When Jim Wilcox quit his job as a Seattle high school art teacher and opened a gallery in Jackson, he paid the winter’s rent with one of his paintings.
That was 50 years ago, making the Wilcox Gallery one of the oldest in town and the oldest to operate under the same owner.
This week the gallery is celebrating this milestone with an anniversary show and luncheon and the first showing of Wilcox’s 3,000th painting, “Opening Day at Lower Falls” at an evening “unveiling.”
In the late ’60s there were only a handful of other galleries in town, and none of them had space to display Wilcox’s work. Opening his own gallery guaranteed his work would be shown and provided him a space to paint.
He and his wife, Narda Wilcox, found a place they could afford in the Pink Garter and opened up shop.
In the decades since, Jackson has developed more of a year-round economy and allowed the Wilcox Gallery to expand substantially. It has locations on Town Square and north of town Highway 89 and has become a hub for Western art.
“The biggest change,” Jim Wilcox said, “is that it’s gotten from being a cow town with a couple art galleries to being the premiere place to buy Western art in the country.”
He credited the fact that he’s been able to keep the gallery running for so long to the artists and collectors who work with him.
It also helps to have a family that’s equally passionate about art.
Five out of seven of his children have worked for the gallery at some point in their lives. His eldest son, Jeff Wilcox, is the manager of the Highway 89 location and his youngest son, Eric Wilcox, is the manager of the Town Square location.
Inspired by the artists around him his whole life, Eric Wilcox also became an artist himself, making small-scale bronze wildlife sculptures.
“Growing up upstairs from the art gallery, I was always inspired by the beautiful art and just being immersed in it,” he said. “When I was younger it was, like it or not, you’re immersed in it. Now, as an adult working in the gallery, I’m like a kid in a candy shop.”
For Jeff Wilcox, who was born in 1967, the gallery has always been a part of his life.
For a while the Wilcox home doubled as a showroom. As a kid, that drove Jeff Wilcox crazy because it meant he wasn’t allowed to throw balls in the house.
It wasn’t until he was in his 20s that he started noticing art and walking into galleries of his own volition. He’s been working full time at the gallery since 1997.
“The art world is always changing and always evolving, and we’re always trying to figure it out,” he said. “But it’s just recently really hitting me as to what a milestone 50 years is.”
The gallery’s longevity speaks to the close working relationships that members of the family cultivate with their artists, who they typically carry for decades, Jeff Wilcox said.
“The better we know them, the better they know us, the better we sell our art,” he said.
One such longtime artist is sculptor Tim Whitworth, who has been with the Wilcox Gallery for 39 years.
He came across the gallery in 1980, when he was still working full time as an electrician and making art in his free time. When he and his wife took a tour of Jackson to scope out the galleries and try to figure out how to get his work in one, they were met mostly with indifference.
That is, until they came across the Wilcoxes and their gallery. The family saw Whitworth’s work had promise and have worked with him ever since.
“When you’re with the Wilcox gallery, you’re a part of the family,” Whitworth said.
Anyone who attends the unveiling will be entered into a raffle for prints, books and chiclees as well as a $20,000 art giveaway. Winners of the former will be announced Thursday night. Winners of the latter will be announced at the end of the year. Anyone who spends $100 at the gallery between now and then will win extra tickets to the yearlong raffle. ￼