Portland, OR — A thing of beauty is a joy forever, but the realities of life and economics mean that sometimes the places where we find that beauty are less permanent. Onda Gallery, home base for Latin American and Latino artists and their admirers in Portland for 12 years, will close as the new year opens.
Mixed emotions are currently on exhibit at Onda, along with the artwork still adorning its walls and shelves. The gallery was hit hard by the bad economy and the changing vibe on Alberta Street, which has become dominated by restaurants and food carts. Additionally, owner Pablo Merlo Flores’ other venture, a wholesale, fair trade art business called Pampeana, has grown so much that he has little time to spare for Onda. So when founding owner and current gallery director Allan Oliver — the man so closely associated with the gallery that some people assume his name is Allan Onda — started talking seriously about retirement, Onda Gallery’s days as a brick and mortar location were numbered.
“Who could replace Allan?” Merlo Flores asked. “Nobody.”
Both Oliver and Merlo Flores agree that Onda is not going away entirely. It will no longer be found at 2215 NE Alberta St., but Oliver’s profound love of art will compel him to carry on Onda’s mission of providing a platform for established and emerging artists. He plans to continue representing some of the creative individuals he has “become especially close to,” and helping to furnish other art spaces, such as Miracle Theatre.
“Onda Gallery is not disappearing,” Oliver insists.
“What is closing is the gift portion of the gallery,” Merlo Flores says. “You don’t need the space to promote art. There are so many ways and places we’ll be able to continue promoting Latin American art.”
Merlo Flores considers the knowledge and experience that Oliver has racked up over the years to be the kind of resource that must be shared.
“That is priceless,” Merlo Flores insists. “It’s not knowledge that you can read in a book or go to school to learn.”
First on Oliver’s to-do list is planning a trip to Cuba in April that will blend art with humanitarian work, an adventure that will reconnect Oliver with one of the countries that inspired him to open Onda Gallery as “a link to vital culture, to profound culture.”
Oliver’s first extended period in Latin America was a two-year stint in Chile and Peru in the ‘60s with a “Peace Corps-like program” sponsored by the Presbyterian Church. He later lived in Peru and Venezuela while working for an international advertising agency.
Those years left Oliver “very much thirsty for any kind of cultural things that have to do with Latin America.”
In the spring of 1998 Oliver took his first trip to Cuba and became enthralled with the art there. It was on that trip that he decided to open a gallery, thereby “committing to the idea of making a living in fine art.”
By the fall of that same year, Onda Gallery was open on Alberta St.
“I had a lot of energy toward it at the time,” Oliver said, and a lot of help and encouragement from his business partner at the time, Deena Newman. “It all came together just really remarkably well. Being younger and stupider helped.”
Laughing, Merlo Flores interjects, “You can replace the word stupider with hopeful [and] eager.”
Out of a need to shift some financial burden — and because, he jokes, he needed the help of someone “younger and stupider” — Oliver sold the gallery to Merlo Flores three years ago and took on the role of gallery director.
“In the beginning it went very very well, until the economy hit us,” Merlo Flores says.
Their first year together, especially their first holiday season, was hugely successful in terms of sales and energy in the gallery.
A year later the economy was in a downward spiral and that Christmas season saw two weeks of snow that kept people and their holiday shopping budgets in their homes and out of the gallery.
Merlo Flores says business has been picking up again, but the demands of his other business and Oliver’s retirement plans compelled them to make the tough yet liberating decision to close the physical location.
Onda Gallery’s final art show, featuring work from the Pacific Northwest, Ecuador, and Cuba, opened Nov. 20 and will be on display through December 31. Merlo Flores and Oliver expect to close the gallery for good the first week in January.
A change of scenery
Oliver seems ready to move on to a new stage in his life, but pines for the “exciting, pioneering” feel that permeated Alberta St. when he opened Onda in 1998.
“Alberta’s turning into one giant food court,” Oliver says, repeating an observation recently made by an acquaintance.
Diplomatically, Merlo Flores said the neighborhood’s changing dynamics are different, but not bad. “It just brings a different flavor,” he says.
Oliver sees people stopping into the gallery and looking around while they wait for a table to free up at one of the trendy nearby restaurants, where they’ll likely drop at least $100 on dinner.
“But spending $100 on art would be out of the question for them,” he says. “It’s a matter of people’s priorities.”
Oliver points out, though, that a meal will only keep people sated for a few hours.
“Original art is something that feeds you every day,” he says. “It enriches your soul.”
Oliver now looks to a future in which he is not at the gallery six days a week with a combination of relief, hope, frustration, and a few question marks.
“There are still various slots to fill [in my life],” he admits. “I’m a little apprehensive about it.”
But mostly he is grateful — for the gallery, for the neighborhood that nurtured it, and for the talented artists he’s worked with over the last 12 years.
“I feel overwhelmingly thankful,” Oliver says, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I’m very thankful for.”
“We certainly made a lot of good friends,” Merlo Flores adds.
Photos Julie Cortez, El Hispanic News
1) Onda Gallery owner Pablo Merlo Flores (left) looks on as gallery director Allan Oliver admires one of the art pieces currently for sale at the soon-to-be-closed gallery.
2) Gallery director Allan Oliver shows off work from some of his favorite artists.