Business & economy

Artists co-op to close doors after nearly 20 years

ONTARIO – An Ontario nonprofit gift shop selling arts and crafts by local artists will close at the end of March.

The House That Art Built, at 443 S.W. 1st St., announced recently on its Facebook page, that “after 17 years of business, we have decided to close The House That Art Built.”

Founded by a group of nearly 20 local artists in 2007, the nonprofit artist co-op features arts and crafts. Currently, there are about a dozen artists involved with the co-op.  

Charlotte Dube, a local artist and retired social worker with the Oregon Department of Human Services, said that running the business’s daily operations is getting more challenging, and the staff, who are all volunteers, are getting older and are ready to move on.

Dube, a founding member, is one of the three original members who helped establish the artist co-op. She said the others have either moved on and others have passed away over the years. According to Dube, not enough younger people can make the commitment necessary to keep the business running.

She said younger artists these days sell their work at the fairgrounds or the Saturday market. Some artists sell their work on consignment at the gift shop.

Dube said the group likes to have other artists who want to participate and “be part of a group” rather than a business arrangement.

She said the gift shop was founded with that sense of camaraderie.

The original 16 members, whom she characterized as a “group of ladies,” dedicated time and resources to building the co-op and renovating the building. The converted house was owned by one of the founding members, Pat Phillips, who died last year. Her husband, Tom Phillips, a former Ontario real estate agent, owns the building, according to Dube.

She said the building needed “a lot of work” and was in “really bad shape,” but the members, who were mostly retired, put time and resources into maintaining it. One member bought a new window, while another paid to install a new door.

Today, the converted home, which, Dube said at one time was a “drug house,” was painted purple and each of the eight rooms was painted a different color. She said Phillips, who grew lavender, made lavender air fresheners and customers over the years commented on the pleasant smell.

Among the fine arts and crafts sold at the co-op, include pottery, hand-crafted wooden bowls, jewelry, paintings, and sculptures.

Dube’s crafts include jewelry, fused glass creations, which she makes and donates to her church.

Dawn Richter, a newer member who joined in 2019, makes soaps and bath bombs and lotions.

The other two original members still affiliated with the nonprofit are Lynda Smith and Lyn Klauser.

Dube said over the years, the gift shop became popular in the community, and she emphasized that the nonprofit is not closing due to financial reasons.

“We’ve done very well to stay there all this time,” she said. 

Richter, who makes candles, soaps, and bath bombs, said she was a “latecomer” to the art house. However, she said she has enjoyed the experience and, like Dube, will miss the customers.

She said during the pandemic, the gift shop received financial help from the city and the county to get through the shutdown and loyal customers purchased handmade gift cards. Dube said the shop sold about $3,000 in gift cards that kept the shop afloat during the lowest economic points of the virus.

“The gift cards really helped us keep going,” she said. “We were able to open back up.”

Dube said she and the other members of the group have been grateful for the community support. The nonprofit’s Facebook post struck an emotional chord in the community, and some have asked how they might be able to keep it open. She said a local artist approached her about taking over but such plans remain uncertain.

Dube said it’s unlikely the gift shop would have been able to weather the ups and downs of the economy had the group solely relied on art sales as their prime income source of income. A majority of the group’s founding members were living on their retirements.  

“You just don’t make enough to support it. But the way we had it set up, if you made a little money, you got to buy more supplies,” she said.

Richter, one of the group’s newest members, a retired microbiologist, worked at Kraft-Heinz over 20 years as a food safety specialist.

Dube said the artists will miss the daily interactions with loyal customers, some of whom have been coming since the beginning and others, passing through, who happened upon the store.

“That’s the hard part of closing,” she said, “is visiting with the customers. If you got to talking with people, you’d find out all kinds of interesting things. They just have always supported the store.”

Dawn Richter, an artist with the House That Art Built, talks about the gift shop’s impact on the community Thursday, Jan.11. Last month the nonprofit announced on its Facebook page that it would close in March. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

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