April 9th, 2009 5:33 pm | by RICHARD SPEER News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, Business

Mark Woolley Gallery to Close May 30

Mark Woolley Miami 2

After 15 years in business, the Mark Woolley Gallery will close on May 30th, after a final group show. The gallery becomes the third major Portland gallery to close this year, after Quality Pictures foundered in January and Pulliam Deffenbaugh's directors announced in March they were ending their longtime run and restructuring into a new gallery to be called The Pulliam Gallery. For his part, Woolley says his gallery's closure is partly but not wholly due to the economic recession, and that he will remain in Portland as a private art dealer and arts impresario, mounting periodic shows at venues to be determined. This afternoon, he is telephoning and emailing his roster of 40-plus artists to inform them of the change. He says he hopes to continue representing at least a dozen of those artists on a freelance basis. The others, presumably, will now have to find representation elsewhere.

Details after the jump.Woolley's staff of four part-time employees has known he was exploring the possibility of closing since late March, as has his landlord, Augen Gallery director Bob Kochs, although those individuals signed confidentiality agreements at Woolley's request, stating they would not divulge details of the closure until Woolley formally announced his intentions. Kochs, whose downtown gallery adjoins Woolley's, tells WW there are several prospective tenants who might be interested in renting the space at 817 SW 2nd Ave., however, he would not say who those prospective tenants are. Kochs adds that he has been waiting for Woolley to make his official announcement before engaging in direct talks with potential renters.

In January and February, Woolley sought to find a business partner to share expenses and responsibilities for the gallery but was unable to find a suitable candidate. He maintains that the closure “is not just about the economy, and it's not about the rent I pay for the space—Bob Kochs has been offering me very generous rates and would have continued to do so.” While he concedes that art sales have declined since the recession took hold, he says that the decline “has not been a precipitous drop off.” His decision, he says, stems from a convergence of personal and professional issues, including his age (57), the recent death of his parents, a growing weariness with the logistics of mounting monthly shows, a desire to travel and attend more art fairs, and the belief that his talents would be better served by organizing periodic exhibitions in Portland and elsewhere. He will continue to be involved in the Wonder Ballroom complex, of which he is part owner and minority partner.

Matthew Picton: Untitled (2002)

Opened in December 1993, the Mark Woolley Gallery (known until 1995 as Acanthus Gallery) originally occupied a second-floor space in the Pearl District at 120 NW 9th Ave. In September 2005 Woolley opened a second location at 128 NE Russell St., underneath the Wonder Ballroom, whose restoration he had become involved with in 2004. Between September 2005 and August 2007, he operated his Pearl District and Wonder locations simultaneously, sharing the Wonder space with Guestroom Gallery, owned by Marilyn Murdoch. Citing skyrocketing rent, he closed the Pearl space in December 2006, operating solely out of the Wonder space until September 2007, when he moved to his current perch in the downtown space formerly occupied by Froelick Gallery. In hindsight, Woolley feels that these musical-chairs-like relocations were not good for his business. “For many of my longtime clients, it was confusing. People would ask, ‘Now, where exactly are you now?'”

Born in Medford and educated at Lewis & Clark College, Woolley was a social studies teacher in Scio, Oregon, and Portland for 15 years before transitioning to education nonprofits and eventually the art world. Since that entrée, he has by all appearances enjoyed playing the role of the glamorous, party-hopping gallerist. The blue van he used to transport art between 1999 and 2007 bore a vanity license plate that read, “ARTGUY.” Colorful and loquacious, he is known as a social butterfly with a fondness for neon-colored shirts, purple jeans, and glitter-spangled shoes, and can often be found on the dance floor of local night clubs, his attire competing with the disco ball for sheer glitz. In its Pearl District heyday, his gallery was often still going strong at 11:30pm on First Thursdays, and was so popular with art scenesters that three different couples opted to be married there.

His wide social network and eye for art—especially Outsider art and work that addresses socially conscious and sexually transgressive themes—have added heft to his presence on the local radar. Painter Debra Beers' assemblages depicting homeless youth, Marne Lucas' pinup and beefcake portraits, damali ayo's explorations of racism, Stephen Scott Smith's inquiry into narcissism and identity, and poet/painter Walt Curtis' gonzo genitalic fantasias all showed Woolley's willingness to display art that might unsettle more conservative viewers. Other prominent local artists who were at one point, or still are, part of Woolley's stable include M.K. Guth, David Eckard, Joe Thurston, Jacob and Arnold Pander, Lauren Mantecon, Tom Cramer, Bruce West, Tom Hardy, Anne Grgich, and the estate of Abstract Expressionist Ralph Rosenborg. Conceptual sculptor Matthew Picton's self-titled 2002 show at the gallery and feminist sculptor Julia Fenton's 2003 outing, Devices and Desires, stand out in particular as among the most intellectually engaging, visually gratifying solo shows mounted in Portland during the last decade.

Julia Fenton: Devices and Desires (2003)

It is noteworthy that Devices and Desires, according to Woolley, did not sell a single piece. Neither did many other important shows he exhibited. It is both Woolley's strength and flaw as a commercial gallerist that he has often operated his space as a nonprofit, forgoing profits if he feels a larger community interest is being served. By his count, he has donated use of his gallery a whopping 283 times over 15 years, lending it at no charge to organizations putting on public events such as film screenings, poetry readings, and music recitals. “The thing I've enjoyed the most,” he says, “has been educating and provoking and promoting dialogue in the community... Sometimes people ask me, ‘How's the show going?', but what they mean is, ‘How's the show selling?' I look at it in a broader sense. If we've gotten all kinds of visitors to think and talk about the way art affects our culture, then to me, that's every bit as successful as a show that has tons of red dots.”

The gallery's last exhibition will be a group show entitled I Coulda Been a Collecta! and will close May 30. This summer Woolley says he will restructure his business, attend the Venice Biennale art exhibition in Italy, and plan new shows as a private art dealer—though he bristles at that characterization. “When you say ‘private dealer,' that connotes someone sitting in a dark office in Manhattan with a cellphone, selling art to George Clooney in Lake Como.” He pauses. “Actually, that doesn't sound half bad.”

Top image of Mark Woolley courtesy of Richard Speer.
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