PORTLAND — Matt Welch understands that the economy is not well. Especially as it relates to the arts, the sluggish economy poses the single greatest challenge to visual artists and the galleries that represent them.

But Welch isn’t interested in wallowing in the fear that’s associated with these difficult times.

“Sometimes you get to the point in your life when you ask yourself how it might work and not dwell on why it might not,” said Welch, who recently opened the Flat Iron Gallery in the historic H.H. Hay Building, 594 Congress St., near the Portland Museum of Art at Congress Square. “When the market dips, that sometimes opens doors.”

Welch has a number of things going for him. Among them, the pie-shaped Hay Building is a magnet, and has been for almost 200 years. It was built in the 1820s at what is now the corner of Free and Congress streets, directly across from the museum. The gallery occupies the second floor of the building; Starbucks anchors the street level.

The building has long been a favorite subject for artists and photographers. In the few weeks he’s been there, Welch has noted the number of people who have stopped to photograph the graceful building. It’s a beautiful, historic structure that has been an integral part of Portland’s retail and cultural center since it was built in 1826. (The third floor was added in 1922).

That it survived Portland’s urban renewal push of the 1970s is nothing short of miraculous. Chalk up its survival to Greater Portland Landmarks, which used a Maine Historic Preservation Commission grant to save and the restore the building in the late 1970s.

It’s also worth noting that this structure is referred to as the Upper Hay Building. There’s also a Lower Hay Building, at the other end of Free Street, near Middle Street.

That building has a similar pie-shape design, and the two structures form a pair of bookends to Free Street, although they are on different sides of the street. The Lower Hay Building, built around 1890, is home to the ever-popular coffee shop Arabica.

But back to Welch. He’s a painter and an art teacher. He is married with a young child. Opening a gallery has been a dream, and the down economy created an opportunity that might have been out of reach otherwise. The space was empty, and he was able to negotiate a favorable lease.

Just as important, this space demands to be a gallery. Its shape and interior space lends itself to art, and it’s such an iconic building in the heart of the Arts District that any other use of the space seems incongruous. I pity the poor folks who ran the business that occupied the gallery space in these recent years.

It was a gallery before, then became an office, and is a gallery again. During those in-between years, so many people tried to enter the building to see art that the office folks had to post a sign on the door saying the gallery was no longer in business.

But it’s a gallery again, and that is cause for celebration.

Welch is showing work by almost two dozen Portland-area artists, and is putting a large emphasis on painting, sculpture and photography.

Artists and craftsmen with work there now: Pat Plourde, Duane Patricio, Anne Ireland, Patrick Corrigan, Jenny Gardiner, Ellen Granter, Laura Fuller, Ben Coombs, Sandy MacCleod, Judith Ellis Glickman, Walcott Dodge, Carolyn McDonough, Lynette Haggard, Sonia Cook Bro? Donna Grande, Maxine Harmon, Melonie Bennett, Carol Bass, Lisa Ferreira, Katie Schier, Robert Newton, Maria Wolf, Frank Valliere, Peter Turner, Robert Newton, John Freeman, Maria Wolff, Rafael Clariot, Will Sherer, Gina Adams, Ethan Welch, Steve Alvarez, Sam Cady, K. Min and Michael Libby.

While Welch will occasionally focus on the work of individual artists, he intends to show work by the large group on a regular basis and change the pieces monthly.

“I am trying to do things a little differently,” he said. “My goal is to be progressive in who I work with and what I take in. This gallery will give me that luxury.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes