Gallery owner plans art trips to Europe, Mexico
photo by Isaac Bonnell
Wade Marlow remembers vividly the first time he organized a trip for local artists to travel and paint in France. It was 1995 and the group had rented a house in the upper Loire Valley — and everything seemed to go wrong.
“There was no shower curtain, so we had to make our own shower curtain,” said Marlow, owner of The Blue Horse Gallery. “We took the doors down and re-planed them because they let air in and wouldn’t even shut all the way. Everything went wrong on every step of the way until the day we left. We almost missed our flight home.”
Thankfully, the experience did not stop Marlow from organizing more trips and many of the folks who went on that first trip have come along for other adventures.
“When things go wrong, it’s not funny until after the fact, years later,” Marlow said. “In the middle of that first trip my wife and I said, ‘Let’s never do this again.’ But almost everyone who went on that first trip has come on another trip — and I’ve made up for that first trip. I learned so much on that trip that I’ve been able to anticipate future problems.”
In the 14 years since then, Marlow’s art-themed adventures have become a regular part of his gallery business. This year, Marlow led a group to Egypt, and he has three more trips planned: Normandy, France in May; Wiltshire, England in September; then Tuscany and Venice, Italy in October. Next year could be his biggest year yet, with six trips including one to China.
Even with the slow economy, Marlow said the demand for his trips, has never been higher.
“There are a lot of people just nearing retirement age who have always wanted to travel, and they’re saying to themselves, ‘If I wait, will I be able to go later and will I still want to?’ ” he said. “That’s why I’m ramping up the travel part of the business.”
It doesn’t hurt that Marlow, 60, also loves to travel. He has been to Paris — “my favorite city in the world” — more than 40 times. And the trips are doubly good for his business: He makes a small profit from organizing the trip and then, six months after the trip, he hosts a gallery show for the artists to show their work from that trip.
These shows have become quite popular and some artists have even recouped their travel expenses by selling their art from the trip, Marlow said.
Marlow first came to Bellingham with a purpose — he was seeking a second degree from Western Washington University, which never came to fruition — but came upon The Blue Horse Gallery by accident.
Marlow met the previous owner of the gallery, who promptly asked Marlow to come work part-time for him. Marlow’s first degree in art and art history seemed a perfect fit, but he was hesitant to get into the business.
“It was completely different back then,” he said. “[The gallery] sold sofa-sized, starving-artist-type pieces that were just ridiculous.”
So when Marlow took over the business in 1980, he decided to freshen up the image of the gallery. He ramped up the framing side of the business and sold smaller-sized art pieces. But the business still struggled.
“In the early days, I couldn’t get really good artists because I was so new and many of the artists at that time really thought you had to go to Seattle to sell art,” he said.
Bellingham’s art community has grown significantly since then, Marlow said, and the gallery now represents more than 30 painters and sculptors. His success is closely tied to theirs and he is proud to say that there is still a market for art, even in a recession.
“Local people are continuing to buy art,” he said. “We sell plenty of pieces in the $500 range. We’ve seen a lot of these cycles — and this is definitely the most severe — but people still want and need art in their lives.”
Marlow’s art adventures are very much in the same vein as a cultural tour, minus the tour.
“I’ve never taken a tour and I never want to. They sound exhausting,” Marlow said. “This is definitely not a tour — we move into an area and make it our home for a few weeks. We get to know the local baker. There’s no entertainment planned. The artists are there to do work.”
The group size ranges from 10 to 30 people depending on the accommodations, which are typically villas, cottages or chateaus. The group lives together and cooks together, which keeps the costs low. Food expenses are generally around $10 a day for three meals and all the wine they want, Marlow said.
Though Marlow occasionally paints on the trips, he more often finds himself in the roles of head chef and travel coordinator. His experience in each region is a great help for many of the first-time travelers, said local painter Trish Harding, who has gone on two gallery trips.
“We didn’t miss anything because Wade is such a great facilitator,” Harding said. “He showed us how to use the subways and I would never have known that you could get a discounted museum ticket in the subway. I would never have attempted a trip like this by myself.”
Location is key for these trips, as many artists want to be near scenic vistas, and Marlow works hard to find just the right spot.
“The trick for me is to find a place that is affordable and interesting and well located, a place that is comfortable but not too tarted up,” Marlow said. “We like to be away from the tourist locations but close enough to visit those tourist spots.”
Last year, Marlow came upon his dream location: a 10,000-square-foot castle in Great Britain on 34 acres of pristine land. And it was for sale. That got him to thinking more about permanent relocation, and sensing a great opportunity, Marlow put the gallery up for sale but couldn’t find any takers.
“Like most opportunities, it just came at the wrong time,” he said. “I can’t just be gone all the time and still run the gallery. But I’ve offered this business for sale so I could be gone all the time.”
For now, Marlow said he is happy with the way the business is going. He still gets to travel and he loves the life the gallery has given him.
“It’s a great way to live in many ways,” he said. “I get to do all these fun things and work with exciting people and be surrounded by beautiful and thought-provoking art. If I never retire, I’m OK with that. I probably never will retire — I’ll just find something else to do.”
The Blue Horse Gallery
This large gallery has been a mainstay of the downtown art scene for decades. Owner Wade Marlow bought the gallery in 1980, and in 1995 he began organizing trips to Europe for local artists. The trips are open to everyone, but they are not a guided tour, Marlow said — the travels are designed to allow artists time to work.
Open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m and Sunday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.
301 W. Holly St.