Tucked away next to the Limelight Cinema and down the hall from Film Is Truth is Allied Arts of Whatcom County, a local art gallery in downtown Bellingham with a mission to enrich the community with arts, education and seasonal festivities.
The nonprofit organization has been in its present location for almost 20 years, working with artists to put on shows and sell their work, Katy Tolles, the artist services coordinator for Allied Arts, said. The organization has been working with schools in the county and planning events to help bring arts to the people.
Tolles said she began working at Allied Arts as an intern during her last year as an undergraduate majoring in fine arts at Western. Tolles accepted a full-time position with the organization after graduating in 2009 and has been the artist services coordinator for the last eight years.
“We hope to be a clearing house for the arts in the community, where you go to learn about arts activities, arts happenings,” Tolles said. “To make the arts accessible to everybody in our community no matter what their demographic is.”
Allied Arts of Whatcom County sprung out of what was originally a holiday art festival put together by a group of artists in Bellingham. After holding festivities during the weekends of the holiday season year after year, the group grew into an art gallery, Tolles said. Over time, a location in downtown Bellingham became Allied Arts’ new home and it has grown as an organization since.
Since its founding, the organization has developed an arts education program for students in local elementary schools, launched a thrift store, hosted many community-based events and continued its tradition of the annual holiday festival.
“It’s a great place to find 100 local businesses, all in one place and support local artists and local businesses,” Tolles said.
Wendy Jones, an employee at the gallery, said because of its central location downtown, Allied Arts sees a variety of visitors to match its wide collection of work. Jones said the gallery hosts different art exhibits every month ranging from oil paintings, watercolors, jewelry, fiber art, acrylic and mixed media, among others. The shows typically open the first Friday of the month.
She said artists, tourists, community members and Western students are all regulars at the both the gallery and the Allied Arts Reuse Thrift Store, which is set up inside.
The Reuse Thrift Store receives donations constantly and brings in customers looking for new art mediums to try, cheap supplies to keep their creativity going, or even small pieces of decor for their homes.
Tolles said she and Executive Director Kelly Hart were the forces behind starting the thrift store three years ago.
Community members and artists often bring in donations to contribute to Allied Arts’ educational programs in elementary schools. Seeing the overload in donations, Kolles and Hart decided to do something with them, having received more than they have storage for.
Having seen similar concepts of selling used art supplies, like Urban Source in Vancouver, British Columbia and Scrap in Portland, Oregon, Tolles and Hart decided to create a space dedicated to repurposing art supplies within the community.
All the items in the thrift store come as donations from the community. The supplies are then organized and priced by volunteers and sold back to those interested in getting creative without breaking the bank.
While the thrift store is a part of the gallery, it has a different feel from the rest of the space. When walking up the stairs from the white-walled gallery with simple decor and layout, visitors enter a room filled with art and office supplies of every kind – ranging from paint brushes to decor and even yard sale items.
“It’s a treasure trove, different every day,” Jones said.
Jones said she remembers a specific day when a dollmaker from the area cleared out her studio and donated what she didn’t want to Allied Arts. She said the specialty items in were especially popular with Western students who were using parts as decor. Jones said the purpose of the store is to make the arts more accessible.
“There’s a barrier to creativity when your materials cost a lot of money,” Jones said. “When you can come in and get a whole bunch of materials for a really low price, then you can sort of be free to be extravagant and create things that you might not have done before.
Allied Arts also has an educational program aimed at elementary-aged students in the public schools in Whatcom County. Tolles said since so many elementary schools today don’t have an art teacher on staff, it can be difficult for class teachers to fill the gap needed for arts education, which is where the Allied Arts Education Project comes in.
The organization has 18 local teaching artists available to help elementary schools by either teaching art classes or showing teachers how to work art into the classroom, Tolles said.
Ben Mann, who has been a teaching artist with Allied Arts since 2001, has worked in kindergarten through fifth grade classrooms. Mann said working in a classroom full of kids has helped him get out of his comfort zone and interact more with his community.
“In my opinion, it is important to support and propel the arts locally, because nothing gives [Bellingham] visitors a stronger sense of place. Nothing gives locals a stronger sense of pride,” Mann said. “Engaging in the arts for me has been a way of connecting art patrons with their inner kid with a crayon!”
In addition to the education programs in schools, Allied Arts works to fill downtown Bellingham with art for the Children’s Art Walk every year in May. According to Tolles, 65 downtown stores last year filled their windows with art made by children from the community.
Tolles said Allied Arts tries to fill the gap where public schools can’t often provide an arts education, providing children with an opportunity to cultivate new skills and broaden their horizons.
“It’s also important for the kids to realize that the arts are a part of everything. The video games that they play, this box of tissues,” Tolles said, picking up a box sitting on her desk. “As mundane as this is, an artist had to get on to a computer and design that box.”
For more information, visit www.alliedarts.org/