After shutdown, a second chance for the Second Story Gallery

Public asked to weigh in on future of art gallery inside Camas library

Visitors to the Second Story Gallery, located on the second floor of the Camas Public Library, sit near an art display on Dec. 6, 2019. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record files)

Camas Public Library Director Connie Urquhart views portraits of downtown Camas business owners during the opening night of Camas photographer Lara Blair's "Pivot Project" art show at the Second Story Gallery on Dec. 3, 2021. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record files)

Visitors to the Second Story Gallery, located inside the Camas Public Library, view portraits of downtown Camas business owners during the opening night of Camas photographer Lara Blair's "Pivot Project" art show on Dec. 3, 2021. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record files)

In December 2019, less than three months before the COVID-19 pandemic forced shutdowns across Washington state, dozens of local residents gathered inside the Camas library’s Second Story Gallery to celebrate the start of a two-month art show by a local quilting group known as the Vagabonds.

The visitors mingled in the well-lit gallery space, talking to the artists and admiring their “Whispers in the Wind” show featuring 12-inch quilted squares.

Like most First Friday art receptions held inside the Second Story Gallery before the pandemic, the mood was lighthearted and celebratory. None realized the reception would be one of the last held inside the library’s second-floor gallery for the next two years.

When the Camas Public Library shifted to remote services in March 2020, the popular Second Story Gallery — which had become well-known for its monthly art shows featuring regional artists and art receptions synced to the Downtown Camas Association’s monthly First Friday festivities — also closed its doors to the public.

Though the library reopened many of its in-person services in 2021, the Second Story Gallery remained closed.

One of the gallery’s main issues that prevented its 2021 reopening, said Camas library director Connie Urquhart, was the fact that it had lost so many of the people who kept the gallery running through the years – selecting a year’s worth of artists, setting up First Friday art receptions, hanging the art and promoting the gallery on social media and in regional art circles.

“Even before the pandemic, we had been losing some of our core base,” Urquhart said.

The gallery’s board of governors, as well as its longtime volunteers, were beginning to reach their peak retirement years and were already reconsidering their volunteer responsibilities before the words “COVID” and “pandemic” were part of the community’s everyday conversation.

“The pandemic was a double whammy,” Urquhart said. “Some of them had been volunteering for decades and were just feeling like it was time to retire. Then, with the pandemic, they wanted to stay home … and didn’t want to come back.”

The library’s gallery had had trouble attracting new volunteers even before the pandemic, Urquhart added, but COVID made the volunteer-recruitment process even more problematic.

“We’ve had to shake it up a little,” Urquhart said. “We don’t have a core of (Second Story Gallery) volunteers anymore, but we do have some who are interested in passing along their expertise.”

With a sort of “fresh start” provided by the gallery’s extended closure, Urquhart and other library leaders are now trying to figure out the best path forward for the library’s Second Story Gallery.

In early March, Urquhart and other library staffers met with a small group of people interested in the gallery’s future.

“There were only 10 people there aside from library staff … but we had a really good cross-section,” Urquhart said. “There was a library trustee, prior gallery board members, some artists, Carrie Schulstad (the director of the Downtown Camas Association), one of the art teachers from the high school, a student from the high school, and two people who are starting the Camas Artists Guild.”

Urquhart gave a presentation during the March 9 meeting that brought the group up to speed on the gallery’s history — Second Story started in the 1980s with a mission of highlighting local, emerging artists — updated them on the current volunteer problems and offered a few possibilities for how the library might use the gallery space in the future to host curated, themed art shows, display traveling art exhibits from larger national and regional library collections or help connect the gallery to the library’s range of programming, including the annual, community-wide “Read for Change” event.

The group discussed some of the gallery’s strengths — the art receptions that tie-in to the popular First Friday events, a great system for lighting, hanging and displaying the artwork, and the fact that the gallery is located inside a community library — as well as areas where the gallery could improve.

“They would like to see more sales,” Urquhart said. “As we got more successful artists … and people started charging more … we got away from the sales. Every once in a while, we would get (an artist) with lower prices, and then we would see the sales again.”

If they had unlimited finances and people, the group said they would like to see the Second Story Gallery have more display cases, a higher level of artwork and either unlimited volunteers or paid staff who would hang the artwork.

Armed with the feedback from the small group of stakeholders who turned out for the public March 9 meeting on the Second Story Gallery, Urquhart wants to get a better picture of how the entire Camas community views the library’s second-floor gallery space.

The library staff have included a survey about the future of the Second Story Gallery in the April newsletter than goes out to 15,000 residents, and have a live version of the survey on the library’s website and at surveymonkey.com/r/JY7N2LY.

The survey asked residents to weigh in on why they’ve visited the gallery in the past, what type of exhibits they would like to see in the library’s gallery in the future and if they have any interest in volunteering.

Many Camas residents who may not have visited the gallery before the pandemic had a taste of what the Second Story space has to offer in early 2022, when Urquhart approved using the gallery space for a one-off exhibit showcasing Camas photographer Lara Blair’s “Pivot Project” celebrating downtown Camas business owners who survived pandemic hardships.

People have been inquiring about the Second Story Gallery, Urquhart said, and library staff have thanked the gallery’s fans for their patience over the past two years. They’ve also been trying to attract more volunteers who are interested in taking on anything from staffing art receptions on First Fridays and learning how to properly hang artwork

“We do have people asking about the gallery,” Urquhart said. “And we’ve been thanking everyone for their patience.”

I’d like to see more commitments to youth and equity, diversity and inclusion that would likely overlap with local artists. My hope is that, when we do get (the gallery) back up and running that it will be better than ever.”