Commentary: How dead is OCAC?

It's Craft Spring as various groups mobilize to keep Oregon College of Art and Craft alive

What happens when you try to close the debate before the debate ever gets started? At this point the Oregon College of Art and Craft board is starting to find that out.

During the week since my last commentary on the OCAC board’s decision to close the college and sell the campus, a lot has happened, much of it in the form of good, old-fashioned community organizing and behind-the-scenes negotiating. Of course, you don’t have to look far on social media to detect some anger and vitriol, too.

The primary center of popular opposition to OCAC’s plan to close happens to be… Friends of OCAC, which was started in December “to share the importance of this historic and celebrated institution with a new generation of Portlanders through events and projects designed to connect, support, and grow the widespread OCAC community,” according to its website.

Friends of OCAC has asked its supporters to sign a letter that invites the OCAC board to come to a town hall to discuss OCAC’s financial situation and do some “constructive brainstorming” to support the school and its programs. The group suggests Monday, February 25. OCAC agreed to a much smaller meeting this weekend (or maybe even today) with a few representatives from the Friends, the faculty and the board.

The February 20 protest against the OCAC’s decision to sell the campus and shut the college without significant debate within the OCAC community.

I was drawn to a couple of sentences that support the idea that transparency (or democracy or whatever you choose to call it) has been a problem at OCAC and suggests a way to remedy that problem.

“Over the past few years, and especially during the merger and closure decision-making processes, the extended members of the community have felt left out of the information loop. Friends of OCAC wishes to address these concerns by connecting OCAC’s extended network back to the school, inviting them home and making them feel welcome.”

The first five signatories on the letter are Dakotah Fitzhugh (community member), Mardy Widman (a much beloved former OCAC staffer), Judilee Fitzhugh (OCAC alum and an adjunct faculty member in the fibers department), Marilyn Zornado (Extension program instructor), and Georgiana Nehl (drawing/painting and foundations professor emerita). And then more than 1,000 names follow, many of them well-known former students, faculty members, staffers and active arts supporters. When I look over the list, I think, “These people are enough to prove the viability of OCAC in some form or another going forward, just by themselves.” They are still taking names, so you can join this august group yourself. All your asking for is an open discussion about the future of the college.

Generally, the signatories give their name and their relationship to OCAC. I quite enjoyed the connection that Shay Gallegos offered: “I have a friend that has gone here and it has been incredible in her life. It’s so sad knowing that a great institution like this might close. Please take the time to think of how great it has been for past students as well as hopefully future ones!!” Exactly.

Meanwhile, I’ve been exchanging emails and phone calls with architect and former Portland City Council candidate Stuart Emmons, who has been trying to drum up some interest for OCAC in the city’s philanthropic community. “I really think it can be saved,” he said. “It can be saved and it should be saved.” He’s put together an in-depth strategic plan that leads to solvency over the next three years, and he’s trying to advocate for a some sort of property sale-leaseback plan that will keep the college going while it sorts things out. He thinks that better recruitment of new students, debt delay (the college owes a local bank more than $1 million, he said) and a better approach to fundraising will lead OCAC out of its current situation.

He also thinks that the board should favor proposals that would keep the OCAC campus in the craft education business, an entirely reasonable suggestion. His frustration with OCAC seems to be similar to that of the Friends group—the board doesn’t seem to be open to any other approach than its own. And the board’s approach to it all seems to be tag it, bag it and bury it as swiftly as possible, and then maybe we can forget it. Emmons, though, is like the kid who looks into the coffin and hollers, “Hey, grandpa’s not dead.” And then watches gramps shudder, wheeze and sit bolt-upright to the amazement of all. Or maybe I’ve seen too many movies (“The Shipping News” is a good example of the genre.)

Because how do we know that OCAC is actually dead if the board won’t explain the situation to us? Classes are being taught there even as I type.

Anyway, Emmons has many lines in the stream (just to move my metaphor away from grandpa and his premature burial)—potential buyers of the property or major donors to a re-dedicated college or craft center.

Finally, a large and growing alumni group has emerged and has also petitioned the OCAC board. Here’s the first paragraph of the group’s letter:

“As members of the alumni of the degree programs at the Oregon College of Art and Craft, together with the greater OCAC community, we have been devastated by the news of the Board of Trustee’s decision to terminate the degree programs at the college. We are further alarmed by rumors of the rapid pace with which steps are being taken to entertain offers to sell the campus or otherwise dismantle this incredible institution. As critical stakeholders in the make-up of the college, we urge you to delay any decisions that would bring about a permanent end to OCAC. Instead, we appeal to you to partner with us and other important stakeholders of the college to explore alternative solutions to the current crisis.”

And the group has an additional request. “Before it is too late, please give us the necessary time to bring new calls for support to potential donors, to civic and cultural leaders and to the greater Portland community. We also request that an alumni representative not serving on the Board be in attendance during the presentation of any offers to purchase the college or the property.”

The names on the petition, like the Friends list, is full of artists, many of them recent OCAC graduates.

Will the resisters triumph? In a way, they already have, because they are reminding us of important lessons we learned and perhaps forgot, or lessons we never learned and should have—lessons that have to do with working together for the common good.

One Response.

  1. Laura Mellick says:

    Thank you for putting into words the devastating news from OCAC. Why they haven’t welcomed the community interest in keeping this institution alive, I don’t know. I know there are an awful lot of people that would participate in fundraising etc. to save the college.

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