Elizabeth Leach was 24 when she arrived in Portland in 1981, with an artist husband and new baby. She had an art history degree, a good sense of business passed down from her father, and a pressing need to start generating income.
She saw in Portland a city that was a great place to live but that was lacking in the visual arts. In particular, it was devoid of galleries bringing in national level art. And there, she saw an opportunity. But was there a market?
Undeterred by the risks—and without any previous experience in doing it—she opened the Elizabeth Leach Gallery in downtown Portland. As Leach recalls it, it was “A big leap of faith. Huge. Huge.”
“So I just started cold calling. I was in a survival mode. I knew 10 people in the city but had 75 people at the opening. There was a hunger for more galleries. And we were bringing in work from out of town. But then we met all these artists from here that were doing amazing work but weren’t showing here, because the venues were so limited at that point.”
Leach ultimately decided to foster a delicate balance between reaching and curating a collector group, stimulating the market, and creating an opportunity for the artists living here. Her mission became importing important national and international work while at the same time exporting quality regional work to a larger and broader audience, thus creating a brand new art market in Portland.
“There was a need for an ‘energetic’ gallery—the standard of what people look for when they look at a national level gallery—where the art was always well spaced”, Leach adds. “But it was ahead of its time. People were asking, ‘Do you have more inventory?'”
But Leach stayed the course despite being so far ahead of the curve – perseverance was to be a hallmark of her business style and philosophy. That philosophy extended to the name of the gallery.
“I didn’t name it after myself out of ego, but because of accountability. So that when people bought a piece of art, they knew who they were buying it from. They knew they could bank on that person’s reputation, in terms of backing up the quality, the resale, and the value.”
It took nearly 20 years before Portland’s education process was complete and the market was “made,” but she survived by selling enough pieces to keep it going, “month by month.”
Leach notes, “The art business is like every other business, and it isn’t like every other business. One person can walk through the door and pay enough money to pay your bills.”
Carrying on with guile and grace
Eventually, Leach moved the gallery to its current location in the Pearl (on NW 9th, among a cluster of other galleries), and it thrives their today. But not before gutting it out during the “Great Recession” of 2008 with another strong dose of perseverance and guile.
In a trendy, cyclical business like art, Leach has relied on several essentials to survival in addition to perseverance and accountability, and they apply to any business.
“Stay fresh. Refresh yourself. Don’t take anything for granted. Don’t sit back and be comfortable. You can’t EVER be comfortable. Particularly in the arts, I think that’s exciting, because it’s about curiosity, and reflecting an ever-changing world.”
She advises artists looking to break out commercially to “keep working, keep producing, keep making.”
Leach adds “The trick is staying ahead of the curve—and not pandering to the market.”
There’s also something refreshingly old-school about her strong belief in common courtesy and follow through, making a point to personally answer all her phone calls, letters and emails.
And best of all, there’s also a cultural community element that Leach has nurtured over these 34 years, ultimately reflective of the Oregon way of giving back and supporting great causes.
“By bringing in outside quality art—and by saying art is worth supporting—customers are buying an object that enhances their lives, and can transform them in the process, and also support a community that gives back. Who gives to charity auctions? Galleries and artists.”
“I’ve never met more giving people than artists. They would give you the shirts off their backs”
Long may this giving community thrive—and persevere—in the Oregon art market that Elizabeth Leach played such a major role in creating and nurturing.