Twenty years ago, a dozen local painters, photographers and fine crafts makers banded together to form an artists’ cooperative. They called their co-op Avenue West Gallery, based simply on its location on West First Avenue in downtown Spokane.
“The name just sounded good, and back then, we thought it was smart to start it with an ‘A’ so we would come up first in the phone book,” said watercolorist Cheryl Halverson, who joined Avenue West during its flagship year in 2003.
The space itself was nothing fancy – a room located near the Fox Theater. But it was a step in the right direction for painter Keiko Von Holt, who also became a co-op member 20 years ago.
“Dian Zahner was the organizer and leader, and she explained that she paints, I paint, other friends paint, but we don’t have a place to show,” Von Holt said. “Avenue West would be a place for a nice little group of people who have the same big ideas.”
Those big ideas, churning with creative purpose and vitality, will be on full display at the gallery’s 20th anniversary celebration and art show on Saturday, from noon to 5 p.m. (The gallery, now located at 907 W. Boone, is open every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
According to Von Holt, who served as official historian of Avenue West over the years, the original mission of the cooperative included “filling an artistic niche” in the community and in the Spokane Art District as a whole. According to a 2003 draft of the organization’s initial goals, Avenue West was also a place where “worthy yet undiscovered artists and craftspeople” could share their passions with the greater Spokane community.
“When you finish a painting, our big joke was that without a gallery, you would put it under the bed to store,” Von Holt said. “We all needed a place to show and to share with other people.”
Avenue West was a hit right away, attracting a strong roster of talented artists, including Patti Osebold, Olivia Waterman, Nadine Kay Sherman, Michael Folsom, Charlotte Yocum, Dan Hess, Linda Lowry, and the energetic Zahner, whose death in 2017 devastated the membership. Several of the artists who first joined in the early days were members of the Spokane Watercolor Society, or had participated in Art on the Green or in annual Christmas arts shows.
What all the members had in common was their hunger to show more works, and to show more often. Everyone in the co-op agreed that as full owners, they would share the burden of rent and maintenance, and actively promote First Friday shows to their friends, families and art lovers.
Being a part of a co-op is not for everyone, painter and current Avenue West member Ladd Bjorneby said.
“I think sometimes people join us and think they can just write a check and we will hang (their art) on the wall for them, and folks will come in and buy it, but it doesn’t work that way,” he said. “We invite our friends and neighbors, and help each other, and do all we can to let people know about the shows, because this is not like a business that does it all for us. We work cooperatively.”
That can-do spirit has helped Avenue West become the second longest-running fine arts cooperative in Spokane, with Pottery Place Plus being the oldest. The first major storm Avenue West had to weather was the 2008 recession, which struck shortly after the gallery was forced by landlord-planned renovations to move to a new spot on Monroe next to the Brooklyn Deli. With less parking and a shrinking number of patrons able to afford to buy art, the co-op struggled to survive.
“Oh my, it was desperate times after the 2008 disaster,” North Idaho painter Halverson said. “It was good we were a co-op and shared the responsibilities.”
In 2012, the gallery moved again, this time to the second floor of the Crescent Court building on West Main Avenue. The third and final move came in 2015, when Avenue West relocated north of the Spokane River, landing at its location at 907 W. Boone Ave., not far from Kendall Yards. The co-op is no longer near First Avenue, but the name still works somehow. Its reference to the wide-open West embodies the creativity of the region and the artists themselves
Today Avenue West boasts easy access from the street, with ample parking nearby and space enough to show the members’ paintings, photography, woodworking, fabric arts, jewelry, pottery, metal sculpture, greeting cards and more. Every month, one wall is reserved for “feature” or guest artists.
Member Bjorneby described the vibe at Avenue West as “the kind of art that people wanna see” when they search for beauty. “A lot of galleries today rely on being edgy,” Bjorneby said. “But Avenue West’s art is more peaceful and serene, with a depth of emotion and a high standard of quality.”
Bjorneby’s watercolor paintings of wildlife and landscapes of his native Montana will be among the works of all the members on display when the gallery holds it 20th Anniversary party and show. Other member artists showing include Carol Schmauder, Marsha Marcuson, Katie Densely, Jim Bauer, Bari Federspiel, Mary Caruso, Jerry Mudge, Pat Schilling, Elizabeth Scott, Jerry White, Maya Kelly, Julie Hart and Fred Bommer.
Saturday’s event will dedicate its regular feature wall to the works of two painters and former members Von Holt and Halverson. Both women use watercolors to depict the vibrancy and poignancy of the natural world.
Von Holt’s pieces, reflecting both Eastern and Western cultures, are inspired by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest and her memories of her native Japan. She also plans to show some of her sumi-e works, which embody the Japanese art of bold, calligraphy-like brush strokes and ink painting.
Halverson’s works will mostly include paintings from her earlier days, before she struggled with an eye disease that slowed her down in recent years. With a background in science and a love for the outdoors, Halverson’s works are inspired by nature and its mysteries. She enjoys exploring intersections and boundaries, such as the sunlit edge of an open glade meeting a dark forest wall. Or the curl of a petal in the sun.
The gallery’s second Saturday celebration will have a dual purpose for members – to sell art, obviously, but also just to enjoy each other’s company.
“We are also of course planning for the next 20 years,” Bjorneby said . “We are continually trying to figure out how to not be the best-kept secret in Spokane.”