One of Ucluelet’s longest running art galleries has shut down its storefront.
“This is a difficult but healthy business decision,” Mark Penney told the Westerly News. “When a hazard is travelling towards you, you make arrangements to step out of its way and that’s where we’re at. We’re going to avoid damaging ourselves by maintaining an imbalanced overhead at a time when you don’t have the traffic to support it.”
He said his Mark Penney Gallery was one of three businesses that became the first commercial tenants of Ucluelet’s iconic Whiskey Landing building in 2007 and the decision to close didn’t hit him in earnest until he arrived to remove the storefront’s signage.
“It was very strange. It didn’t actually seem real until I took the sign down and then it really sort of hit me,” he said. “It didn’t feel tangible even, my decision to shut down, which was really difficult to come to. I’ve been going down and jingling the keys everyday for the last 13 years. It was quite a realization I guess. I have a sense of loss, that’s for certain. I feel a sense of loss, but I don’t feel bad, I don’t feel negative. It’s just a fact and, really, it came out of the decision that in order to get past a period of uncertainty, I’m forced to limit my liabilities until things are a little bit more certain.”
The uncertainty that prompted Penney’s decision to end his lease began last winter with the unpredictable road closures caused by the provincial and federal government’s construction work on Hwy. 4, and was then multiplied by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The road construction was really destructive. I had a terrible winter because of that. It just shut things off for me. I had all kinds of cancellations,” he said. “As overwhelmingly surprising as a worldwide pandemic is, we were damaged from the road [construction].”
COVID-19 forced the cancellation of March’s Pacific Rim Whale Festival and ArtSplash art show, sapping his gallery of its usual tourist traffic.
“With March comes Whale Festival and the influx of tourists and the change in the weather and usually we’re able to meet with enough new customers to carry us through into the summer,” he said. “That process and that cycle has been disrupted and it will take a little while to reestablish that…Until I know what that time frame is and can quantify it, it’s just an open-ended risk and that’s where we’re at.”
He added that he has enjoyed a positive relationship with his landlords and was grateful for their support in helping him seek out options for staying open.
“They’ve been supportive and generous and we’ve enjoyed a wonderful relationship with them, but they have real world costs and they can only be flexible to the extent that they can be. Without a solution and without a timeline especially, it’s difficult,” he said.
“I’m reluctant to borrow money that needs to be repaid in order to bridge that gap because I don’t have any parameters of the gap. If you told me there was going to be no road for six months and to prepare for a six month timeframe and then things will resume, there may be some lingering impacts but at least you’ve got some water under you, so we likely would have made substantively different arrangements, but the big concern now is it’s completely open-ended. The road is delayed again and the project has been extended and it very well could be delayed and extended further between now and next year. It’s made me a little too flinchy; I have absolutely no confidence that that road is going to be open according to the schedule that’s been published.”
He added his support of the arts will continue and noted that he has experience helping to curate shows and installations throughout the West Coast.
“We’re going to be watching with interest about how tourists trickle back in. I picked this area because I love this area, so it’s hard for me to imagine doing this anywhere else. There’s a long tradition of Canadian painters making their way out here, I don’t think that will change,” he said.
“We have different [types] of collectors. Some of them are worldly and well travelled and some of them live just down the road. We need to find a way to connect with them and oftentimes with artwork, seeing it in person is an important part of that…Audience development has to happen in a place that everybody’s comfortable with. You’ve got to be fishing in the right spot.”
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Penney was thrilled to find the right spot back in 2007, when he decided to open his first art gallery in Wayne Wenstob’s Whiskey Landing building.
“I decided to open the gallery here mostly because of the building. I was looking at several different locations and there was a relationship that I recognized between tourism and fine art purchases,” he said. “Tofino was the obvious choice, Victoria was another consideration, but I’m more of a Ukee guy…We were evaluating some locations and I saw this amazing building going up.”
Since opening, he has established and strengthened connections with artists and patrons and has been heavily involved with the Pacific Rim Arts Society.
“Nothing that you think you’re going to do is quite that way when you get there, so there was obviously some surprises along the way and some adjustments made, but we found out a lot about servicing customers and about finding homes for art and a surprising number of people who had some interest but, for whatever reason, had never found a way to engage in collecting art that was friendly and approachable and unpretentious and accessible,” he said.
“If you buy some legitimate artwork, you find yourself suddenly being a collector. It’s not something that people typically set out to do, it’s their love of the artwork and sometimes it’s just a surprising walk by and they see a work that really sticks with them…For me, the fascinating part is that you get to own the accomplishment. If you were collecting sports memorabilia, you buy something that somebody accomplished and signed out of respect for that accomplishment, but in the case of the artwork you’re actually buying the home run.”
Along with staying active in the local art scene, Penney also plans to pay more focus to his own art, which he has been ramping up in recent years.
“For the last two years in particular, I have been really painting hard. I’ve maintained just an absolutely blistering pace,” he said. “I imagine it’s a lot like other artistic pursuits or professional sports, it starts with an aptitude but then you’ve got to really get after it,” he said. “There’s a lot of capable artists around, you’ve got to really do something spectacular to build an audience and distinguish yourself from your peers.”
He said he’s also looking into online possibilities and keeping a keen eye on potential venues as the West Coast reopens.
“We’ve placed some artwork in some businesses around town and we’re going to continue to place artwork in the spots where people find themselves. Right now, we’re just starting to welcome people back to our community, so those opportunities are fairly limited; I’m hoping that will change, though I can’t really predict how that will go,” he said. “I’ve got some ideas about where, but it’s really the ‘when’ that’s unknown.”