Photo by Marcy Stamper

Sarah Jo Lightner replaced Salyna Gracie as the executive director at Confluence Gallery and Art Center in Twisp last week.

By Marcy Stamper

Sarah Jo Lightner stepped into the role of executive director at Confluence Gallery and Art Center in Twisp last week, focused on helping artists develop business skills and making it possible for all children and teenagers to experience art.

Lightner, the gallery manager for the past three years, was appointed after former executive director Salyna Gracie announced her resignation. Lightner is motivated about continuing the partnership she and Gracie forged.

“The great thing about my relationship with Salyna is that is was very collaborative,” said Lightner. “We brainstormed everything we’re doing together. It’s so great to have a boss who appreciates your ideas.”

Lightner doesn’t anticipate major changes in the gallery’s focus. But she is strengthening the gallery’s support for helping artists to build entrepreneurial skills. “It’s hard to be a businessperson and an artist at the same time. You have to be really savvy to thrive as an artist in our local economy,” she said.

Make/ART/Work, a professional development conference where artists can learn to implement business strategies in their everyday work, is part of that focus. The conference is April 7.

“We live in one of the poorest counties in the state, and being an artist makes it even more challenging to pay the bills,” said Lightner. “We want to give artists something they can really use.”

That commitment comes out of Lightner’s entrepreneurial background — 22 years in the restaurant industry, nine of them running her own restaurant in Portland. “I had great mentors who taught me the ins and outs of how to take care of a business. It’s about relationships, networking and hard work,” she said.

Lightner is also a practicing artist, a silversmith who makes custom, one-of-a-kind pieces at her Glitter & Grit Silver Studio at TwispWorks. “It is my other love, and the passion that keeps me going,” she said.

The mother of 4-year-old twins, Lightner is also passionate about making sure all local kids have an opportunity to make art, regardless of prior experience or financial means. This summer the Art Camp for Everyone will offer a flexible schedule and scholarships so that all kids can immerse themselves in art.

Show committee sets the vision

Exhibits at the gallery are planned by the volunteer show committee. “It’s a great, rich pool of interesting and artful minds,” said Lightner. At their annual meeting, everyone on the committee — most of them artists — contributes 10 to 15 ideas for exhibits, which they toss around until they’ve come up with eight themes for a stimulating year. Gallery staff help fulfill that vision by providing a professional environment for exhibits, said Lightner.

“Our main goal is to showcase the diverse artwork made in Okanogan County — that’s part of our mission,” she said.

Like many art institutions, Confluence Gallery sometimes has to fight the notion that art occupies an elite province for a privileged group. Lightner is adamant that there’s a way to bridge that gap.

“I want people in the community to know this is their gallery, not an exclusive space. If someone is having a bad day and wants to walk through a beautiful place, the door is open,” she said.

Gracie is moving to the Seattle area. “Working with you artists has been the greatest joy in my role as executive director,” she said in a message to gallery supporters. “I am continually in awe of your talent and dedication to your creative practice … I cheer each of you on to great success.”