After almost 70 exhibitions during six years, Jennifer Leutzinger is shuttering the Brink Gallery, a prominent home for contemporary art in Missoula.
An artist herself and longtime member of the art community, Leutzinger opened the gallery in March 2010 with an eye to exhibiting modern work in noncommercial veins, such as installations and conceptual work.
"It's been a joy to give people the freedom to do whatever they want to do and not worry about if it's going to sell or not," she said. Some showed cutting-edge, life-like ceramics of typewriters. Another hanged taxidermy deer from the ceiling and brought in an assemblage trailer piece. Another lived in the gallery for an entire month working on wall-length sculptures.
The gallery will host two more exhibitions before closing in May.
Leutzinger said she's savored the past six years, but she said the heavy workload and low foot traffic began to take their toll. It began to get a little routine and "lost some of its magic" and a passion she says her corner of the art scene needs.
Since opening, she's given the entire space on West Front Street over to month-long exhibitions of artists, often local ones who were early in their careers.
"A lot of artists that started here are now showing at the art museum and other places like that," she said. "There's a few artists who have gotten a jump-start in their career because of what we had here."
Steven Glueckert, an artist and retired curator at the Missoula Art Museum, said the gallery and its penchant for taking chances will be "greatly missed."
"They were willing to take those risks to show that part of our expression, and artists who were taking risks in the community that weren't necessarily driven by things that could be sold easily," he said.
Ceramic artist Renee Brown was one of those artists. She showed her crystalline-like ceramics at the Brink in 2012, and later went on to solo exhibitions at the MAM and a national ceramics award.
"Jen has been fearless in showing conceptual art," Brown said. "It was an honor to be one of the artists she chose to exhibit. My hope is that someone in Missoula will continue to show 'not necessarily commercial' art. It creates a space to imagine beyond how art is commonly perceived, a space to experience the stretching of boundaries by our local artists."
Not long into the Brink's lifespan, it became clear that the gallery wasn't going to make enough in sales. Leutzinger said exhibiting work that didn't sell made her feel guilty, especially for the artists.
She said she didn't want to get bitter and she had the financial means, so she began trying to work with artists who had no expectations of sales in the first place: those creating installation-based work, performances or interactive pieces.
The list also includes respected fixtures, past and present, in the local contemporary arts community who had objects for sale: Edgar Smith, Patricia Thornton, Jack Metcalf, Michael DeMeng, Pam Caughey and Karen McAlister Shimoda, Leslie Van Stavern Millar II, James Bailey and Christopher Dufala.
Lisa Simon, who opened the Radius Gallery with her partner Jason Neal in late 2014, said the Brink will leave a void for certain kinds of work.
"The Brink closing is a real loss to the art community, because it was one of the few places you could see conceptual art," Simon said.
Leutzinger seemed uncertain whether there's potential for another private gallery like the Brink to reach a break-even point or become self-sustaining.
"I would love to say yes. But I don't know," she said.
She said such a gallery would seem more viable as part of a larger nonprofit.
She cited the rent, even for a space as small as her's. She said that even when she did make sales, her 40-percent cut wasn't enough to pay the rent, much less other costs like utilities and paychecks for her two gallery assistants, Heather Sundheim and Marlo Crossifisso.
Simon also spoke to the difficulties of exhibiting such art.
Radius has focused on respected local and regional contemporary artists, but Simon said they can't afford to exhibit "higher-risk" installation and conceptual art.
The couple saved for 10 years to open their gallery knowing how tough the business can be. Over a year and a half, they've sold 450 pieces. After paying the artists, the remainder has all gone to overhead.
"That's the kind of wall you're up against," she said.
If an artist doesn't know what the "sale-ability" of a piece is, she'll suggest they propose it for a museum exhibition. "We can't afford to have a show where art doesn't sell," she said.
Dudley Dana, whose painting-centric gallery is marking its 20th year in downtown, spoke to the difficulties of keeping a gallery open in Missoula, which lacks the tourist traffic of a city like Whitefish or Bozeman.
He said it took "at least eight years before I felt like we were going to make it through the next year."
Dana, who has a separate career as a licensed psychologist, began displaying paintings when its photography emphasis wasn't viable after four years.
He said he'll miss the "aliveness and challenge" the Brink brought to the art scene.
Hard-to-sell art still has a few homes in Missoula, although Glueckert pointed out that many spaces like the MAM are highly competitive.
That museum remains the cornerstone, with its multiple exhibition spaces and stated mission to support contemporary art from across the state and region. Over on campus, the University of Montana has two galleries, the University Center Gallery and the Gallery of Visual Arts.
The Zootown Arts Community Center on the Northside has a sprawling gallery. For six months out of the year, it's dedicated to solo or joint exhibitions by emerging artists. The other half of the year is booked for group shows that typically accept a broad spectrum of artists.
FrontierSpace, a small gallery located in an alley off of West Pine Street, has been run out-of-pocket by a succession of UM graduate students since 2010. One of the four co-directors, Sarah Moore, said they've recently filed their nonprofit paperwork, which will allow them to apply for grants to support the shows it brings in.
"We're still focused on bringing in new and contemporary artwork to the Missoula community," she said, whether its from local, national or international figures, with a strict emphasis on noncommercial work.
The ability to apply for grants and accept donations could hopefully translate into more activities, workshops or public talks that they haven't been able to do in the past.
On the Westside, the Clay Studio is expanding and renovating its exhibition space. The nonprofit's gallery frequently hosts cutting-edge ceramic work from local and out-of-state practitioners.
Across Hawthorne Street, printmaker Jack Metcalf turned his studio into an art space that frequently hosts one-night-only collaborations in which there's nothing to sell: only a free performance or experience that blends visual art, performance art and interactive elements.
Down on Wyoming Street, an art collective called VonCommon shares a warehouse rental space to save on studio costs and to show their work a number of times a year.
Going forward, Leutzinger will have more time to focus on her own artwork; the final show will be an installation of her own that looks back over the Brink. She also wants to do pop-up shows and events several times a year, working with artists who have been like over the years.
She said she'll miss picking out the lineup, seeing how she can follow one surprising exhibition after another, and seeing the reactions when people come in on First Friday.
Sometimes the gambles didn't pay off, but the ones that did were more than compensated.
"That's when Heather and Marlo and I are working on First Friday and we are just feeling the magic, the buzz, the excitement," she said. "Then you go home and you can't sleep because you're so excited about how it was, and how it went, and the fact that it's going to be there for the rest month. That makes it definitely worthwhile."
For art lovers, she had an admonition, too, one that she hoped didn't sound like a lecture:
"Buy art, that's all I have to say," she said. "Support the artists. They need it, they love it, they make it 'cause they have to."