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After 22 years, the Dana Gallery is changing hands. Dudley Dana and his wife Candace are selling the business, the oldest commercial art gallery in Missoula, to a new owner.

Over the past several years, they'd talked with several potential buyers before finding the right fit with Eileen Rafferty.

"Eileen is somebody we felt comfortable turning the gallery over to," said Dudley Dana, who wanted someone who would care for the roster of artists that "have become family after all these years."

In early January, they'll give the keys to Rafferty, a photographer and video editor who's been an instructor at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography and the University of Montana.

"It's well-respected around the country. I have no intention of coming in here and upending the apple cart," Rafferty said.

She doesn't plan to change the name or the line-up of artists, which includes Robert Moore of Idaho, Caleb Meyer and R. David Wilson of Missoula; and more from around the city, state and region.

"It will evolve, I'm sure. I'm different than he is. It truly is a handing-over and a continuing of what Dudley has built," she said.

About three or four years ago, Dana heard some advice on when to sell your business, and one piece felt familiar.

"The only thing you need to know is that when you find yourself going to work and not doing the things you loved about your business, then that's the time to leave," he said. He's a people person, he said, and staying in the back office minding the details was frustrating.

Nevertheless, the 72-year-old said "it's harder to give up, quite a lot harder than I thought it was going to be, actually."

Rafferty has a background in art and connections to the art community. She graduated with a bachelor of science in exercise physiology from Pennsylvania State University and a master of fine arts in photography from Virginia Commonwealth University. After moving to Missoula, she taught at Rocky Mountain School of Photography from 2006 to 2013 and was an adjunct in the UM School of Art from 2009 to 2013. She teaches freelance as well in photo and video.

"I've been a working artist my whole life, I've been an arts educator my whole life. I think to have the opportunity to continue to support arts and artists in Missoula, long-term is really, really important," she said.

Dana said Missoula galleries need local support, since the city doesn't draw the tourism and out-of-state money that places like the Gallatin Valley do.

"I think we've managed to create an atmosphere with exceptional art but people feel OK about coming in here. That's the whole community feel," he said.

Dana, an avid runner and photographer, plans on continuing with those hobbies afterward. A few of them are combined in Montana roads series, which pairs photos of the state's roadways with text. 

***

Dudley and Candace Dana, both psychologists and art lovers, had a grand opening in October 1996 at a space on West Broadway next to Sutton West Gallery and the Golden Rose. Dudley, a photographer, wanted a place to showcase the medium.

A few years in, the business wasn't working out and didn't appear that it would turn around.

"We were trying to make a go of it with photography and we clearly weren't making a go of it," he said.

He recalls his gallery manager putting it into hard perspective.

"He says one day, 'Dudley, did you ever think about this? If you sold every photograph you have in here, you couldn't pay my salary plus your rent,'" he said.

On a road trip out to Baker in eastern Montana, he and Candace stopped at a gallery in Billings and saw paintings by Davi Nelson. They bought some canvases, thinking that they might be worth a try before closing the business entirely.

They sold three of Nelson's paintings right away, and the Danas began a shift toward the medium the gallery is known for.

"I get a little rush when I see a really great painting and I have an eclectic viewpoint and so, it was both gradual and instantaneous," he said.

In 2003, the gallery held its first "Paint Out" with the newly formed Montana Painter's Alliance. Artists spent a week traveling to sites around Missoula to paint scenes en plein air, a tradition that the Dana has kept up every summer.

In 2003, Dana began working with one of its marquee artists, Robert Moore. Dana bought one of Moore's paintings years before even opening the gallery. Moore, who lives in Burley, Idaho, west of Pocatello, was interested but asked if Dana would be willing to come pick up the paintings so they didn't have to ship them. 

Down at his studio, Moore mentors younger painters, many of whom have ended up in the Dana stable, such as Meyer, Thompson and Francis Switzer. Overall, Dana has tried to help younger artists build their careers. Regardless of age, he's tried to work with people who are exceptional or have potential, and are easy to work with.

The gallery has won many "Best of Missoula" polls and hosted a national Oil Painters of America exhibition, an event that typically is held in cities such as Chicago and Seattle.

It moved to its present location at the corner of Broadway and Higgins, quadrupling its space from the original 1,000-square-foot gallery. The Danas own the gallery property and will rent it to Rafferty.

He'll remain a presence in his namesake gallery until January, and they're planning a celebration for him before Rafferty officially takes over.

"This is a big deal for all of us," she said. "I'm buying a business in downtown Missoula, they're handing over a business they've owned and cared for for 23 years, so it definitely had to be a relationship where we all liked each other and got along and respected each other and can listen and talk to each other, and so that's been really important," she said.

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