“Renaissance” is a word you hear a lot of around the shops and coffeehouses of Astoria these days. What was once a relatively sleepy oceanside burg known mostly for its appearances in movies like The Goonies, Kindergarten Cop and Free Willy, has in the last decade become a destination spot for tourists and a showplace for some very upscale and contemporary art.
The town has had rebirths before. It nearly burned down twice, once in 1883 and again in 1922, and it rebuilt both times. Bounded on three sides by water and backing up against protected forestlands, the town’s physical growth is pretty much constrained.
One reason for Astoria’s health and artistic vibrancy is its relatively easy access to both Portland and Seattle. Aside from being a well-recognized landmark, the Astoria Bridge carries Highway 101 across the mouth of the Columbia River and links Oregon and Washington, providing a steady stream of tourists through the city center.
A number of artists live in and around Astoria. Many of them have their works on display locally but the major galleries in town are anything but provincial, with showings from notable artists from around the Northwest and farther afield.
Tom Benenati is an artist who works in pastels. Some of his pieces are on display at the RiverSea Gallery, where they join a varied mix of 2- and 3-D wall art as well as a smaller front-of-store selection of handicrafts and wearable art items. He lives and works in Washington, on Long Beach peninsula, and one of the main things that attracts him to Astoria as a place to display his work is the sense of community.
“This gallery has such a variety of work,” he says. “There’s something here for everybody, and that sense of community amongst the artists helps me to push and challenge my own work. When I come to visit this gallery, my first thought is not to see Jeannine [Grafton, the proprietor of RiverSea], but rather to dart around and see what’s new, what I might have missed on my last visit. That’s what is inspiring to methere’s a sense here of art as an endeavor, not so much as a product for retail.”
Jeannine Grafton owns and operates RiverSea Gallery, a showcase of contemporary art and one of the three main galleries in Astoria’s downtown district. Of course she might not agree that a gallery can survive forever on a strict diet of art for art’s sake, but she does subscribe to the idea that Astoria supports and encourages artists and fine art.
“I opened this gallery seven years ago, and in that time I’ve seen incredible advances in the art scene here and in the local interest in art,” she says. “Before, a lot of people didn’t even realize how many artists lived and worked here because many of those artists weren’t able to show here. But as the art scene has become more visible and the retail end of it has developed, it has set the stage for higher expectations for clients when they come through.”
According to Grafton, when outsiders look at Astoria and try to come up with explanations for the sudden re-vitalization, they tend to focus on the preparations for the upcoming Lewis & Clark Expedition bicentennial celebration. But, she notes, that’s just one small part of the puzzle.
“It’s been lots of little projects and that’s what makes it so good,” she explains. “It’s not like a big development came to town or a big corporation decided to move here and lots of people have jobs. We have a lot of people here, the bailouts from big metropolitan areas, who have added their own flavor. When you drive through town you see the restored Liberty Theatre and the restored Elliott Hotel, and then with the river walk and the Maritime Museum expansionit’s not just the visual arts scene but the whole arts and culture scene has really developed.”
Just a few doors down from RiverSea Gallery, in what used to be an old-time drugstore, is the new 4,000 square foot Valley Bronze gallery. Debie Jane Roberts runs the gallery and is the Director of the retail division of Valley Bronze of Oregon, based in Joseph, Ore.
Valley Bronze moved to Astoria only about a year ago, relocating up the coast from Cannon Beach. The gallery features some very high-end pieces from artists such as Walter Matia, David Crawford, George Carlson, Chester Fields, and morewith price tags in the five and six figures being not unusual. According to Roberts, the fact that Astoria has become a major tourist destination has been key to its transformation as a fine arts center for the north Oregon coast.
“Astoria is a huge art community in its own right,” says Roberts. “It’s been pretty dormant the last number of years, but now are hosting cruise ships here in Astoriaseven last year, 14 the year before, and 14 this next year. Also, Fort Clatsop has just been made a national park.”
As a result, she says, “The whole town is experiencing a renaissance of an upscale nature, and that’s why we moved the gallery here. Valley Bronze is no stranger to the grassroots development of a cultural community. We have done this before, and very successfully.”
Down a block is the Lunar Boy Gallery, another recent arrival to the Astoria art scene. Run by Troy Winterrowd, Lunar Boy’s selection is almost all 2-D wall art from illustrators and designers, and overall the work you’ll find there is a little edgier than what is typical for the other two major galleries.
“While the art scene in Astoria is very mixed, I think it’s becoming a little more contemporary compared to what you get at other coastal towns,” says Winterrowd.
He sees the personality of the art on display a reflection of the customer profile that tends to visit Astoria: “We have so many visitors from Portland and Seattle, that’s really the basis for my artwork. It’s broader than just Astoria.”
Another plus that Astoria can offer the potential art purchaseraside from the general atmosphereis price. “When people come here from Portland and Seattle they’re really focused on just having a good time,” says Winterrowd. “They’re more relaxed and they stumble upon this nice surprise and think they’re just in a better place to buy art. We are also very competitive here. You can still get a lot lower priced art here than you do in the big city.”
There is a general confidence among Astoria gallery owners that the area is not going to let good fortune and success go to its head and ruin things, like what’s happened in other “trendy” arts enclaves that get discovered and then plundered by too much enthusiasm and over-exploitation. “It’s not a summer community like a lot of the beach towns are,” says Grafton. “A lot of the old families that have been around for a long time are still here. [Astoria] tends to draw people who are really committed to it.”