More than two decades ago, Derek Vandeberg entered a framing shop in Missoula to purchase a gift. He left with a job.
“A buddy of mine was getting married and he wanted this very specific poster from the University of Montana, so I went to buy one and it turned out the gallery was owned by a woman whose younger sister I dated in high school,” Vandeberg recalls. “They were talking about how much they hated their help, and I was like, ‘Well, I hate my job, this could maybe work.’”
He began framing at the shop, L.A. Design, and the rest is history.
Vandeberg has dedicated his time to opening Frame of Reference gallery, which recently moved to Central Avenue in Whitefish after spending the last 19 years in Bigfork. The gallery is located in the former Bear Mountain Mercantile building, opening after a rapid one-month remodel.
The gallery’s freshly-painted walls are covered in works by primarily Montana artists, depicting familiar scenes like the three peaks at Two Medicine Lake, as well as a consignment gallery and framing station set up in a back area.
Vandeberg said he had considered a move to Whitefish at different points in the last two decades, but the timing was never right. First, Bigfork seemed an untapped market when Vandeberg first opened shop, and the town had grown into a vibrant arts community that he had become heavily involved in. Then the 2008 recession set things back considerably, and it wasn’t until the last year that he reconsidered a move north.
One day a friend mentioned opening in Whitefish as a side comment, but it stuck.
“Then I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I started looking for a space and got really lucky because I found this space within a day of it being advertised,” he said.
With five times more wall space to work with in Whitefish, Vandeberg said his focus has shifted more to showcasing local artists a greatly expanded range of artists.
“In Bigfork we were very much a split, half-and-half gallery and framing,” he said. “The framing is still very important, that’s my roots — I’ve been a picture framer for 25 years — but this is really much more about the gallery.”
While Vandeberg had no background in painting — he studied creative writing at the University of Montana and the University of Wisconsin — he was an accomplished builder, having worked on custom bicycles for years in Missoula and in Madison, Wisconsin. Some of Montana’s best designers at L.A. Design in Missoula were creating new and innovative framing designs, modeled after trending designs in bigger areas like New York, without a talented builder to realize them. That’s where Vandeberg’s handiwork came in.
“I could make what they could conceive,” he said.
Since that first job in Missoula, Vandeberg’s responsibilities have grown from building custom frames to doing a “little bit of everything,” which includes delivery, sales, working with artists, paying bills and much more. However, he’s thankful he still gets to work with his hands every day.
“I’m really lucky, because I still build stuff every day,” he said. “So few people make things anymore.”
Along with building, a rewarding part of the job is working alongside the artists to see their work make it onto the walls of residents’ and visitors’ homes.
“It’s tough to make a living as an artist. You have to really be committed to both the passion that you put in your work, but you also have to be somewhat of a business person because you have to market yourself,” Vandeberg said. “All of the people whose work is shown here, I love what they do but I like them as people too.”
Vandeberg also stressed how important it is for him and his wife, Elizabeth, a web developer based in Bigfork and the gallery’s website designer, to keep up with community events and stay involved.
In Bigfork, he said, he was constantly working with schools, other galleries and community events to help wherever they could, and that mindset is one he’s brought to Whitefish.
“It’s important to me that we participate in all levels of the community,” he said. “We’re here long term. I expect to be here for the next 20 years. We want to be a part of this community and we’ll work for that.”
For more information on Frame of Reference, visit www.frameref.com or call 730-8855.