Member Profile: Childhood’s End Gallery
(Published in South Sound Sustainable Living Local Winter 2016 Edition)
Childhood's End Gallery
More than a local gallery, a place of color and creativity that has helped raise Olympia's forlorn downtown from its grey past.
As you drop down the Fourth Avenue bridge heading east across the Isthmus you will often witness a stunning union of mountains, water and sky. As you slow to enter downtown’s historic core, you’re greeted next by the sensual mural depicting the Japanese artist Hokusai’s iconic “Great Wave”. It belongs of course to the Childhood’s End Gallery, a familiar friend to lovers of art and Olympia for over 45 years.
The gallery has been a perennial source of select, affordable fine arts and crafts, but more than that it has been a fulcrum that celebrates regional creativity while serving as both a welcome sign and an anchor for the downtown. A place where beautiful artifacts of local creatives complement perfectly the natural splendor of Olympia’s waterfront.
This alluring sense of place is no accident. The match was born from the vision of the owners Richenda and Bill Richardson. They named their gallery for that moment in one’s life when one realizes the need to grow up and decide what you’re going to do in life and how you are going to live it.
“We were both twenty-two and it was the end of our childhood”, says Richenda who shared with me her reflections in the back room of the gallery cramped with stored art. She recounted the crucible that she and Bill found themselves in at the end of a decade that had turned the world upside down. They were two college grads ready to default to traditional careers as middle-class consumers. But it was the post-revolution era of the early 1970s and a random ceramics class they shared in the last year of college had awaken something in their collective soul that prompted them to reconsider. “The feeling at the time was that corporate America was disenchanted with the youth and we realized we couldn’t be in our parent’s world anymore. We wanted to live more artfully, thoughtfully and small.” When a bike shop vacated the first floor of the historic Waterstreet building she and Bill saw their chance to physically realize their new life vision and rented the space.
A few years later the owners of the building, interested in selling, approached Richenda and Bill. They wanted to help the young couple become the new owners and they worked with the other tenants who were also artists to pool the down payment, keeping the cooperative spirit of creativity alive in that special location. Richenda recalled that when they first opened the gallery the waterfront was a place of abandoned warehouses and no public access, still reflecting the town’s blue-collar past. Despite the perceived hurdles, she could see the locale’s aesthetic potential.
Their business philosophy was to marry crafts with fine art which was unusual for the time. Richenda explained, “Fine art was for high end galleries while crafts were considered second class. Nobody was displaying them together with mutual respect.” Nonetheless, a renaissance in American arts and crafts was blossoming and Richenda explained, “Crafts needed a fine art element and vice versa”, so she and Bill set out to “break down the division”.
She described her curator role as being initially very selective; only five percent of artists who submit material are featured in the gallery. But once selected, she is committed to the artist’s growth, providing an important nurturing and mentoring influence for the new artists. Many have since gone on to broader recognition, their works being featured in museums. In this way, Childhood’s End is more than a retail establishment, but also a refuge and rendezvous where the region’s “makers” and their potential patrons are brought together for mutual education and discourse in a way that ensures both sides of the retail art equation are enriched and rewarded.
The gallery’s birth in 1971 was a harbinger of a slow shift to specialty retail at a time when anchor department stores like Millers, JC Penny’s, and Sears were still hanging on before the more auto-friendly malls made them no longer sustainable in the downtown core. She played an active role in the 1980s when the first revitalization efforts gave us the waterfront boardwalk, Farmers Market and Performing Arts Center, beginning a new vision for a downtown that had been left to die a slow death. She sees no reason there can’t be another renaissance. Being a witness to so much history and change downtown, I asked Richenda what she thought of the sudden growth of market rate housing to include the purchase of the infamous “mistake on the lake” building on the Isthmus. She surprised me with her quick response that “Development is good as long as it’s done right”. She envisions a blend of new condos, retail space and public amenities such as parks and a public pool, expanding outward from the current Market District located on the Port’s property.
Every town has to shed its skin at some point and organically be repurposed to reflect the new realities of cultural and commerce. This evolution may take decades and may not always be pretty in the process. Nearly half a century ago the opening of this gallery marked the end of an era for Olympia; a slow but natural transition that would grow more apparent every year thereafter. Folks like Richenda and Bill may not have fully realized their role in launching the downtown’s long emergence from its past. There is no doubt however that their decision to site a gallery at the end of the Salish sea and live “artfully and thoughtfully” played a huge role in our fair city beginning the long process of growing up.