Barry Johnson

 

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.

Commentary: Democracy and the arts

The closure of Oregon College of Art and Craft and why we couldn't help

Let’s say someone said, “Tell me, Mr Bones, what should happen next, now that Oregon College of Art and Craft has decided to close the college and sell the campus?”

I’d probably sputter, make a few false starts, and then I’d say something like this:

  1. The campus, designed by architect John Storrs and pioneering landscape architect Barbara Fealy, is a sweet example of late Northwest modern design— where the shed merges with modernism and is informed by the wise touch of the Arts and Crafts movement. It should be preserved.
  2. The site should continue the celebration of craftwork in this place, which begins some 10,000 years ago, when the first tribes started making tools to fit their hands and please their eyes using the plants and stones of the local forests, lowlands, mountains and rivers. It should be a place where anyone can learn this history—native, pioneer, arts and crafts movement, and contemporary—and learn to make their own objects, whether in a folk craft style or an art craft design. Its studios should be buzzing, its library packed, its meeting rooms full of people talking it all over. It should be vitally interested in the crucial meeting of craft and environment, art and ecology, technology and nature. A visitor should be able to take a class, see great examples of craft work, buy work at the gift shop, research in the library, hear a lecture, and eat a great lunch.

“But Mr. Bones, what are the chances of all that happening?”

Just about nil.

“So what WILL happen?”

I don’t know for sure, but it looks like all elbows and bulldozers to me.

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Oregon College of Art and Craft terminates its degree program

The future of Oregon College of Art and Craft is in doubt as its board decides to shut down its degree program

The Oregon College of Art and Craft board of trustees has announced it will “terminate all degree programs” at the college at the end of this academic term. “May 19, 2019, will mark the commencement ceremony for the final graduating at OCAC,” according to a statement released by the college.

The college has hired a commercial real estate broker to begin the process of selling the 8.6 acre campus on Southwest Barnes Road, which is valued at $13,840,620 according to its Washington County Tax Assessment. But the board is still “actively considering” various alternatives for the organization going forward, including selling the campus, leasing it back and continuing its legacy of craft education that goes back to 1907. Those alternatives, however, won’t include a future as a degree-granting arts college.

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PNCA: Sticking to the path

Pacific Northwest College of Art decided merging with OCAC was a detour away from its future

Two big questions remain from the failed merger talks between Pacific Northwest College of Art and Oregon College of Art and Craft back in the fall.

The first: What are the details of the financial condition at OCAC that led it to seek merger and/or acquisition deals—with PNCA and then Portland State University—in the first place? Until OCAC talks publicly about that one, we’re left with speculations, informed and otherwise. That’s not the question I’m going to try to answer here.

The second: Why did PNCA decide against the idea of a merger with OCAC? After talking to President Don Tuski at PNCA, I think the answer has less to do with OCAC’s balance sheet and more to do with the future PNCA is attempting to carve out for itself.

Interior of the renovated the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design at Pacific Northwest College of Art/Courtesy PNCA

That future is extremely important to Portland’s creative economy, which is itself increasingly crucial to the economic health of the city. I’m persuaded after talking with Tuski, that, while the general direction of PNCA’s path isn’t new, its dedication to staying on that path is. And that path does not include a detour through the difficult process of merging with OCAC.

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Portland State will not acquire Oregon College of Art and Craft

After testing the feasibility of swallowing OCAC, PSU declines to move forward

After a week of thinking about it—or in the business parlance of our times, after conducting a “feasibility study” or “due diligence”—Portland State University officials informed Oregon College of Art and Craft officials on Thursday (January 24) that the university had decided against acquiring the college and its bucolic acres on Southwest Barnes Road.

That was some pretty fast due diligence (or at least “official” due diligence), because the university publicly announced its interest in OCAC only on January 17. (For those coming to the story late, the arts and crafts college’s discussions with Pacific Northwest College of Art about a possible merger concluded in mid-December without a deal.)


Outside the kiln at Oregon College of Art and Craft/Photo courtesy of OCAC

The key paragraph of the PSU statement, attributed to PSU president Rahmat Shoureshi: “We explored this because we were excited about the potential opportunity that an acquisition would honor the legacy of art and craft at OCAC, support the arts in our region and bolster our own College of the Arts. But our study of different acquisition scenarios, including those involving private philanthropy, showed the potential costs would be too high for PSU.”

I reached out to OCAC to find out the college’s view of PSU’s decision and how the art college might proceed from here. I haven’t received a response from OCAC yet (after holding this story for a couple of days), so perhaps they are still pondering.

*****

OregonLive’s Jeff Manning has been the chief media contact for PSU in this matter, and he might have phoned in a story with just that information—”no deal because acquisition costs were too high.” But Manning is an excellent reporter, and he didn’t get that way by phoning in stories. So he continued reporting and answered some questions at both ends of the core information: how the idea came up in the first place and what a possible resolution might look like going forward.

The idea came from developer Jordan Schnitzer, who gave PSU $5 million to start a campus art museum in 7,500 square feet over two floors of Neuberger Hall last spring. According to Manning, Schnitzer encouraged Shoureshi to pursue the acquisition of the college, but Shoureshi’s statement indicates that the philanthropic dollars weren’t there to shoulder the costs of absorbing OCAC (or maintaining it going forward), from Schnitzer or anyone else PSU checked in with. (Which would be an interesting thing to know—how extensive WAS PSU’s search for money to acquire OCAC?)

At the other end of the story, Manning revealed that Portland developers Jim Winkler (whose son sits on the OCAC board) and Bob Niehaus had offered to buy the property and lease it back to the school. “A sale-leaseback would give them some time to get their act together,” Winkler told Manning.

I reached out to Winkler for confirmation and elaboration. “I made an offer to purchase and lease back the OCAC campus to the school in order to give the school a longer runway to work out the terms of a merger,” he responded. “My objective was to help the school by providing it a patient and interested landlord. The offer included a right of repurchase by the school. I am deeply saddened by the potential loss of another important arts institution in our community.” He also said that OCAC hadn’t responded to his offer (as of Monday).

The campus is a considerable asset. The college has listed the campus as worth around $10 million on its federal 990 forms, though the Washington County tax assessment for the property is $13,840,620: $5,087,810 for the land and $8,752,810 for the buildings. These days, those assessments seem to run a little on the light side, because real estate values generally are going up.

*****

In his story, Manning speculates that OCAC could be near the end as a functioning college: “The school has struggled financially, and it’s unclear how long it can continue to operate,” he writes.

I don’t think we have a clear picture of OCAC’s finances, because OCAC hasn’t revealed anything about its financial condition or why it has been pursuing various merger and acquisition scenarios. Therefore, we don’t know to what degree it has “struggled financially.” Most Oregon arts organizations in the state “struggle financially” to one degree or another, of course, but unlike most Oregon arts organizations, OCAC owns a valuable piece of real estate. It also is supported by the Oregon College of Art and Craft Foundation, which had net assets of $1,930,700 at the end of its 2015-16 fiscal year, according to its federal 990 form that year, the last one available to me.

In his first story announcing that PSU was considering the acquisition of OCAC, Manning painted a dark picture of OCAC’s finances: A 2017 budget deficit of $685,649 with a large debt of $1.5 million coming due. But it’s common for companies of all sorts, even nonprofits, to spend more money in a year than they will make in order to invest in revenue-building activities. So, it’s entirely possible, even likely, that in 2017 OCAC invested money in a plan to build enrollment numbers, say, by developing new programs or increasing its recruiting efforts. The deficit number without the context doesn’t really mean much, especially since the OCAC foundation had sufficient funds to cover the shortfall. The same with the loan: It’s also possible, even likely, that the payment on the loan has been forgiven in the past and that OCAC expects whoever holds that note to continue the practice.

Inside the 2017 BFA Thesis Show at OCAC./Photo by Beth Conyers

The reason I’m proposing “even likely” is simply because former OCAC president Denise Mullen, who left the college in September citing personal reasons, has a reputation as a careful administrator, and I doubt that she’d run an unplanned deficit that large with an imminent debt payment of that magnitude. At this point neither Mullen nor OCAC is talking for the record about these matters, so this is speculation on my part.

So, until OCAC talks more about its financial situation, we simply don’t know how close to the edge it is. Manning covers that for journalistic purposes with his “it’s unclear” construction, but the overall impression he leaves through the two stories is that OCAC’s situation is dire. Which it might be—we just don’t have enough information to know. And we don’t know how palatable to OCAC the offer from Winkler and Niehaus might be, just that they haven’t responded so far.

*****

In my first story about OCAC’s search for partners, I talked a little about why I thought the cultural fit with PNCA was, at the very least, problematic. Still, PNCA and OCAC are both small, independent art schools. They are a little like Portland and Seattle, different in some ways but more similar to each other than they are to most other cities. PSU is the “other cities” in this simile. It’s hard for me to imagine a PSU acquisition scenario that would have preserved any of the DNA of OCAC, in which case the last of Portland’s major design institutions might well have disappeared inside a much larger institution with different ideas about arts education.

Oregon College of Art and Craft finds another potential partner

The OCAC-PNCA merger is off, and Portland State is OCAC's new suitor

While the Oregon College of Art and Craft was seeking to join forces with Pacific Northwest College of Art this fall, it was also talking to Portland State University about a possible deal. Those talks are heating up. The statement yesterday from PSU: “Portland State is currently conducting a feasibility study of a possible acquisition of OCAC.”

Written mostly from the perspective of PSU, Jeff Manning’s story for OregonLive today framed the story as part of PSU president Rahmat Shoureshi’s efforts to expand his university’s arts footprint.

“We’re committed to investing in expanding our College of the Arts whether or not we pursue this opportunity,” Shoureshi told Manning. Shoureshi said that adding the faculty and facilities of OCAC would make the PSU College of the Arts a top 10 arts department nationally.

Manning also reported that OCAC had incurred $685,649 in expenses beyond its total revenue in 2017, that the school owed more than $1.5 million to lenders at that time, and had a $1 million payment due in 2018. OCAC didn’t reveal whether the college or its foundation had made that payment, but Shoureshi said that OCAC wanted PSU’s decision on the merger made by April. “They’re under financial pressure,” Shoureshi said, “they need answers.” PSU’s involvement in a rescue of OCAC is contingent on raising money to cover the costs of the merger, Shoureshi said.

The Oregon College of Art and Craft campus/Photo by Bruce Forester

The OCAC campus on Southwest Barnes and Leahy roads is a considerable asset. Previous 990 returns by the college have valued it around $10 million, and the acreage right along Barnes and Leahy could easily be developed without disturbing the campus itself. And at the end of its 2015-16 fiscal year, OCAC’s foundation had assets (mostly in the form of investments) of $1,930,700.

*****

I reached out to OCAC for more information about the fall discussions with PNCA, and the college asked to postpone talks with me until the end of January. I’ve reached out to them again to answer some new questions about their perspective on the PSU acquisition, but they haven’t responded to my queries. If they respond later today, I’ll post their answers here.

UPDATE: Here is the OCAC official statement, which is all they want to say at this point.

Portland State University and Oregon College of Art and Craft are exploring a potential agreement for partnership that is mutually advantageous to both parties.  Uniting OCAC and PSU would establish a more robust foundation for Portland’s higher education in the arts, while expanding and diversifying opportunities for students.

*****

If you read Manning’s story on OregonLive today, you might have thought, “Didn’t OCAC merge with PNCA this fall?” The quick answer: They didn’t, though we can be forgiven for thinking so. That’s because the public narrative about the proposed merger between PNCA and OCAC plunged into the murky depths this fall. After a round of positive stories about the likely success of merger talks early in the process, two of the city’s legacy journalism companies, The Oregonian/OregonLive and OPB, both published stories announcing that the merger had been approved and was going forward. That was wrong, and six weeks later any possible deal was off the table.

Let’s just look at the bullet points:

  • September 10: President Denise Mullen leaves OCAC for personal reasons. Jiseon Lee Isbara, Dean of Academic Affairs, is appointed Interim President for the college.
  • Early October: PNCA president Tuski announces to PNCA students, staff and faculty that the boards of the two institutions were in talks about joining forces.
  • October 3: The Oregonian’s Everton Bailey Jr. quotes Tuski in a story on October 3: “In our first meeting, people at OCAC were thinking the same thing that we were, that if we could do this, we could really take the next step to be an art, design and craft school that rivals anything in the country, and that’s really the goal,” Tuski said.
  • November 1: Oregon Public Broadcasting’s April Baer reported that the merger was set: “Oregon’s two major, standalone art schools have voted to merge,” she wrote. And then she said the schools were negotiating a memorandum of understanding to determine the shape of that merger. Her quotes from Tuski and Isbarra seemed definitive proof of the merger: “By any measure, OCAC is in a place that needs to explore proactive solutions for a sustainable future,” Isbara told Baer. “The current higher education environment has proven to be precarious. We believe the merger will strengthen the merged colleges’ future.” And Tuski was already imagining that future: “It will be a new culture created by faculty, staff, students and alumni of both schools,” he said. “Art, design and craft schools about creating something new, authentic or original. This is where two strong art schools are going to do this together.”
  • November 2: The Oregonian’s Douglas Perry built on the OPB report: “The Pacific Northwest College of Art and Oregon College of Art and Craft have voted to combine, OPB reports.” He adds later, “A new name and how exactly the two schools and their programs will combine remain to be worked out. Some job losses are expected because of the merger.”
  • December 14: The Oregonian’s Amy Wang reported: “After three months of discussion, the boards of both schools voted Friday against the merger, calling it “not a feasible option” at this time, according to statements from both schools.”

As it turns out, the PNCA board on October 26 resolved “that PNCA will continue to discuss the possibility of a merger with OCAC and will begin the process of negotiating an MOU [Memorandum of Understanding], which, if agreed to by both parties, and voted on independently by each college’s Board of Governors, will begin the merger process.” That was an important step in any merger, but it clearly doesn’t actually constitute a vote to merge. And by December 14, those boards decided against the merger, having failed to agree on a memorandum of understanding.

Maybe there is some humor in this—a misunderstanding about a memorandum of understanding. Typically, merging organizations give themselves several exit ramps during the merger dance. If early talks go well, they often start negotiating an MOU, basically a non-binding agreement that they have enough common interests to keep talking. After they agree on an MOU, they start negotiating the merger itself, a binding legal agreement that actually merges the two institutions. In this case, PNCA and OCAC, for whatever cluster of reasons, were unable to produce a memorandum of understanding, let alone dot the i’s on a contract to merge.

*****

The idea of a merger between Portland’s two arts colleges—Pacific Northwest College of Art and Oregon College of Art and Craft—has never made real sense to me, if we take financial necessity out of the equation. We’ve heard about talks along these lines for a long time, even before the Portland Art Museum mothership ejected PNCA from its pod in 1994, perhaps simply because few American cities support more than one art and design college, none the size of Portland.

But the cultural differences have always seemed insurmountable to me. OCAC sits on ample acreage on Barnes Road, and its mentorship approach to teaching the fine points of the craft tradition even today recalls the best parts of the Medieval apprenticeship.

PNCA has spent most of its history as an independent institution either in the middle of the transforming Pearl District or, now, situated on busy Northwest Broadway, between the Pearl and Old Town. And its program has adjusted to the constant shape-shifting of contemporary art practice and to the rise of Portland as a significant American design city.

For most of their history, the two have been rivals for students, donors and even for such cultural “prizes” as the Museum of Contemporary Craft. PNCA won that contest, though only a few years after the victory, it shut down the museum and sold off the building. Which still stings in many corners of the city’s arts community.

As American arts and design schools have, both PNCA and OCAC have struggled financially. Costs are up and enrollments are down across the board. But during the past decade, both have had solid leadership and, despite the economic headwinds, they’ve accomplished some major feats that required effective organizing and mobilization of Oregon’s smallish donor base. OCAC expanded its campus and became an accredited college, while PNCA managed to secure that new HQ on Broadway. Still, the fundamentals—especially the decline in the number of college-age students and the society’s hard-right turn toward profit and thus chasing white-collar jobs, entrepreneurial success or both—have been against them.

Their weakness is relative. The PNCA budget is more than twice the size of OCAC’s and its enrollment numbers are substantially larger, 595 to around 180, though Manning pegged OCAC enrollment at 138.

PSU is vastly larger than either PNCA or OCAC. It will spend around $590 million in its 2018-2019 fiscal year. And in addition to the economic, cultural and demographic changes that PNCA or OCAC face, PSU also has to deal with the vagaries of state politics. Manning’s story goes into those in some detail. The cultural differences between an urban state university and a small, private art college are immense.

*****

We will add to this story (or more likely, write additional stories) as this new chapter in OCAC’s history unfolds. An “acquisition” and a “merger” have different meanings after all.

Oregon Cultural Trust: Giving once is giving twice

Double your gift to the state's arts and cultural organizations without forking over more money? Such a deal!

When I visited the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in July this year, the temperatures were on the hot side, but unlike a few previous years, the air was clean and at night, quite pleasant and fresh. Given the vast conflagrations in California earlier in the summer, I thought the festival might just miss the smoky days that had plagued its productions sporadically earlier in the decade. I knocked on wood, but I failed to throw salt over my shoulder.

The subsequent outburst of forest fires in northern California (creeping into Oregon) and Washington started filling up the Rogue Valley with smoke later that month—the source of the smoke alternating with wind direction—and continued into September. If you’ve been to Ashland for the festival, you know the largest theater on the campus, the Allen Elizabethan Theatre, is open to the skies and the smoke. As a result, the festival had to cancel or move (to a much smaller indoor theater) 26 productions from that 1,190-seat theater—more than they have had to cancel or move a production in the past five years combined.

Detail from Sheryl LeBlanc’s “Fire in the Log Yard.” Photo: Jon Christopher Meyers

The company figures that the cost of all that smoke is in the neighborhood of $2 million. I would add the phrase, “at least.” No one can determine exactly how many visitors decided to skip a spur-of-the-moment trip to Ashland because of all that smoke. That’s too bad, financially for the festival, of course, but also because a lot of people missed some excellent productions. From my point of view, this season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was the best as a whole that I’ve ever seen, and I go back to the early 1980s (with a few missing years, here and there).

Lucinda Parker, “Slash Fire, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 48” x 36”

Now, I’m about to suggest that if you’ve enjoyed the festival before, hope to enjoy it in the future, or just acknowledge that its existence is good for the state and the country, you might contribute some money to help the company get past this particular disaster. (You can contribute online: https://www.osfashland.org/Rising.) But I’m going to impose on your good will a bit more.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with a total budget around $40 million, has by far the largest budget of any arts organization in the state. A $2 million revenue hit would crash almost any of them—of course, only a very small percentage of arts organizations in the state have budgets in excess of $2 million. Most of those are especially fragile, even in an economy as strong as Oregon’s is right now, because they lack endowments or sufficient cash reserves that could buffer them from sudden financial upsets. (The confluence of a major national recession and a big snowstorm in Portland during “Nutcracker” season almost pushed Oregon Ballet Theatre over the edge in 2009, for example).

So, right, here’s the ask: If you have the funds and disposition to give, please donate to your favorite arts and culture organizations this holiday season, including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. They depend on it, and small gifts are welcome. Oregon ArtsWatch itself is a nonprofit organization, and we know how important small gifts are: The entire ethos and economy of both Oregon arts groups and nonprofit arts journalism sites involves doing a lot with a little—and doing TONS with more.

But don’t stop there!

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