The independent gallery, owned by Kirsten Anderson and focusing on contemporary art, has championed many local and international artists over the past 18 years.
When the list of participants was announced for the second Seattle Art Fair, one gallery was curiously missing. Roq La Rue, the successful independent gallery located in Pioneer Square, had declined to participate in the fair.
It wasn’t for lack of success. Its owner Kirsten Anderson had sold half the work she showed in her booth last summer.
“The Seattle Art Fair was great,” Anderson said. “They had really excellent galleries; the presentation was beautiful.”
But Anderson, who’s been in business for 18 years, has decided it is time to move on. She announced via Facebook last weekend that she would be closing the Pioneer Square gallery in September. It was the third gallery space to announce a closure in recent weeks. According to The Stranger, two other local galleries, Punch and Platform, will also be closing.
Roq La Rue will present three more shows before its closing, including the current show by Peter Ferguson.
“The short story is I’m burnt out a little bit,” she said in an interview.
The longer story? She wants a career change; she’ll be leaving for “wildlife protection and conservation.”
And the art world is a lot different than when she first started.
Since Anderson got into the game when she was 28 years old, the art world — and Seattle in particular — has changed greatly. She opened her first Belltown space practically on a whim; she had fallen in love with countercultural art magazine Juxtapoz and thought, “I wish we had that stuff here,” she said.
She decided to open a place of her own. “I grew up sort of around the punk scene and the DIY scene, and thought, ‘Well I’ll just open a gallery, paint this room white and put up some lights,’” she said.
In 1998, she found a space in Belltown that was slated for demolition. The spaces were rented to small businesses for the summer, serving as an incubator. The rent for the Roq La Rue was a mere $200 a month.
It seems like a quainter time.
The gallery, which focuses on pop surrealism — often called “Lowbrow Art” — and contemporary art, held a unique niche in Seattle’s art world. Its most popular practitioner is Mark Ryden; the style is marked by hyper-detailed figurative paintings that have a magical realism or gothic quality. Over the years, Anderson has shown Ryden’s work at Roq La Rue, as well as work from artists such as Peter Ferguson, Femke Hiemstra, John Brophy and local artist Amanda Manitach.
Anderson got in on the scene before the style peaked and rode the wave. She edited a book “Pop Surrealism: The Rise of Underground Art,” which was the first such overview of the form.
Whimsical and quirky, pop surrealist paintings are also undeniably commercial. In the art world, which values avante-garde and conceptual work, “commercial” can be a dirty word.
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“She’s been grossly underrated and I really appreciate everything that she has done for the gallery scene,” said Diana Adams, the owner of Vermillion, the gallery/bar on Capitol Hill. “Nobody in the art scene has really taken her approach seriously.”
The pop surrealist scene is more greatly accepted in cities like Los Angeles, Adams said. “I’m baffled by it,” she said of its outsider status. “It’s so painterly.”
Greg Lundgren, who is curating King Street Station’s gallery space and is an owner of art bar The Hideout, agreed: “She had a real divided camp. Some people really championed and celebrated the work she brought into town, but within a lot of the academic realm of what we consider high art, she was a black sheep,” he said. But he thought Roq La Rue strengthened Seattle’s art scene. “I don’t want to go to eight galleries and see the same kind of aesthetic,” he said.
Pop surrealism started to command attention when Ryden’s works began selling for nearly a million dollars. But, in recent years, it has become less popular.
“Our sales started to slow down a little bit and art fair culture really started to take hold,” Anderson said.
And as for those art fairs, she’s not a fan. “You have to do a ton of them, they cost a fortune and running a brick and mortar space also costs a fortune,” she said. “I ran a gallery because I wanted to run a gallery. I don’t want fly around the world to run to art fairs.”
As with other industries, the Internet has had an impact on the gallery scene, both for good and for bad. In terms of sales, there’s less of need for a brick-and-mortar space. Still, said high-end gallerist Greg Kucera, physical spaces are important to an art scene.
“When you think about the significant galleries we’ve lost in the last 10 years,” Kucera said, pointing to galleries such as Francine Seders Gallery, Howard House, Lawrimore Project, “it’s a sad thing. I don’t think we’re seeing galleries open up to take their places.
He added: “Meanwhile, the number of artists in Seattle is not shrinking, it’s growing. Thankfully, artists still want to have one-person shows, and artists still need to have galleries represent them.”
The gallery will host three more shows, including one with Meghan Howland, Amanda Manitach and Femke Hiemstra, “as well as a big celebratory closing group show” she wrote, with the artists still to be decided.
As for her next act, Anderson hopes to raise money for wildlife conservation. In 2009, she worked with Ryden who created a print and raised $50,000 for the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, and is exploring innovative ways to fundraise. “The world is in a state of crisis and needs people who are willing to step up and do the work and try to change policy and raise money,” she said.
Anderson isn’t giving up the art world, entirely. She’s been asked to curate a few shows in other cities and might continue to pair her old life with her new one. And she feels like the artists she has worked are well-positioned for success.
“That made my decision easier. They all have other places to go,” Anderson said. “A lot of people are going to have a bidding war over who gets to show them because they do very, very well.”