Olson-Larsen Galleries boasts a remarkable history shaped by pioneering women who have propelled its transformation into a revered contemporary Midwest gallery. The gallery's inception can be traced to Jan’s Gallery, established by Jan Shotwell in 1970 within Historic Valley Junction, West Des Moines. This pivotal move marked a significant stride in central Iowa's art landscape, as Jan fervently championed regional artists, laying the foundation for Olson-Larsen Galleries' future.
Jan's Gallery flourished under her watchful eye, yet in 1979, Jan's desire to focus on her painting and writing led her to pass the torch. This pivotal juncture saw Ann Larsen and Marlene Olson step in as successors. Nan Stillians, Olson’s superior at the Iowa Arts Council at the time and friend, facilitated the transition, ensuring a seamless continuation of Jan's legacy. These visionary women were intimately connected with the local arts scene, already fostering relationships with artists.
Ann Larsen and Marlene Olson at a gallery reception in the early 1980s
The change in ownership ushered in fresh innovations, such as the introduction of artwork rentals and an expanded clientele base within corporate circles, all while staying true to the gallery's roots in promoting regional art. Thus rebranded as Olson-Larsen Galleries, the space perpetuated Jan's philosophy of supporting local talent. Guided by Ann's adept leadership during this period, the gallery cemented its position in Iowa’s ever-evolving art scene.
By 1984, Marlene emerged as the sole owner, solidifying her role as a patron of artist growth. Her stewardship shepherded generations of upcoming artists, earning her the name of the "godmother of the Iowa artist." Her commitment to preserving artistic tradition while uplifting local talent formed the heart of the gallery's spirit.
Susan (Ode) Watts, 2004
Susan & Marlene at the gallery's 3oth anniversary show in 2009
As the years progressed, a new chapter unfolded with Susan Watts. In 2003, Susan entered the gallery as the Gallery Manager, later becoming Gallery Owner following Marlene’s retirement and steering the gallery's trajectory. Armed with an academic background in art history and journalism, Susan expanded the gallery's outreach through strategic networking, public relations, and educational initiatives. Her tenure saw the gallery evolve as she took on the mantle of ownership in 2010.
As brand awareness in the digital space became increasingly important in the art world, Susan added Alyss Vernon to the team as Gallery Director in 2017. With her experience as a nationally exhibited artist and background in photography, art history, museum studies, and book arts, Alyss’s skills aligned with the gallery's commitment to artistic excellence. Watts and Vernon’s collaborative working style continues to drive the gallery in its ongoing journey with fresh energy and vision only adding to the gallery’s dynamic legacy.
Commitment to quality art, alongside unwavering dedication to fostering relationships, continues to be the foundation upon which the gallery’s prominence is built. Drawing inspiration from Susan's assertion in a Des Moines Register article in April 2014, “When a new building is going up, you have to be the first person calling about art,” Olson-Larsen Galleries not only adapted but also reshaped the local art landscape. This journey of empowerment, both for women and artists, cements the gallery's standing as a potent force. Today, Olson-Larsen Galleries continues its journey of evolution, thriving in its new space at 542 Fifth Street in Valley Junction while remaining steadfast to the enduring legacy established by its founders and curators.
Olson-Larsen Galleries' new location at 542 Fifth Street in Valley Junction, West Des Moines
Brett Garrett, Alyss Vernon, Mark Goodrich, Susan Watts, Helen Chandler, Cat Berg, Tom Florian
Grand Re-Opening party, June 2023
Party photos ©Alan Jacobs
Working at Olson Larsen Galleries has been a transformative experience for me. My time here has been incredibly enlightening, allowing me to delve into installation, curatorial decision- making, and absorbing invaluable insights into the art industry. Being even a small part of the legacy cultivated by remarkable female leaders who've contributed to the gallery's success has been a true honor. As I prepare to embark on a new journey to pursue my masters degree at the Glasgow School of Art, I'm carrying forward a treasure trove of knowledge and experiences. The gallery's emphasis on promoting local talent and its evolution under different leadership styles underscore the profound impact individuals can have on artistic communities. This legacy will guide me as I embrace new challenges and opportunities. With the skills and insights I've gained here, I'm eager to contribute to the global art landscape while paying homage to the legacy of these women.
This post is the first in a short series called The OLG Archives, written by Gallery Assistant, Helen Chandler. Helen joined the gallery team early in 2023 after graduating from Iowa State University. We were lucky to have her here before she leaves to pursue a masters degree in Scotland in a few short weeks.
Stay tuned for the next installment!