Taking a Chance on Art

As other arts businesses struggle in Eugene and elsewhere, Karin Clarke Gallery opens a new branch at 5th Street Market Expansion 

The last time Karin Clarke opened a second gallery was in 2005. Called the Karin Clarke Gallery Annex, it was located across the street from the Karin Clarke Gallery she operates now on Willamette Street. Because she couldn’t afford to hire extra staff, she used to close one shop when someone wanted to see art at the other, and then run across the street. 

It was “a little stressful,” she says. The annex closed in 2014. 

The main reason she is able to try a second gallery now, she says, is because of Jordan Stanaway, her assistant of almost a year. Stanaway will be gallery manager at the new Karin Clarke at the Gordon gallery, which is posed to open in February — a specific date hasn’t yet been set —at the 5th Street Market Expansion. 

Meeting with Clarke over Zoom, there was some technological problem with audio she eventually resolved with Stanaway’s assistance. I asked if Stanaway’s technological know-how was helping the gallery to stay afloat during the pandemic.  

Stanaway says that though she is relatively young at 28, she is of that generation that just missed growing up with cell phones. So she had a learning curve, same as Clarke, for managing the gallery through social media.

The good news is some of what they learned on the fly will translate beyond the days of coronavirus restrictions. The week we spoke, for example, the two women had given a virtual tour to an interested party in Mexico, which they’d never done before social distancing was put into effect. 

Despite the pandemic, most of Clarke’s business has continued to be in person. Clarke stresses she is careful. Though she’s still keeping the gallery open, most of her clientele call ahead for appointments, so often there is only one customer in the gallery at a time. 

Clarke, who opened her Willamette Street gallery in 2002, has had success showing art individually and with online platforms that showcase artist and collectors’ talks, but she says she misses her opening receptions, in which visitors mill around informally, perhaps getting to know the artist or other collectors. 

And though technology has come a long way, it still can’t deliver Clarke’s husband Michael John’s homemade apple and pear hard ciders. Made with fruit from his orchard, the cider can be sampled by the public only at a Karin Clarke art opening. 

Clarke has long been trying to figure out how to draw more attention to her downtown space. Though she has a loyal clientele who follow the Oregon artists she represents — including her parents, artists Mark Clarke (1935-2016) and Margaret Coe — the gallery does not get much foot traffic. By contrast, the new space at 5th Street Market will be within close proximity, she says, to three new hotels, two new distilleries and a winery.     

The new location, at 250 square feet with another 300 square feet outside, will highlight mostly smaller works, ones that can be handily stowed in suitcases as souvenirs from Eugene. And rather than hosting exhibits that feature individual artists, Clarke will display a wide variety of works by artists she already represents. 

She also hopes the new gallery might entice visitors to walk the few blocks downtown to the main gallery — and one day, perhaps, to attend a Friday night opening reception.    

How does Clarke feel about opening a new gallery during this difficult moment? Given we’re seeing temporary and permanent closures of other galleries and stores, isn’t this a strange time to be opening a business of any kind, especially a gallery? 

Yes, Clarke admits, she does get butterflies. Sometimes she stays up at night wondering if the new place will succeed. But ultimately she feels optimistic about the opportunity. It’s one she felt she couldn’t pass by. 

She says she had to take the risk.

Given the events of the past year, she is grateful for her health and the continued success of her downtown store. She is aware, too, that there are worse things that can happen than having a gallery fail. 

“I’ll be happy if the new place just pays for itself.” And she says, “Who knows? It could be a great success.” 

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