Hangin’ Art Gallery closes up shop after 16 years
ARLEE – The Hangin’ Art Gallery was filled with people for the last time on Thursday evening as musicians, artists and friends gathered to say a final farewell to an iconic small business.
“Lots of energy passed through this place over the years,” Andre Floyd said from the stage while holding his guitar between songs. “If only these walls could talk.”
The photos resting on a table in the corner gave a small indication of the memories people experienced during the past 16 years, including art shows, concerts, children’s programs and poetry readings.
Donna Mollica and her husband Denny Nault opened the gallery in 2003. The couple remodeled the building and turned it into a haven for artists of all kinds to share their work.
“This was Denny’s dream,” Mollica said of her husband who passed away in 2015. She said she was “honored” to build it with him but is ready now to move on to other things. She said traveling was at the top of her “to do” list, maybe even to Australia.
“This was something we did together, and he isn’t here anymore,” she said. “We did a lot of wonderful things here. I’m most proud of the projects we did for youth.”
Though a few people expressed interest in the building, no one wanted to take over the business. During the closing event, much of the art was still hanging on walls. A sign near the door said everything was 20 percent off.
“We are going to take the art down and get it where it belongs,” Mollica said. Some of the pieces sold, others would be going back to the artists.
She said the community needs a new generation of volunteers.
“We’ve lost a lot of important people who helped make this possible, a lot of volunteers in this community. I don’t know what will happen if the next generation doesn’t step up. Maybe they will create something new, something they need.”
Mollica said she had many wonderful memories of people gathering at the gallery but that she was also tired. She said it takes a lot of work to make a small business go in a small town.
“People aren’t shopping in small businesses anymore,” she said. “It’s just how it is. It’s been really challenging, but this is a new time and, hopefully, we will get some new energy.”
She noticed a change in people in the past 10 years. “People don’t gather like they used to,” she said. “And you have to have a bigger online presence.”
She said she tried several ways to bring people into the business and the area, including having a farmers market in the parking lot, evening dinners and music. “We tried many different things but no one came,” she said. “I’m out of ideas.”
The expansion of U.S. Highway 93 in Arlee about 10 years ago changed the way traffic flowed through the downtown's business area and created a hardship for many businesses. “We never really recovered from the split,” Mollica said. “It was hard on the whole town.”
Though she isn’t sure what will happen with the building, she said her business is closed permanently. “We might get some new energy, or we might become a bedroom town off of Missoula. We will have to wait and see.”
The Killdeer Artisans Guild, a cooperative association of Western Montana artists who are committed to the growth and development of artists, has used the gallery as a home base for years.
“When we found out that this was closing, we did a group email to see if there was still an interest in keeping the guild going and everyone said, ‘yes,’” said Marti de Alva, one of the founding members. “We are losing our home base, but I think that we will keep going.”
She said that losing the gallery will be difficult.
“This is a big loss to the community. It’s been a gift to the community, not just for art, but for music, kids programs and native theater. We had a lot of really important things going on here, and I hope that the energy continues.” She said that people can find the guild through Facebook if they are interested in joining.
On Thursday, the gallery was full of people enjoying one last meal together, which included items like carrot cake often found by the slice for sale. The coffee counter was closed during the event and the employees were off looking for other jobs, which was another reason Mollica was tired. She kept the business going for the last week to see that the inventory was all used up. Last Friday, she served the last pot of clam chowder during the lunch hour. The last hand-pies were made and sold a few days before the shop closed.
People left messages on Hangin' Arts Facebook page saying they would miss the small business.
“I may have to break from my veganism for one final slice of your unbeatable carrot cake,” one person said. Many others commented that the business would be greatly missed.