When Elizabeth Leach talks, people listen. But when she walks--with her entire operation across Burnside and into the Pearl--people really listen. After 23 years as the reigning queen of Portland's "blue chip" galleries, Leach is moving from the downtown space she's rented since 1981 into a 4,000-square-foot building at 417 NW 9th Ave.
The art dealer, who has a lusty laugh and enjoys hoisting a good pint as much as the next fellow, is surprisingly unstodgy for an elite gallerist whose father is the current U.S. ambassador to France. When she spoke recently with WW about her impending move, she was practically giddy.
WW: When is the big move?
Elizabeth Leach: The third week of October. It's a very clean-feeling space with large windows in the front that we're going to frost and concrete floors that we're going to polish. It won't have the warmth that the downtown gallery has; it'll have a more New York kind of feel. And for me, the best part of it will be no more renting! A partner and I are buying it together.
Who's the partner?
At the moment I shouldn't say, but this person is very committed to contemporary art, and, together, we have a great energy.
Will the snazzier, SoHo-style space affect how you curate your shows?
Oh, yes--they're going to be so cold and remote from now on! [Laughs.] You're going to have to be so well-dressed to get in! No, seriously, I have no idea. Perhaps, but I'll always be committed to the regional artists I represent. My whole focus is exporting regional talent and importing international talent, and that won't change.
The last major gallerist to move into a splashy new space in the Pearl was Tracy Savage, and as we all know, that gallery in that location was a spectacular failure. Does her example give you pause?
No. I'm a very good businesswoman. I balance my record books. I'm very careful about not overextending myself.
What about those who say the Pearl's already past its apex as an art district, that artists can't afford studios there anymore and have moved into Northeast and Southwest, leaving nothing but a bunch of yuppies in their wake?
Well, there's no question that it's more chichi now. It's not an artist-studio type of community. But some of the strongest galleries in the city are there. PNCA's there with all its students. And PICA's still there. That being said, whatever issues are facing the Pearl as a neighborhood, I'm looking forward to helping identify them and deal with them. I'm a community-oriented person.
After 23 years in the Portland art scene, what's your take on where we are now?
I think the whole dynamic is very exciting, but I'd like to see more dialogue, more edge and more rigor from Portland artists. I'd like to see them be tougher, put more demands on themselves and connect ideas together into complete thoughts. A lot of the artists here think they can have one or two good shows in Portland and then be ready for a show in L.A. or New York. Huh-uh.