Art Gallery Comes Full Circle

Frame of Reference Fine Art will open its second location in Bigfork in mid-February

By Maggie Dresser
A sculpture by artist Greg Woodward at Frame of Reference Fine Art gallery in downtown Whitefish on Dec. 31, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In an 800-square-foot building on Electric Avenue in Bigfork, Derek Vandeberg opened Frame of Reference Fine Art more than 20 years ago before moving the gallery north to Whitefish in 2016 to be in a year-round economy.

But in February, Derek and his wife and business partner, Elizabeth, plan to return to Bigfork to expand their business and bring art to both ends of the valley.

With two Frame of Reference locations, the Vandebergs plan to bring additional artists to the new Bigfork location along with a different look.

While the new building has sat vacant for the last few years, the space has been a gallery for close to 50 years, starting as an art gallery in the 1970s and most recently housing Collage Gallery of Fine Art. The Vandebergs are looking forward to continuing the gallery tradition in the 2,800-square-foot space.

“Our goal is to double our wall space again,” Derek said. “It’s a really good opportunity for some of the artists we represent.”

But earlier in 2020, the Vandebergs were worried about the fate of their Whitefish location remaining open, let alone opening a second location. At the beginning of the pandemic, they locked the gallery’s doors for three months and went to an appointment-only business model.

“One of the more difficult journeys for me this year was, ‘How relevant are pictures of Glacier Park when people are literally dying?'” Derek said.

Now, customers walk into the gallery every day, and the Vandebergs watch them sigh in relief as they look at the art on the walls.

“It brings them some peace and joy and beauty, and we’re able to do that over a broad range of people,” Derek said.

While the gallery faced an uncertain future back in the spring, the gallery saw heavy tourist traffic over the summer, and despite the interruption in revenue early on in the pandemic, business picked back up enough for the Vandebergs to look for a second location.

Derek originally left Bigfork because of its reliance on summer. During the last year that Frame of Reference was open in Bigfork in 2015, he didn’t sell a single piece of art in an eight-month period and solely relied on the framing aspect of his business.

When the gallery relocated to Whitefish, the Vandebergs also added minority partners, Michel and Tula Thompson, who helped change the trajectory of the business and grow the gallery side of it. The gallery has since tripled in business after leaving Bigfork.

Now that the Bigfork season seems to be extending, the Vandebergs wanted to offer artists and residents on the southern end of the valley more opportunity.

“I think Bigfork is experiencing a resurgence,” Derek said. “We’re really excited to be a part of that.”

Once the new location is open, the two galleries will have more than 6,000 square feet of space combined, which gives the opportunity for a broad range of subject matter.

“We try to be diverse,” Derek said. “Some galleries you walk in and either you love it or you hate it because it’s all the same thing. Galleries do a really good job at having a certain look and I think that’s great, but it’s not us.”

In addition to a broad range in artist types, the gallery also has a wide price range, featuring emerging artists selling art for $300 to well-known artists selling pieces for $50,000. The Vandebergs have the opportunity to witness people’s first art purchases, which they say is rewarding because they often walk in and are surprised by some of the affordability.

“It’s really fun to be involved in someone’s first art purchase,” Elizabeth said.

Frame of Reference Fine Art’s Bigfork location will open in mid-February at 573 Electric Ave.

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