A&E » Arts

Mountain Galleries celebrates 20 years

And nine years promoting fine art in Whistler  



For the past 20 years, Mountain Galleries has been supporting and promoting the finest in Canadian art.

For the past nine, the gallery has been a vital part of Whistler's arts community, not only promoting some of the finest Sea to Sky painters and sculptors, but also exposing the town to the nation's crème de la crème.

"I'm still as passionate about our gallery and our mission as I was since day one," says gallery founder Wendy Wacko. "Our mission hasn't changed."

Every Sunday this summer, Mountain Galleries is holding artist demonstrations outside of the Fairmont in conjunction with the Whistler Farmer's Market. Each week, a B.C.-based artist will offer tips about their processes while working live for an audience. This Sunday's demonstration will include Squamish-based textile artist Fran Solar, followed by Squamish-based painter Zoe Evamy the week after that.

Ben McLaughlin, a young industrial designer and recent Emily Carr graduate (who will do his own demonstration on July 29) has had a considerable boost in his career through the gallery. He's sold three of his pieces — sound-resonating benches featuring an African-style drum at the centre that encourages people to create while sitting together — after only five months of showing at the gallery.

He also works at the gallery three days a week, which he says allows him to constantly talk about his work with visitors, through which he receives feedback, which he then uses to evolve his work.

"It's an unorthodox way of getting my work out there," he says. "I have my degree in industrial design so it's kind of bizarre to get in that way but it's worked out really well."

"As far as I understand, I'm one of the first chances she took with a younger, emerging artist," he says of Wacko "Most of our collection is from artists who are mid-career or later ... and now supporting emerging Canadian artists is becoming of more of interest to her."

Wacko, an art school graduate, established the gallery after leaving the film industry in the early '90s. She had moved to Jasper to take care of her ailing mother. She'd been representing artists, including Doris McCarthy, since the '70s and had been considering breaking back into the art world. When a small retail space came available in the Jaspper Fairmont, she decided that she'd do just that and opened her own gallery.

Eleven years later, she opened the Whistler location (she opened the Banff location shortly after that). For nine years, Wacko has managed to stay profitable selling fine art to locals and visitors alike — no small feat, considering the rate at which businesses have opened and closed around the village in that same period.

Wacko credits the Whistler location's longevity to a wealthy local arts community, a "wonderful network of professional galleries" and the partnership between the gallery and the Fairmont, which rents spaces out to all of Mountain Galleries's three locations.

"Fairmont has always treated me like a partner. It's been a great relationship and I'm very grateful to be part of the chain," she says. "Part of our success through these slower economic times has been the fact that we're well positioned within the Fairmont."

She admits that the past few years have been very challenging — the strength of the Canadian dollar coupled with the decrease in American visitors has hurt not just Mountain Galleries but Whistler as a whole — but the gallery appears to have weathered the worst of it. According to McLaughlin, the gallery is having the best month of sales in recent years.

Says Wacko: "If we can survive the past two and a half years, we can survive anything."