NEWS & NOTES

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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Watching (and talking) movies in McMinnville

Local filmmakers involved with the McMinnville Short Film Festival discuss the role of video stores, film festivals, and "This Is Spinal Tap" in their work

The 8th Annual McMinnville Short Film Festival was too big a meal to consume entirely last weekend, but I did get to a screening in the largest auditorium at Coming Attractions’ multiplex, which was pretty full Sunday afternoon. Between that and watching a few online, I caught about 15 of the record 50 films shown over two days. Only a few left me cold; most films — none longer than 20 minutes and many no more than 10 — were very good, and a few were excellent.

A complete list of this year’s films, nominations and winners can be found
here.

Festival organizers Dan and Nancy Morrow are friends, but I feel like I’m on solid ground in saying that the McMinnville Short Film Festival is a polished affair, organized by serious film-lovers who know what they’re doing. I hadn’t attended a film festival before (having a kid puts a damper on extracurricular stuff like that), but I was impressed with both the quality of the work on the screen and the informal, yet professional presentation. It is also encouraging to see a mainstream movie theater chain (Southern Oregon-based Coming Attractions, which runs many small-town theaters in Oregon and several other states) work with locals like this, handing over its largest screen for two days for a homegrown show. I hope to scoop up a bigger helping in 2020.

One of the weekend’s big crowd-pleasers was Sac de Merde. A barely 14-minute comedy about a young New York woman’s dating woes, it includes what is possibly the funniest and most outrageous sex scene I’ve ever seen in a film. Sac de Merde came from California, directed by Greg Chwerchak of Los Angeles. The film was nominated in five categories and received the festival’s top honor, the Grand Jury award, along with awards for directing and original short story, which was written by the trio of Chwerchak, Arielle Haller-Silverstone (who was also nominated for her acting in the film), and Gabrielle Berberich.

Arielle Haller-Silverstone was nominated for a Best Actress award for her work in the McMinnville audience favorite, “Sac de Merde,” which she also co-wrote.

He Calls Them All By Name, directed by Chad Sogas (who splits his time between Portland and Brooklyn, N.Y.) also impressed this year’s judges, garnering six nominations and winning in four categories, including: Best Actor (Ted Rooney), Best Sound Mixing (Noah Woodburn) and Best Editing (Katie Turinski). (The festival named two Best Actors; the second was Moussa Sylla in La Rage.)

Sogas’ film is an eerie piece centered on an intense confrontation between a tenant farmer and his drunk, gun-toting neighbor. Shot entirely outdoors at night, it was inspired in part by Flannery O’Connor’s Southern gothic short stories and films such as In Cold Blood and A Face in the Crowd. The story is pretty thin gruel that falls just short of being a complete enigma, but it clearly spoke to the political unease of the times. The technical skill on display, direction, and acting were outstanding. Greg Schmitt’s cinematography was extraordinary, and the film deservedly won for that as well.

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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.

DramaWatch: a new place to play

Lewis & Clark prof Stepan Simek opens a small, flexible studio space. Plus: Openings around town and in Fertile Ground.

Stepan Simek is a professor of theater at Lewis & Clark College, a director, and an accomplished theatrical adapter and translator. Now he’s also a real estate developer.

Well, in a manner of speaking. Simek recently opened a small studio space for “actors, directors, musicians, singers, teachers, coaches, and anybody who may need a beautiful, affordable, flexible, and warm place to rehearse, teach classes, do small performances, concerts, readings, meetings, pop-ups, auditions, and whatever else may strike your creative need or fancy.” Or, as he put it during an open-house event earlier this month, “Everything is allowed, except amplified music and Bible study.”

The 2509 is a new studio space in Northeast Portland, open for rehearsals, performances and other creative uses. Photo: courtesy of Stepan Simek.

The place, a handsome 600-square-foot daylight basement, is named after its street address, 2509 NE Clackamas St., in a part of Portland known as Sullivan’s Gulch. Simek hopes it will help, in whatever small way, with the general space crunch afflicting so many Portland artists. But that wasn’t the project’s original purpose.

At first, Simek was setting out to repair his house’s crumbling foundation, which would require raising it on jacks. He and his wife Esther Saulle-Simek, a musician, decided to have a lower-level addition built as an apartment, or what’s known these days as an “accessory dwelling unit.” But the construction process turned out to be more than twice as long, and more than twice as expensive, as originally planned. Eventually they reasoned that they’d stand a better chance of recouping their costs with piecemeal rentals, even at low rates.

Still, though, the 2509 has a homey feel, with a gas stove along one wall opposite a small wet bar. It has a full bathroom and curtained-off area at the back that can be used as a bedroom for visiting artists. A grid attached to the middle of the ceiling holds a small LED lighting system, double-paned windows minimize sound for the surrounding residential neighborhood, and there’s room to seat an audience of 50 or so.

Already Hand2Mouth Theatre has used the 2509 for rehearsals, the renowned Portland actor Michael O’Connell has used it to teach classes, and Orchestra of the Moon — a band that includes Saulle-Simek and plays what it calls “early music for modern times” — performs there this Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

Simek hopes the place will stay busy. (Reservations can be made by email: simek@lclark.edu) After repeating his line about it being open to everything but amplified music and Bible study, he says simply, “I want it to feel alive. I want life!”

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