A tale of two community art centers

Baker City and La Grande, Oregon

I went to the east side of the state a few weeks ago with the expressed purpose of learning a little about arts organizations in both La Grande and Baker City and the artists who live there. Having never been on the other side of the Cascades in the ten years I have lived in Oregon, I thought it was high time to encounter that geography while also bringing a little more “Oregon” to “ArtsWatch.”

My plan was to cover a lot of miles on and off of Route 26, take as many back roads as daylight would allow and camp for a few days before re-entering populated areas. In my mind—as naive as it may seem—the need to isolate myself was also an immersion, a necessary transition to get my head into the mindset of the folks on the other side of the Cascades. I was and remain aware of a perceived ideological line drawn between those who live (and vote) in the Valley and Oregonians who make a life for themselves in less-populated areas. After all, I live in a part of the Valley where many folks dream of retiring to the East Side, which they see as the real Eden of Oregon. They don’t care two licks about Portland or Eugene.

Of course, these are all false constructs, for no matter where one prefers to live, or whether one prefers the Beavers over the Ducks, the conversation is always more diverse and the factors involved, more complicated; it is only a tendency toward a specific preference that can color perceptions and I am no less guilty than the next person. I make no secret of my lack of enthusiasm for pastoral art, but I also recognize and admire the proficiency of the artists who engage in that practice. I have a similar attitude toward much craft-based art, but again, that has not stopped me from curating exhibits consisting solely of crafts. And, as I would be reminded, not every small town is like another.

As soon as I crossed over the Santiam Pass I knew I was in new territory. The geography seemed harsher with evidence of wildfires from the recent and distant past. The architecture was decidedly more dated, sometimes as a façade, but there was nothing fake about abandoned and collapsing log structures. There was much greater distance between towns and once I got away from Prineville, vehicles were more scarce. Big RVs outnumbered cars, and I sometimes had to slow down for cattle in the road. But I had little trouble finding a breakfast of eggs, bacon and hash browns with a small side of biscuits & gravy or a decent burger for a later meal, as long as it was before 8 pm. The truck radio could find religious and country stations quite readily but nothing else, yet I surprisingly had phone service on some pretty remote stretches of road.

Accordingly, I saw some art that was not derived from or inspired by the region, and in one instance, I did and was delighted. (But you’ll have to wait until part two of this essay for an introduction to some of these artists.)

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The amount of sagebrush and sparsity of trees in much of eastern Oregon is a testament to the usual arid conditions. Still, people manage to farm and ranch, using every inch of arable land in valleys to grow crops or graze cattle. It was from these observations I made note of a simple metaphor: Largely dependent on the rivers, dammed or free-flowing, along with the extensive irrigation systems fed by those water sources, fertile ground alone does not suffice. Cultivation requires some concentrated industry and a lot of ingenuity around water.

Communities have grown in the larger valleys with a good water supply. Baker City is one such town, and as bustling and charming as it is, it must have one helluva water supply. Even so, the city has had its ups and downs. Once the third largest populated city in Oregon, largely because of gold, when the gold was gone, the town fell into a slump. Then the timber industry went bust and the city fell on even harder times. Yet, because of a strong agricultural foundation, Baker City held on, and it began to seek ways to rebuild its economy by looking to the past.

In 1978 it began to the process of enlisting the late nineteenth and early twentieth century brick and stone buildings of the downtown area on the National Historic Register. In 1992 the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center opened, a tourist destination the town fought hard to get. And then there is Leo Adler, a self-made millionaire who left a $20 million dollar trust that continues to deliver his philanthropy to Baker County’s social welfare programs and cultural institutions. Now, with over 100 buildings on the National Register, it is very clear the city’s hometown pride has won the day. One can even imagine more than a few tourists visiting and uttering, “We could live here.”

According to Ginger Savage, Executive Director of the Crossroads Creative and Performing Arts Center, housed at the Crossroads Carnegie Art Center, some of those newcomers are artists.

Front of Crossroads Carnegie Art Center

Front of Crossroads Carnegie Art Center

Savage is not an artist, but she welcomes the new blood. Originally from Prineville, Savage married into a Baker City family that dates back to the Oregon Trail days, and she is a former, long-standing school board chair. A stalwart Baker City booster, she has been the director of Crossroads since 2008.

As its name suggests, the Crossroads Carnegie Art Center was built in 1909 as a Carnegie Library. Located just off of Main Street, it is an impressive structure, both inside and out: Tuff stone exterior, beautiful wood floors, even a functioning elevator. And it better be spectacular, for just before Savage began, roughly $1.4 million was raised and spent to renovate and restore the building (after a failed first attempt). Savage chalks up the fundraising success to the strong sense of community in Baker City. Indeed, listening to her list off the number of classes and events that take place within their walls and relay the dollar amounts of donations coming in, one gets a sense that the organization is on a very firm footing despite a constant search for new funding for continued upkeep and expanded programs.

Crossroads is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year (as is the Corvallis Art Center). The upstairs is dedicated to a large exhibition space, a reception desk/jewelry case and dance studio. The downstairs has classrooms for drawing, painting and ceramics, plus one large room complete with a small stage. Quite obviously, they are not planning to move again.

It’s an active space with a very busy class schedule. Savage and Cynthia Newman, the Community Art Director (a fiber artist originally from Silverton and married into a Baker City area ranching family), fielded my questions while taking turns answering a steady stream of phone calls. A Latin dance class was finishing up when I arrived and when I returned from lunch with Newman, another exercise/dance class was in progress. According to their 2013 summer class schedule, twenty-one classes, including painting, pottery, dance and theatre are being offered while school is out. The majority of the programs are geared toward children, including their ArtSpeak program for at-risk children, yet there are a good number of adult and advanced practice classes offered as well. Last year 562 adults and children attended classes (with an additional but unspecified number of children with developmental needs and special needs who are referred through another social service agency). Add to this a 2nd Friday Literary Night, plus the Eastern Oregon Flute Circle meets there twice a month. The Art Center is also involved in a host of local events, including the annual Salt Lick Auction and the We Like ‘em Short Film Festival.

Gallery area of Crossroads Carnegie Art Center

Gallery area of Crossroads Carnegie Art Center

The gallery doubles as a sales area for artists and an exhibition space for CACC’s eight Featured Artist, three “open call” and one student exhibits each year. While there are a good number of artists working in Baker City, many of whom exhibit here, the Center also draws artists from the across Northwest, including Washington State and the Boise, Idaho area. Savage said that a full 30% of the Art Center’s operating revenues come from art sales. I did not get a breakdown on exactly who was buying the art, but I would imagine both tourist and local dollars help fill those coffers.

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Forty miles north of Baker City nestled below Mt. Emily on the edge of the Blue Mountains is the city of La Grande, population 13,080. Although it has 25% more people than Baker City, it feels smaller. Its main drag, Adams Street, lacks the cohesion of Baker City’s Main Street, and only the short Depot Street has obvious historic district-like charm. While agriculture plays a key role in the area and there is some industry in town and a railyard, one gets the impression that if not for Eastern Oregon University, which began in 1929 as Eastern Oregon Normal School, La Grande would greatly suffer.

Yet, like Baker City (and Pendleton and The Dalles), La Grande also has an old Carnegie library that has been turned into an art center. The organization’s official name is the Union County Art and Culture Center and been in operation for eight years, five of them in the current location, the Art Center at the Old Library. Annie Eskelin is the Executive Director and is the Center’s first full time staff. She has been there since August of last year. Hailing from Alaska, she is a graduate of EOU’s art program, where she was the student director of the university’s Nightingale Gallery for two years. Eskelin is a woman of quiet intelligence and although she comes to the job with some experience, she has her work cut out for her.

Exterior of Art Center at the Old Library

Exterior of Art Center at the Old Library

The Art Center at the Old Library, as it is called, is considerably different—almost an exercise in contrasts—from Crossroads in Baker City. Made of red brick, the front staircase is in need of repair and the paint on the eaves is peeling. There is no readily visible sign in front besides two banners that read “Art,” and the building is on a primarily residential street midway between the downtown area and EOU. The inside of the building is in better shape. There is a sizable office space and the rest of the main floor is an open area with walls well-suited for sizable exhibitions, but the track lighting is inadequate and second hand. The elevator isn’t working and needs to be replaced.

Even with the physical plant problems, there are successes to be counted: The James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation awarded the organization $25,000 over two years to help pay Eskelin a salary; the Community Bank in La Grande bought the facility a beautiful new kiln for its pottery classes; and the Wildhorse Foundation paid for the initial renovation of the gallery area. Eskelin credits Crossroads’ Savage as an invaluable mentor in her strategic planning and fundraising, so she still stands a good chance of getting the building up to par. She, too, would like to see her building on the National Register.

While no classes were taking place at the time of my visit, La Grande’s Art Center is twenty-two classes this summer, ranging from pottery and puppetry to music and dance. As a testament to the need of such a place as the Art Center, Eskelin estimates that their classes serve 1200 people annually.

Gallery of the Art Center at the Old Library

Gallery of the Art Center at the Old Library

Though it’s a fairly new program, the Art Center has monthly art exhibits. Several (but not all) of the solo exhibitions have been artists who have a current or prior connection to EOU, and group shows have relied on a larger group of local artists. A young program may be forgiven this approach for it saves money and generates local support, yet Eskelin assures me that a more expansive call for artists is upcoming. This might help increase audience numbers for the Center. As it stands, Eskelin estimates about 500 people attend these exhibitions while Baker City has anywhere from 150 to 400 people each month just for First Fridays .

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Like Savage, Eskelin spoke of an influx of artists coming into the area. Her impression is they come from larger cities, and are either tired of a faster pace or else think that a smaller city might offer other favorable social amenities.

Savage has often said she would like to see Baker City become the Santa Fe (New Mexico) of the Northwest. As it stands, the Short Term Gallery is the only gallery in town that functions solely an an exhibition space, and it is a cooperative (closed both days I was in town). There are also two dual-purpose spaces. Peterson’s Gallery includes a chocolate shop, and Earth & Vine Wine Bar and Art Gallery serves up a very nice, upscale lunch. Otherwise, a few artists maintain studios in the city that also function as retail areas for their work. Compare this with Santa Fe’s 200 or so galleries (many of them contemporary) plus the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and Site Santa Fe. While certainly an uphill battle for Baker City, this should not stop people from wanting more for the place they call home.

Art options are not much different in La Grande. There is the Turtle Gallery, perhaps best described as a consignment gallery, and Mt. Emily Alehouse hangs local art. There is the occasional exhibit at ArtsEast, another social service/art education provider, but otherwise, that leaves the university’s Nightingale Gallery, run by the collage artist and faculty member Cory Peeke, as the only other significant venue for visual art.

Peeke does a good job presenting a variety of exhibits each year, but the larger institution has been on shaky ground. As recently as 2010 our state legislature contemplated closing EOU. Although successfully avoided, new obstacles may soon arise with the passage of Senate Bill 270 that effectively makes the state’s larger and better funded universities autonomous entities, potentially leaving the smaller schools, EOU among them, in a collective lurch.

While this will not lessen the need for the services La Grande Art Center at the Old Library provides (or for ArtsEast, a school outreach program serving K-12 schools in a seven-county area), it does leave a sword hanging over the town, which could result in a wait-and-see attitude and consequent tightening of purse strings. In an unfortunate way, it may be a good thing that the Union County Arts & Culture Center is still young and scrappy.

While I certainly wanted to get a good feel for the the art “scenes” in Baker City and La Grande, I can’t say that I started my trip with the intention to write about either art center. However, once witnessing the success of one and the struggle on the other, I felt it was important to share that contrast and highlight the critical cultural services they both provide. Dedicated people are providing a much-needed resource for their communities while likely expending a good deal of their energy convincing others of this fact.

I say they’re pretty much like most arts organizations everywhere.

ADDENDUM

ArtsWatch received an email from Deena Heath, the Director of ArtsEast, the arts organization I briefly mentioned in the closing paragraphs of this article. I think it is important to let people know a bit more about their services. Deena writes: I thought I might ask you to pass on some information about ArtsEast to Patrick for future reference.  (Founded in 1977 as the Eastern Oregon Regional Arts Council.)  Our mission is arts education which we do locally through the Community School of the Arts, a partnership with EOU.  We also have an artist-in-residency program that serves rural schools in the ten E. Oregon counties.  (The article mentioned seven.)  Our residency is often the only alternative to schools who no longer have arts specialists. 

We also sponsor 6 – 8 exhibits in our office gallery featuring local and regional artists.  Our major visual art project is the Biennial Artists of Eastern Oregon show which is again scheduled for 2014.

NOTE

This is the first installment of a two-part essay on art centers and artists in Baker City and La Grande, Oregon. They arose from my desire to explore more of Oregon and meet people who comprise art communities outside of the State’s major cities. If you are from one of these cities, or are from another area of Oregon that has a local art community but has no active culture writers, and you’d like to be that voice for Oregon ArtsWatch, by all means, please be in touch with our publisher, Barry Johnson (barry@orartswatch.org). Gas is expensive!

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