In December of 1993, Acanthus Gallery (the original name of the Mark Woolley Gallery) hosted an exhibition of the pastels of Angelina Phelan Woolley, Mark's wife, in the front half of what had been her studio on the second floor at 120 NW 9th, between Couch and Davis in the historic Graphic Arts Building. The back of the space was still Angelina's studio, screened off by paper screens. This was the first exhibition. At that time, the two buildings on the block housed many artist studios, Fuller's Coffee Shop, and a large printing operation. Director Gus Van Sant, who like Mark was 41 years of age, had a small office down the hall. There were other notable artists in the mix, including the beloved Oregon sculptor Tom Hardy, now in his 90s, and well known painters Jack Portland and Ted Katz. No other businesses were on the block that now houses the Pearl Bakery, Eleni's Restaurant, City Flowers, Quintana Galleries, Urbaca Salon, and others. In fact, there are no artist studios remaining in the building, due to vastly increased rents. The "Pearl District" at that time wasn't called "The Pearl" and was a semi-industrial neighborhood of body shops, warehouses, printing operations and gritty artist studios. No high rise condo towers, corporate tenants or grocery stores--just the mingled smells of Powell's Books (you know that book smell that you don't get on Kindle), the Weinhard Brewery, a little coffee roaster, and rain. The only galleries at the time in the area were the seminal Jamison Thomas Gallery on NW Glisan, Quartersaw Gallery on NW 12th, and Butters Gallery, none of them were upstairs in a studio building except for little Acanthus. The name which Mark picked because he liked the classical image of acanthus leaves on Corinthian columns from his years teaching about Ancient Greece. One nice by-product of the choice was that the tiny gallery was alphabetically at the top of all the gallery listings for the monthly shows. The second show was a historical coup--the first west coast showing of the late Abstract Expressionist pioneer Ralph Rosenborg, who died in Portland the previous year (1992). Woolley had had a chance meeting with his widow Margaret whose gallery, with its high ceilings and good light, reminded her of the upstairs Manhattan galleries Ralph showed in during the 1950s.
At the time, Mark Woolley worked his full time job as a law related education specialist for the nonprofit Classroom Law Project after 15 years as a social studies teacher. He did not have a background in art history, just a passion for art and for people and for bringing the two together. He had no capital, no business partner, no "stable" of artists and master plan, just the intuition that whatever happened would be an adventure and a lot of fun. And over the past 19 years, it has definitely been that. The gallery was open just Friday and Saturday, 12-6 and a monthly Wednesday night "Preview Party" and First Thursday reception. Angelina worked the gallery Fridays and Mark worked Saturdays, after his regular 9-5 job from Monday-Friday. Shows were put in during the wee hours after work. Rent for the "gallery" portion of the studio was $150 per month. In the early years, you could hear and smell the printing presses below, there was no air conditioning, and the roof leaked. One time so badly that an entire show had to be taken down. People came and the gallery motto became "One Floor Up, Worlds Apart" for the unusual mix of exhibitions, events, and private soirees, which occurred there on a very regular basis. It was in essence a throw-back to the "salon" days, where there would be a mix of book and poetry readings, musical and dance performance, film screenings, benefits and of course art and food and drink. D.K. Row of the Oregonian wrote of the gallery:
"The Mark Woolley Gallery: leave your pretensions at the gallery door...The exhibit is another typically off-the-beaten path Art Happening by Portland's most off-the-beaten path gallery. Laura Russo may have the class and Elizabeth Leach may have the sass, but it's the loquacious Mark Woolley who is the unmintable original of the art-world lot. If the art world is made up of a series of trendy scenes, then Woolley's is the most happening one."
In 1995, two things happened which impacted the gallery's trajectory. Mark lost his "regular job" at the nonprofit due to cuts in federal funding, and Jim Dunn--an animator who had occupied the studio next to Angelina's for 10 years--decided to give it up. So, Woolley took on another lease, tied the two spaces together with an elegant interior opening flanked by two graceful wooden columns, changed the name from Acanthus to the Mark Woolley Gallery and adopted full time gallery hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11-6. Regular Wednesday evening previews were always open to the general public. First Thursday receptions, private appointments and a multitude of free public events such as artist talks, performance art, workshops, and the ongoing cross-pollination of the visual, literary, musical, dance and film communities. Exhibition programming of the "two sides" of the beautiful space was diverse: "Let Them Eat Cake" (an exploration of cake and commitment), "One Foot After Another" group show of 186 artists exhibiting in a grid of works one foot square. Korean prints and works from Brazil and Spain. "Young Turk" painters such as the Pander Brothers. "Old Guard" figures like George Johanson and Tom Hardy. Group shows exploring the box form, various colors and various media such as fiber-based art, and unusual installations dealing with race, sexual politics, and more.
In 2004, Mark Woolley and music promoter Chris Monlux purchased the historic Hibernian Hall at 128 NE Russell, a neglected fraternal hall built in 1914 by the Irish which had in later decades housed the Grace Collins Community Center. Their dream was to turn it into a combined use venue: performance space for 800, gallery, and restaurant. They brought in a third partner, Howie Bierbaum, who served as GM for three years until he became the current tour manager for the wildly popular Pink Martini group. Today, the building, the WONDER BALLROOM, is on the National Register of Historic Places and is a local Historic Landmark. It has been beautifully restored and begun a renaissance in the Eliot Neighborhood that continues to this day. Woolley operated a spacious gallery below the ballroom with movable walls facing a bamboo courtyard concurrently with his Pearl District space in NW for almost two years. The space was dividing with the elegant Guestroom Gallery run by Marilyn Murdoch, an art world veteran who had also run Katayama Framing for many years. The openings were packed, but during regular business hours there was not a lot of foot traffic as there were no other galleries in the immediate area. Woolley tried to remedy this with "The Groove Bomb," a lively full size bus that brought gallery goers to and from the NE neighborhood and the Pearl and Old Town galleries for about six months.
In the summer of 2007, Woolley was approached by longtime Portland art dealer and print specialist Bob Kochs of AUGEN Gallery and was asked if he would consider occupying the space at 817 SW 2nd downtown being vacated by Charles Froelick, who was moving his gallery into the new DeSoto complex in NW Portland. Woolley, who had given up his Pearl space due to a huge rent increase, jumped at having a street level space in the downtown core for the first time and moved his gallery yet again. The September 2007 opening was christened by a lively evening of performances, highlighted by the entire March Fourth Marching Band, which serenaded the hundreds of guests just outside the gallery doors. During the next 21 months, he adapted his shows to the long, narrow space which wasn't as well suited to the large gatherings and events of the prior years. In June of 2009, during the severe economic downturn that had begun the autumn before, with most of the veteran Portland galleries having migrated to the very area of The Pearl which Woolley had helped pioneer many years before. Woolley decided to close his storefront space and "go mobile" with his curation. In the intervening years, he had mounted shows in a wide variety of spaces and galleries around town. A seminal, photographic "Portrait" show of luminaries honoring the late Portland Art Museum photo curator Terry Toedtemeier at Worksound in SE, a number of shows at the former ANKA Gallery in Old Town, including a traveling movie poster show from the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and a centennial show for Pacific NW College of Art). Two involved installation shows by Stephen Scott Smith at Breeze Block Galleryin Old Town. And a five month run as curator for PRESENTspace in the Pearl District, among other curation gigs at Aalto Lounge, serving as a juror for Portland Open Studios, and procuring art for a variety of causes, such as the Quest Center for health and other groups. In between, Woolley has been able to travel (Venice Biennale, Croatia, Scandinavia, Brazil, New York, Burning Man), do some writing and engage in some private art dealing and consulting.
In the winter of 2011-2012, Woolley was approached by independent curator and artist Chris Haberman to see if he would be interested in opening up another space as part of The Settlement galleries on the third level of Pioneer Place, (Atrium Building) in downtown Portland. As the financial terms were attractive due to vacancies in the overall complex and because there had been three galleries combining their efforts for over a year with monthly "Third Saturday" openings and other events, Woolley accepted. The space was christened with a bang: "SIMPLY RED (2)", a group show of over 100 artists exploring the color of passion and revolution. So, the adventure continues....
"The function of artists is to set things in motion once again." -Karel Appel
"Art means to dare and to have been right." -Ned Rorem