Coast Weekend: December 5, 2007
The Art of 10: Astoria's largest and oldest art gallery celebrates a decade in business
by Kate Giese for Coast Weekend
Embodying the successful mix of art, community and commerce, RiverSea Gallery is Astoria's largest and oldest
It's considered by many to be the hub of the Astoria art scene. Located in the heart of downtown in an old storefront on Commercial Street, the gallery has represented many artists over the years. This year, RiverSea celebrates its 10th anniversary with a group show opening Dec. 1, with the evocative theme, "The Art of 10."
Upon entering, one is struck by RiverSea's eclectic assemblage of art. Featured are original artworks and fine craft pieces that reflect "the creative spirit of the Northwest," as the gallery's Web site proclaims. Painting, printmaking, photography, sculture, art glass, woodworking, ceramics, fiber art, furniture and one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces are represented.
At the gallery's core is owner and curator Jeannine Grafton's philosophy of art as "a communication process" which speaks to us extrinsically through still lifes or landscapes (like the plein air paintings of Katy Grant Hanson), for example, or in the more nonrepresentational way of abstract art (as exemplified in some of artist Nick Knapton's work). Her overarching vision for RiverSea involves developing it as a destination gallery for the Northwest, supporting the regional arts community and working to increase the stature of Astoria as cultural destination.
Having always wanted to do "something in retail," Grafton worked for a gallery in Portland for 17 years, doing publicity for artists with upcoming shows and handling promotional events. Moving to the Astoria area in 1993, she was "very taken with the scale of downtown." It seemed to her a city poised "on the edge of change" but retaining an old-fashioned charm. She soon went to work for the acclaimed Ricciardi Gallery (no longer operating), and after leaving in early 1997, began to lay the groundwork for the opening and successful operation of RiverSea.
An art gallery owner is also an art dealer with not one but three potential beneficiaries of his or her services: clients (the people who buy art), artists, and the field of art itself. Grafton has proved herself adept at managing all three and is both a savvy businesswoman and tireless spokesperson for the community. She and her staff take care of artists' needs and the presentation of artwork and labor to "grow collectors." She does all the regional advertising and marketing herself, among other tasks. She's also been known to scour the city for crates, boxes and assorted shipping materials on accasion. As compensation, the gallery receives a percentage from the sale of artwork.
The space for RiverSea was aquired in 1997. Two years later, the gallery's central exhibit room was added, absorbing what used to be the sewing room for a clothing boutique next door. After the boutique moved away in 2004, an extensive expansion and remodel brought RiverSea's space to pretty much what you'll find today. Within 3,500 square feet of exhibit space, there are three main exhibit areas and soothing curved apertures and walls, which "tend to draw people through the space," Grafton says. The central area now accommodates quite a large show - often two or three exhibits at once.
Removing 10-foot ceilings, installed by a previous owner opened up the gallery space wonderfully, revealing a "bonus" transom and bringing in lots of light. It essentially "transformed the entire by connecting it to the ceiling space," says Grafton. The gallery began selling more large pieces after the change. All the renovations sought to honor the original structure, she added.
RiverSea exhibits change each month and typically feature individual artists or themed group shows. The tradition of an annual juried show began in January 2002 with "Ode to Big Red." This referred to an old net loft building and Astoria landmark.. One artist took fascinating photos of the structure's pilings, playing with light and shadow. Even some of the artists who weren't from this area captured the essence of the spot in their work, "creating a wonderful sense of the place," Grafton remembers. Artists have total free reign over how a particular theme is explored through their work on these occasions. The shows are juried by a regionally prominent artist or collector. All kinds of artists - not just painters - participate.
These exhibits do much to help emerging artists who might otherwise have difficulty getting their work displayed. Combining their work with that of someone who's established in a single show "lifts up what we have here," maintains Grafton. Her sipport for new artists is well known in the community. She credits Clatsop Community College's Art Center Gallery and the Astoria Visual Arts Gallery with also helping to launch the careers of a generation of new artists.
Asked about notable moments at the gallery, Grafton recalls the time movie actress Naomi Watts visited RiverSea while in town making "The Ring 2." She bought a walnut desk and several "large format" paintings and was, according to Grafton, "a good negotiator."
Perhaps Grafton's favorite gallery happening occurred in August 2005 in the form of "Dinner with Harry." A catered sit-down dinner in the central exhibition room honored local artist Harry Bennett during a show of his latest work. Joined by a couple dozen friends and collectors, Bennett and company shared a convivial evening dining on pasta from Fulio's Pastaria and surrounded by the artost's work.
The ability to look at a piece of art and be able to say pithy, knowing things about it like a real art aficionado starts with having "the interest," according to Grafton, "but even more important is developing an emotional connection with any artwork." Novices should take the time to explore and ask any and all questions. Art as a visual medium, she explains, is "another channel into our being." Thanks to RiverSea and what Grafton describes as the area's "vibrant and diverse" art scene, North Coast residents may choose to take that journey.