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Artistic vision: Gallery owner celebrates three decades of guiding local artists

10 Questions for Elizabeth Leach
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Elizabeth Leach is celebrating 30 years as a gallery owner with the exhibits, "Shape of the Problem," at three venues this month. "The whole thing in contemporary age is what's underneath," Leach says.

When Elizabeth Leach Gallery opened, only about three of four art galleries existed in Portland.

'There weren't that many galleries, but there were a ton of artists,' says Leach, who, four years out of college, opened her gallery in 1981 at the Haseltine Building in downtown.

'There weren't as many artists as now, but they were hard to find. Our whole mission was to bring in national and international artists and export regional artists, create a contact for the regional artist and opportunities for collectors and artists here - foster an art community that wasn't existing prior to opening.'

Today, Elizabeth Leach Gallery, in the Pearl District at 417 N.W. Ninth Ave., stands as one of the oldest showcases of art in Portland, 'and I'm still young,' says Leach, 54. 'I have a lot of energy.'

The gallery has celebrated its 30th anniversary with shows each month, but Leach and her people have been looking forward to August all year. 'The Shape of the Problem' exhibits highlight the celebration, at three different venues: Elizabeth Leach Gallery Exhibition, Aug. 4-27 with a First Thursday opening at 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4; Dinh Q. Lê's 'Imaginary Country' at Reed College's Cooley Gallery, Aug. 5-7, with the opening at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 5; and Pacific Northwest College of Art's Feldman Gallery Exhibition, Aug. 6-22, with an opening at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 6.

Exhibits feature about 70 artists, examining exploration, self-expression, formal concerns, questions about identity, optimism, accumulation, exuberance and deconstruction, as well as linking the past with the future. Works will be on display from artists such as Lee Kelly, Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Sol Lewitt, Fred Sandback, Sarah Cain, Joseph Park, Stephen Hayes, Judy Cooke, Christopher Rauschenberg, Malia Jensen, Hap Tivey, PNCA professors Robert Hanson, MK Guth and Ryan Pierce, PICA's Kristan Kennedy, Bonnie Bronson and the much acclaimed Dinh Q. Lê. Elizabeth Leach Gallery was the first to show Lê's commercial work; Lê currently has a collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Basically, it'll be a lot of favorites from Leach's years in the art business. A $48,000 Matisse work is part of the show.

The Tribune caught up with Leach, a native of Monterey, Calif., to talk about her gallery and other art topics:

Tribune: Who got you started in the art business?

Leach: I met Hap Tivey in Los Angeles when I was going to school there, and he introduced me to many people in the bigger art world. I met people in Los Angeles and New York. I planned on being an art writer and curator, I didn't intend to get into the commercial aspect. But, it works. I still make time to read and go to museums. In this field, you can grow your whole life. You can be intellectually and emotionally involved. Art reflects the time we live in.

Tribune: You've seen a lot of changes in art in your time? What's next?

Leach: In painting, for instance, the idea was to go from modernism of the 1950s to abstract expressionism to minimalism. Then you had all kinds of things - figurative and other - and now painting is going into deconstructivism, things torn apart. People says it's going back to minimalism. People say painting's dead. It's never dead. People love paint, so do artists. We'll always see painting.

Tribune: The Pearl District art scene has exploded in recent years with First Thursday openings. It was a good move, then, to buy a gallery there in 2004?

Leach: I was able to buy this building. I loved the Haseltine Building. It had a 70-foot-high ceiling, hardwood floors. But this was an opportunity. It helped anchor the art community, helped create opportunities for other galleries to open near me. You saw a movement here when the real estate was still affordable.

Tribune: Has the art business survived the economic downturn?

Leach: It definitely goes up and down. It's unpredictable. The real collectors are still coming out and buying. Our base is in Oregon, but also outside of Oregon. The corporations are coming back, which is great. I do think everybody's affected psychologically by national (economic) news. There definitely was an economic impact after October 2008, but it's built back. When people want something, they're coming in and still buying

Tribune: In 30 years you've probably witnessed some local artists explode nationally?

Leach: I would say I helped Jim Lavadour create a market when we started showing his work in the mid-1990s. His paintings were $500, within five years $3,500. That was fun - to take a regional artist and help him expand, really take off. Dinh Q. Le, who's Vietnamese, had photo weavings for under $10,000. Now they're over $35,000. Other young artists start at $500 and get to $5,000.

Tribune: Any particular works you've enjoyed in the past 30 years?

Leach: We did a show called 'Paint' about five years ago, with gorgeous painting by Joan Mitchell, who's quite famous. We had a regional artist Judy Cooke, another Willy Heeks, as well as Pat Steir and Louise Fishman. It was a juicy show. … The 20th anniversary was a colorfield show with Hans Hofmann and Helen Frankenthaler. That was amazing. It got offered to me by a gallery in New York, and I went back there with my kids and picked the pieces. … For the 25th anniversary, we did a show on collage. That was really great.

Tribune: Was your goal to be a locally recognized gallery, nationally or internationally?

Leach: I see myself as a West Coast gallery, but my peer group is national. I have relationships with galleries all over the country and in Europe. My goal is to be respected by my peer group, and help people build collections, find art they love. Collectors are different than consumers; we do get people who just want to buy something to put over their fireplace, and that's great. I also work for my artists.

Tribune: What are the keys for the novice art observer in appreciating art?

Leach: Walking into a gallery or museum and having an open mind, go in with the idea that you're going to enjoy the experience, that you're going to learn something and expand your horizons. You don't have to know everything when you walk into a gallery. The reason a gallery is here is to serve as a bridge or interpreter for the art. Feel free to ask questions. All questions are valid.

Tribune: There's a difference between art appreciation in the United States and Europe?

Leach: In Europe, people love looking at the art and they're confident enough to just respond to the art work. They ask questions about what the artist is thinking or about the body of work. In the United States, most everybody wants to know where the artist went to school, how old is the artist, where did the artist show.

Tribune: You're at the forefront of the Portland art scene, but you're not an artist yourself?

Leach: I studied art history, I'm a published author, and my dream was always to be involved with the arts. It evolved into opening a gallery. I love people, love art, love to travel; I get to two or three cities a month, mostly West Coast along with New York. I like business. It's a nice mix of lots of things that keeps me really engaged. I did watercolor, and a little bit of oil and collage. But studying history of art allows me to know good artists when I see them. I understand which artists are unique. That's what I look for: strong, unique vision.