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Friends, community show loyalty to Hillside Fine Art

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

Back in May, Hillside Fine Art gallery owner Steve Harrison had a big decision to make. His gallery had been shut down since early March, and the prospects for returning to in-person shows looked dim.

With his husband John Ibson now retired from Cal State Fullerton, he considered whether perhaps it was just time to put that chapter of his life away and move on.

“Who knows how long this is going to go on, and how much of my own money I will have to pump into the gallery to keep it afloat,” he recalled thinking at the time.

He decided to have a going-out-of-business sale, sending out a group email to loyal customers, and posting information about the sale on the local Facebook group, Claremont Connects, on May 26.

“After much thought, I have decided to close Hillside Fine Art for now. It has been a great run—six years, and I have gotten to know and represent over twenty artists during that time. I have also met many collectors like myself who appreciate what artists are able to do and get us to see. It has been a joy. Currently, the pandemic makes things too uncertain; so, with a combination of relief and sadness, Hillside will be closing,” the Facebook post read.

What happened next was definitely not what he expected. Loyal customers and new patrons literally came out of the woodwork and bought so many paintings that Mr. Harrison had his best May and June sales ever.

“I was incredibly touched by the people of Claremont. People dropped in and said how sorry they were that I was closing and that they hoped to change my mind,” he said.

As a result, he has decided to keep the gallery going but to recalibrate his approach to adapt to the COVID era.

Most of his sales now are by appointment, and he is most certainly taking social distancing and cleanliness very seriously. The galley is small so he allows customers to browse while he waits outside, and of course, everyone must wear a face covering.

One change he won’t embrace is taking his gallery 100 percent online, even if that is where the industry appears to be headed. He says that having an online gallery seems cold and that the main joy he gets from the business is building personal relationships.

“What I love is getting to know clients and some, a few, have become friends.”

He describes Hillside as a Carmel, California style gallery and says that makes it pretty unique in the Inland Valley. He and Mr. Ibson have lived in Claremont for 35 years; they currently have a home in the Padua Hills, and really love this town.

“I love Carmel so opening a Carmel style gallery in the place we live [makes me] happy to have another connection to this town.”

Looking ahead to the second half of the year, he plans to see how comfortable people are getting back into the world and to let that determine the future of Hillside.

The ever-changing rules coming from the county and state governments make it hard to know if he will be allowed to stay open.

“I hope art galleries have a place in the new world and don’t disappear like bookstores. It’s part of what makes Claremont special—the restaurants, the independent shops and all the art. We want that to continue.”

He also believes that art can be part of the solution to the anxiety and uncertainty of life during the pandemic.

“I think we live in perplexing times and art soothes the wild beast and provides solace,” Mr. Harrison said.

Hillside Fine Art gallery is located in the Old Schoolhouse property adjacent to Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater. The gallery is currently open Friday and Saturday from noon to 4 p.m., with appointments preferred. The phone number is (909) 268-4526.

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