Owner Élan Chardin talks about the decision to close and the current state of the Ashland arts community
Ashland’s oldest fine art gallery, founded by Judy Howard in 1979, plans to end its brick and mortar presence by the end of the year. Hanson Howard Gallery is located between Main Street and Lithia Way, one block from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) theater complex, and is known as a cornerstone of Ashland’s arts community.
This is one of many significant losses for Ashland this year, as downtown businesses of all sorts shutter, in large part due to a decline in the tourist economy. Wildfire smoke and the pandemic were significant setbacks and OSF is working through its own issues.
It’s true that arts ecologies naturally evolve and adapt over time; Ashland has some newer faces, such as the Gambrel Gallery and the steadfast institution of the Schneider Museum of Art at Southern Oregon University. But Hanson Howard represents many local artists in a friendly neighborhood manner, so I packed up some hope and went to visit Hanson Howard owner Élan Chardin.
Georgina: Élan, I received a very disconcerting email that the gallery is closing. First, is it true? It wasn’t a fake email? And if it is, you have shows with Olga Volchkova and Marjorie Taylor coming up in October, so how much time do we have?
Élan: Yes, we’ll stop at the end of October. And then we’ll just put up the gallery artists and try to get as much work in here for the last two weeks. We typically break for Thanksgiving and so we’ll just close at that point.
Georgina: What was the watershed moment for this big decision?
Élan: Yes, it was a big decision and it’s due to a combination of things. But what ultimately made the decision for me was this building, which has been for sale for a year and a half, finally sold. I got the news that we were evicted as part of that sale. We have until March, but the season slows down in December, so we made the difficult decision to finish before then.
The combination of things is that Ashland was hit so hard by the pandemic. When people didn’t return immediately in the same numbers to the theater and to support the tourist-based economy, Ashland didn’t recover at the same pace as other communities.
The Hanson Howard Gallery is not unusual in that a lot of small businesses are starting to close right now. Funds have run out. Things are not snapping back. Accounts are depleted, and I’m not in a position to find another space to lease. When I looked around the town, rents are significantly higher. The thought is that we wait and perhaps we can find another space in the future if the economy gets its feet back under it.
Georgina: Considering the number of closures right now, you might sadly have the option of a prime choice of spot. RAW (a mainstay raw foods café) just closed last month. Ashland Art Center closed during the pandemic. Golden Grove Collective (@goldengroveshop) just announced their imminent closure. Mountain Provisions and Little Tokyo closed due to the 2022 fire in their building. Mezcal (an upscale Mexican restaurant) is now closed.
Élan: Hanson Howard is also part of the Ashland Gallery Association which sponsors the First Friday Art Walk. We are one of the main galleries in that event.
One of the things the Association has been trying to do is both bolster the theater and the arts scene. Ashland is always trying to diversify a little bit so that we don’t depend so heavily on the theater. It’s a complex web. If we don’t have a big First Friday event we aren’t eligible for Ashland tourism grants. Similarly, the theater is the draw that brings people to town who participate in those events, so if the theater isn’t having a good season, we lose visitors in the galleries.
We do have the Gallery Association though and the Public Arts Council, and lots of artists. Just few galleries.
Georgina: It sounds as if you’re harboring a little ember of a hope that somehow Ashland will rekindle. If Hanson Howard closes, we still have the Schneider Gallery at SOU, the newer Gambrel Gallery and Annex .…
Élan: There’s Ashland Art Works on Oak Street. Art and Soul Collective and the Fiber Collective. American Trails and Gypsy Road on Main Street and the Siskiyou Gallery House. There are some alternative spaces and lots of artist’s studios. Hanson Howard is one of the last, maybe the last, gallery that operated on the representational model. And I did think of shifting to a membership model, but I don’t like the idea of charging artists.
Georgina: Which brings me to my next question. What has the reaction been from the 35-40 artists that you represent?
Élan: Everybody’s really really disappointed, of course. Some of the artists, such as Wataru Sugiyama, John and Robin Gumaelius, and Christian Burchard have been here since the beginning or at least decades. The artists understand the dilemma and not being able to find another space, and many people have offered alternative solutions.
A lot of our artists aren’t represented anywhere else and I’m working to point them in appropriate directions for that. Some of our artists, Jon Jay Cruson for example, are already represented by galleries in other parts of the state. (Cruson is represented by Freed Gallery in Lincoln City, White Lotus in Eugene, Mary Lou Zeek in Salem, and the Rental Sales Gallery at the Portland Art Museum.)
Georgina: That seems to be the most helpful thing you can do at this point. In terms of the wider Ashland community, has your closing been announced generally?
Élan: I sent it out to our email list, tucked away in the newsletter. I’ve done a soft delivery of this on the Hanson Howard Instagram (@hanson_howard_gallery). I don’t want to override the announcement of the upcoming shows. Olga Volchkova and Marjorie Taylor have been working hard for this all year. So once the shows are up and we’ve promoted that, then there will be six weeks or so left to say “this is what’s happening with the gallery.” But, the news is out there.
The other thing is answering the questions, which is a little bit difficult because how to speak about your own closure and remain optimistic for what comes next. And to acknowledge how this feels for everybody.
Georgina: It’s a sort of parental role, being a gallerist for these artists and for the Ashland arts community. The Hanson Howard Gallery has been here since 1979. What is gallery founder Judy Howard’s reaction to this decision?
Élan: Judy and I were just talking this week: she retired during the pandemic but still keeps in contact. The Gallery is in its 45th year and Judy completely understands the ins and outs of the business. We’ve been expecting it. We’ve been chatting about it. She’s on the same page. She just sees how it has to go at this point. I was the optimist who thought we could make it through the pandemic.
Georgina: And what are your plans after this?
Élan: I teach drawing at SOU. I’m going to go into my studio because it’s been hard to find the time for my own practice when I was also an adjunct and a gallerist. I’ll let this all digest and see if something else opens up.
I grew up in Roseburg, and it had a very different feel and attitude about it. And I feel a part of the Ashland community in a way I never did in Roseburg; for me it’s because of the arts. I’ve been hearing from a lot of people that they can’t envision Ashland losing the arts. The arts are a big part of why many people moved here. I’m hearing that a lot. And I think at some point, Ashland is going to revive. There’s buzz of upcoming projects.
Georgina: For this space in particular?
Élan: Not this space. This space was sold (along with the shuttered restaurant next door) as an expansion opportunity for the restaurant. It’s uncertain whether the buyer will develop this space in that way. There’s a very small, slim chance that the buyer could choose to negotiate with me before the Gallery leaves, but right now that isn’t possible due to the legalities of commercial real estate.
I’m working on putting the Hanson Howard Gallery online, which is a bunch of different considerations. How to show the relations between a body of work online? How to make it interesting? It’s not this gallery model. But it’s a way to continue.
Georgina Ruff is an art historian of modern and contemporary art and technology. She earned her doctoral degree in Art History from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2020. This article originally appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch.