After almost five years, the e3 Convergence Gallery downtown is closing its doors in early June.
Gallery director Lillian Nelson said it's difficult to keep a gallery open as it is, but it was trickier with e3's unusual nonprofit model, in which it donates proceeds to other nonprofits, and its preference for emerging artists.
"Keeping that platform going with 100 percent volunteers wasn't really sustainable in the end, unfortunately," she said.
Nelson is a member of Convergence Ministries, a small Missoula church that meets in private homes.
"Their whole intent is to get out into the community and really embrace everything that's going on in Missoula and help give back at the same time," she said. Five years ago, she and a few other practicing artists in Convergence decided to open e3. They felt the gallery could provide a space for early-career artists, who outnumber the available Missoula venues to exhibit work.
Within about the first year, the other two artist members had moved out of town. Since then, Nelson has been trying to run the gallery without much help.
She has two children and her own art practice. The leases downtown are rising. There are limited buyers for younger artists. The turnout for First Friday openings was strong, but it didn't translate into strong sales.
It's a point of pride that many of their artists were new to a gallery, a process she helped walk them through. And Nelson, who studied art at the University of Montana, said she preferred artists with "raw talent" and passion over "saleability."
Watching an artist make their first sale was memorable, but it was wounding for her if they didn't.
"I feel bad for the artist if they don't sell anything, but I don't choose art based on whether I think it's going to sell or not," she said.
The gallery always donated what it could to other nonprofits— lately it's been Watson Children's Shelter.
Many Missoula art galleries or spaces that go for a non-commercial model have had limited but impactful runs. The Brink gallery closed in 2006 after six years. Jack Metcalf's Real Good Studios, an open-ended art space for visual and performance art, closed in 2017. In a promising sign, the Zootown Arts Community Center plans to move into a new building downtown next year with an exhibition space.
Some of Nelson's favorite shows over the years have been group exhibitions, where they could fill the spacious gallery with artists who were just starting out. They've done a black light-themed show with glow-in-the-dark pieces, for instance. They had frequent poetry readings or interactive events.
"It's so fun to take part and put it on, you just wish you were a billionaire, just keep doing it forever," she said.
E3's last show, which opens on Friday, is called "New Beginnings." Nelson invited many of the artists she's shown over the years.
After the show comes down in late May, e3 is hosting one last First Friday event on June 1 with the VonCommon Art Collective, a group of Missoula residents who have pooled their resources for a shared studio space off Wyoming Street.
They'll have a big art happening and group exhibition, called "PromCommon," before e3 closes its doors for good.