EUGENE, Ore. — A downtown city gallery in Eugene, Oregon, just succumbed to nonprofit exhaustion — and angry local artists reacted en masse during a contentious community meeting intended to calm the waters.
In Eugene, 100 miles from the arts mecca of Portland, the visual arts are in such a state that the local weekly published an op-ed from an artist saying, “Our art scene sucks.”
Artists and arts writers can list many galleries that have closed or moved towns during the last decade — an incomplete list includes Fenario, Opus Six, Opus Seven, and, in the last year alone, DIVA and The Gallery at the Watershed. With few major spots left, artists were shocked when the board of The Jacobs Gallery, located in the city’s performing arts center, announced that it would close at the end of January.
The Eugene-Springfield area has about 300,000 people, but no arts museum outside of the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of the Arts. The JSMA focuses on its “academic mission” and brings in many traveling shows, but isn’t intended to serve as a gallery for local and regional artists.
Despite other gallery closings, local artists thought the Jacobs was safe. It fronted on a pedestrian mall between the city’s Convention Center and the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. It showed local and regional artists’ juried work. Every autumn, it hosted the Mayor’s Art Show, Eugene’s most visible visual arts event, which introduced local artists to the thousands of people who attended the opening gala and prize ceremony. But the gallery was not city run. City control of the Jacobs ended in 1998, 11 years after it opened, thanks to Oregon voters. In 1996 and 1997, state voters passed property tax restrictions. The immediate effect in Eugene was that city officials needed money — and Jacobs Gallery funding, along with other cultural services, came from part of the budget paid for by local “transient room taxes.” The city took that room tax fund for other, more basic services, and decided to close the Jacobs.
The arts community of the time was sad and angry. Glass artist John Rose was one of the final artists in a group exhibit at the city-run Jacobs, so he and the other artists held a combined funeral/protest “Wake for the Arts” (“double entendre intended,” he said in a phone interview). Rose hauled one of the wake’s results — a dead tree, beribboned with suggestions for how to keep the gallery going — into a Eugene City Council meeting to show councilors that the city’s artists wanted a gallery. Soon, a group of artists, arts administrators and funders started meeting in people’s living rooms, Rose said. They formed a nonprofit called the Visual Arts Consortium and, with the city’s agreement, took over running the Jacobs Gallery space in 1998.
Nearly two decades later, Jacobs Gallery board president Alex Brokaw (one of the original members of the consortium) said in the closing announcement that the board was tired of trying to raise enough money to cover salaries and operating costs for the gallery. The Jacobs had a budget of about $100,000, not including the in-kind space, security, lighting, and cleaning donations from the city. With that money, the Jacobs funded two part-time staff people, according to the gallery’s tax documents.
The City of Eugene provided what was called a “stabilizing” grant to the Jacobs in fiscal year 2006 in order to help the nonprofit turn into a 501(c)(3) organization. That grant money, which began as $30,000, was noncompetitive and intended to be for the transition. The Hult Center’s general manager, Theresa Sizemore, said in a phone interview that the city kept on providing the same grant to the Jacobs until 2012, when the city told the gallery that the grant would decrease by $5,000 per year until 2015, when it was $15,000 — and then end for 2016.
To make up for that loss, said Tomi Douglas Anderson, the Cultural Services director for Eugene, “The board told me they would need to have a fundraiser gala every year instead of every other year. That seems like what nonprofits have to do.”
Anderson and other Cultural Services staffers organized a mid-January community meeting that they thought would be about brainstorming visual arts goals for the newly freed space. But more than 100 artists and community members showed up, and many wanted a place to express their frustration. Shouting matches ensued, and about a quarter to a third of those present left to congregate outside and report their anger on Facebook and in other forums. Arts writer Bob Keefer called the meeting “chaotic and clueless.”
“The meeting, it was insane,” said Alex V. Cipolle, arts editor for the Eugene Weekly, in a phone interview after the meeting. “It was the last straw for the art community. They were so hurt and upset to see another gallery close with a lot of nice platitudes but no real, tangible efforts to keep it alive.”
Though city staff advertised the gathering as a meeting about moving forward, they acknowledge that the results surprised them. Anderson said, “It turns out I was unprepared for the frustration and vitriol people had about why the gallery was closing. I was clearly naive in thinking we could pivot and move on.”
Weeks later, some artists are still disheartened, both with the city for not doing more to protect the Jacobs and definitely with the board. “This broke,” said Roka Walsh, a mixed media and photography artist. “How did it break? The board was tired? So just come to us and tell us that you’re tired and you needed help.”
That didn’t happen, and the Jacobs is now closed for real. Staff say discussion is ongoing about using one of the performing arts center’s spaces for another gallery and finding a good spot for the 2016 Mayor’s Art Show.
Courtney Stubbert, who wrote the “our art scene sucks” op-ed, said in a phone interview that he would like to see the meeting and discussion spur Cultural Services into helping more artists across the entire city.
“If I had my wish,” he said, “I’d want the city to create some actual spaces for artists to work and live.”
But John Rose, who helped the Jacobs revive itself 18 years ago, isn’t hauling dead trees into any more meetings. He said, “I feel like it’s a bad time for the arts in Eugene.”
Rose is going to miss the Jacobs. The art there, he said, was not about helping a business look better or representing a roster of artists that sold well. Volunteers and staff ran the Jacobs because they cared about the art, he said. “It was a pure thing.”