• Artists cooperate to show work, promote gallery and help build art community
By Christina Whiting
In its lifetime, the Ptarmigan Arts building has been a laundromat, an insurance sales business, a music store, an auto parts store and, for the past (almost) 30 years, the gallery known as Ptarmigan Arts.
In 1984, Sharon McKemie started Ptarmigan Arts, renovating Otto Kilcher’s machine shop into individual artist studios and display space.
“We are one of the oldest continuously operating art galleries in Alaska,” said painter Gary Lyons. “We are most likely the oldest continuously operating ‘co-op’ art gallery in the state.”
A co-op gallery is one where the artists are invested in running the gallery. At Ptarmigan, artists pay a membership fee that is used toward gallery maintenance, rent, marketing and utilities. Members participate in monthly meetings, vote to jury new artists in and manage their individual art space. Ptarmigan’s artists work together to show their work, promote the gallery and help build the art community.
Until recently, Ptarmigan Arts has had just two previous owners, McKemie, the first owner and business manager, and Karen (Jewels) East who purchased the gallery in 2003.
The gallery has always been run as a co-op, with varying levels of artist participation over the years. Recently, the artists began to take a more hands-on approach to the management of the gallery.
“During the past years, we developed committees to focus on different aspects of gallery operations,” said mixed-media artist Kathi Drew. “Being active on these committees made us all want and need to have more control in the growth and development of the co-op.”
This June, 30 artists purchased the gallery, becoming a family of co-owners. Most, but not all, were existing Ptarmigan Arts artists.
“We’re now a true cooperative corporation, and all members have a vested interest in the co-op’s future,” Drew said. “We are all working together to make the gallery and its artists succeed.”
Each artist works one day a month, selling their own work and learning the work of their fellow artists.
“It’s great to talk with visitors as both an owner and artist,” photographer Don Pitcher said. “People love to hear we have 30 artists working together for the benefit of all.”
“A good commercial gallery works hard at promoting its artists and they earn their percentage, potter Paul Dungan said. “Here, that’s up to us.”
In the mid 1990s, the gallery established a scholarship fund and an annual $1,000 award for Homer High School juniors and seniors. The purpose was to encourage the students’ education in visual arts. The Homer Foundation manages the fund and each November, the gallery hosts a silent-auction fundraiser.
Currently work shown in the gallery includes pottery, photography, lithography, knitting, weaving, sewing, leather craft, encaustic, cards, oil painting, watercolor, jewelry, mosaic, fused glass, marquetry, wood turning, fish skin basketry, book binding, beading, zipper art and mixed media.
Mossy Kilcher and Gary Lyon are the only two original artists still exhibiting their work in the gallery. Other original members include Terri Lyon, Nancy Wise, Cindy Argus, Ahna Iredale, Rita Turner and Kim Terpening. Toby Tyler joined in the early 1990s.
“I joined in 2006,” said jeweler Cindy Nelson. “Being around other artists and their artwork spurred me on in my own work.”
Pitcher said he had never exhibited in galleries prior to moving to Homer in 2000.
“Ptarmigan Arts provided the perfect place to show my nature photos,” he said.
“Becoming a co-owner of Ptarmigan was a natural outgrowth of being an artist there,” said fiber artist Ellen Halseth.
Chris and Carol Beverly joined this summer, just as the co-op changed ownership. The two photographers said joining Ptarmigan, “would be a good way to meet neighbors and take ownership in the community.”
Other artists are encouraged to become members by submitting work to be juried in.
“It would be great to see more artists join the co-op, especially younger artists,” Halseth said.
Woodworker Ted Hueur said the co-op is always looking for new members with gallery-quality art who enjoy interacting with the public and working cooperatively with the other members. Members of Ptarmigan Arts are a diverse group, committed to a common goal.
“We want this to be a gallery with a strong body of work, with art that is well-displayed and that sells,” said potter Ruby Haigh. “It works, thanks to the great group of artists who care about each other’s work.”
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