stone said, addressing the community. “Rest assured that the artists of Art & Soul Gallery will keep painting and teaching, learning and evolving, and sharing our art. Perhaps the Art & Soul Gallery will reemerge at some point in the future.”

Reach reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497.