By Shu-Ju Wang
Below, Laura Russell at 23 Sandy Gallery during The Quiet Fire, an exhibit of Stewart Harvey’s photographs of Burning Man.
After hearing through the grapevine that Laura Russell, artist and gallery owner, had been singing the praises of Portland Open Studios, I talked to Laura to find out more.
LR: Portland Open Studios is one of the best things I ever did for my gallery and for my career.
SJW: In what ways?
LR: I was new to Portland, had been here 6 months, maybe 9 months. I didn’t know anyone, didn’t have any contacts. When I participated in Portland Open Studios, 250 people came through my studio in one weekend. Not only did they purchase my artist’s books and photographs, they also signed up for my mailing list, and they’ve been following my career ever since. When the gallery opened, they were also the first people to come to the gallery, and they’ve been coming every month.”
SJW: That’s very organized, to have created a mailing list from your first Portland Open Studios weekend.
LR: Organized to a fault, but it works and I won’t be here today without it. Artists have to find a way to do the business side.
SJW: When did you decide to open a gallery?
LR: I’ve wanted to do it for 10 years. I was inspired by a couple in Denver who owned side-by-side businesses in a cute commercial duplex — Fred’s Barbershop on one side and Ethel’s Beauty Shop on the other. Steve (Laura’s husband) and I were going to be Fred & Ethel, too, with Steve’s commercial real estate business on one side and my art gallery on the other side. Whenever we saw a cute little space, we talked about it. Over the years, it evolved into a dream of a live and work place. After we had been in Portland for 2 years, we started looking around for a potential space, and within a week we found the right place.
SJW: Did you always know it would be a photography gallery because you’re photographer?
LR: I always knew it’d be a combination of photography & bookarts, the two mediums work together really well and I want to go with what I know. The third thing I show twice a year is graphic arts.
SJW: You were featured in the Oregonian A&E section as one of the movers & shakers (“the power 9”) of the Portland photography scene. How do you feel about that? And since you’re relatively new to Portland and the gallery is new, how do you go from being new to being “the power 9”?
LR: That is all about business. I knew I had to work really hard because I’m in an odd location, so PR is important. I’ve spent a huge amount of time on PR for the gallery which has really paid off. DK Row has written about the gallery
several times. A lot of the success is due to a professional approach to PR — be consistent with press releases, make contact with local publications, find out how they like their press releases, find out what types of information they need, and follow through. I worked really hard to establish an identity and to get press for every show; I target marketing efforts carefully and send them to the people who are interested in that particular medium or subject.
SJW: Do you feel more pressure, now that you’ve been named a mover & shaker?
LR: It did make me think a bit more about what I’d do for 2009.
SJW: Given that in a relatively short time in Portland, you’ve achieved an enviable amount of success, do you have any advice to other artists?
LR: They have to realize that they’re in business and treat it as a business to make a living. I took what came out of Portland Open Studios and used it in a lot of different ways. I have a mission to promote book arts, and events like Portland Open Studios really introduce people to book arts. It’s great to sell my own work, to build a customer base in Portland, and to promote book arts. The better people are educated about it, the better the market place will be.
SJW: Anything else?
LR: I’d tell every artist to do Portland Open Studios — it’s good for business and it’s good for ‘stroking’, and all artists need both. I’d tell them to get involved, the more involved you are, the more you get out of it. You never know when the contacts you make will come back and help you. Portland Open Studios is one of the best things I’ve done, and one of my favorite events to go to; I try to visit as many artists as I can every year.
To read DK Row’s piece about the key players in the Portland photography scene, please go to Oregonian’s Visual Arts Blog.
To apply to the 2009 Portland Open Studios, please go to http://www.portlandopenstudios.com/apply.html.
Below, 23 Sandy Gallery, located at 623 NE 23rd Avenue, Portland, Oregon.