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Downtown Nanaimo’s Gallery Merrick moving to Victoria

Lack of downtown support from city, scarce foot traffic influenced decision to leave
Joe Bembridge has packed up Gallery Merrick and will be reopening in Victoria in March. (Josef Jacobson/News Bulletin)

There is one fewer art gallery in downtown Nanaimo.

On Dec. 23, Gallery Merrick shut its door on Commercial Street for the last time and in March it will reopen in a larger space in downtown Victoria.

Gallery owner Joe Bembridge said he made an “educated cannonball” when he moved to Nanaimo four years ago from Banff, Alta. to open his gallery. He had only briefly visited Nanaimo on a few occasions and although he had experience working in a gallery he had never run one on his own.

“When I first started Gallery Merrick there were so many people in the first couple months that came into the gallery and said, ‘This isn’t going to work here,’ and, ‘People have tried this before,’ and, ‘Good luck,’” Bembridge said. “And I just said, ‘Well, just let me do what I do and let me unveil what Gallery Merrick is and nobody has done what I’ve done and nobody is who I am.’”

Bembridge said the gallery defined itself as having “eclectic, quirky, off-beat, non-traditional” art work by artists of different styles and at different stages of their careers. He said he had a five-year plan to start the gallery in Nanaimo, build an artist roster and “learn what it is to be a gallerist.”

While there are “elements of excitement” to the move, Bembridge said there are “elements of disappointment” as well. He said one reason he decided to leave one year sooner than planned was because of a lack of support from city hall and shoppers. He said he hasn’t heard much from the city during the pandemic and little is being done to draw people to the downtown.

Bembridge said “there is a lot of struggle right now for Commercial Street” and that during the holiday season the streets have been empty.

“Yes, there are new elements of COVID and all that but if you really want locally owned businesses to stay here and continue, you’ve got to make purchases…” he said. “Lack of foot traffic is an issue for us down here. People aren’t coming down.”

Bembridge’s new location at 1806 Government St. is more than twice as big at 1,800 square feet and he hopes to put on an event each month. Among the local artists whose work he’ll be representing in Victoria are Yvonne Vander Kooi and Jennifer DeGroot.

“The little gallery that initially people thought couldn’t, could…” he said. “I think some people will look and go, ‘Oh no, they didn’t make it,’ and it’s like, ‘No, it’s actually the opposite, we’re upgrading.’”

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