The Dalles Art Center, housed in a handsome old 1910 Carnegie Library building in the Columbia Gorge city of The Dalles, is in a fight for its life — and possibly pulling out a close victory. But the battle isn’t over, and it’s still tight.
On March 13 the arts center’s board sent an email blast to its members announcing that the center was in a deep financial hole and needed both an immediate infusion of cash and a commitment of at least $3,500 in recurring monthly donations by March 31, or it would be forced to close the center by April 15: “This is a public appeal to all residents and businesses to help us avoid such a devastating loss to the community.”
By Tuesday, March 21, the plea had had a heartening, if not yet complete, effect: Supporters had responded with $23,500 in one-time donations and pledges totaling $2,200 in regular monthly contributions.
“Our sustainability goal for recurring monthly donations is $3,500, so we’re about 60% there!” board chair Pam Westland said in a followup email to members and on the center’s website. “We need an additional $1,300 in monthly donations to cover the most basic costs of running The Art Center at the current level of staffing and opening hours, and we know we can get there! … The amazing support we are seeing means that all planned exhibits will continue as scheduled and no cancellations will occur.”
Nonprofit arts and cultural centers in towns and small cities have become crucial parts of the cultural system in Oregon, from Baker City to La Grande to Pendleton to Newberg to Newport to Grants Pass and beyond. Such centers show the work of local artists, provide classes for children and adults, usually have both performance and gallery programs, bring in work by artists outside their own areas, and can serve very large geographic areas that often don’t have huge economic bases.
And many of them are underfunded and working with small staffs. They get foundation and individual and some government support, but operate on tight margins. In The Dalles, where the arts center has been active for more than 60 years, the pandemic and the recession that followed threw an already tight budget into a tailspin — so much so that on March 10 the center laid off its executive director, Scott Stephenson.
“Scott’s position has been eliminated,” board member Philip Mascher told Tom Peterson of CCC News. “Scott was super generous and has agreed to a smooth transition and has agreed to lend a hand on projects as a volunteer. This was a really gut-wrenchingly painful to eliminate that position. At the end of the day, the only other alternative was to close.”
Board members have been working volunteer hours to staff the center, Peterson added, and are keeping gallery manager Kris Vercouteren on as the center’s only paid staff. In the meantime, the center’s current gallery show, its annual showcase of elementary, middle, and high school art by students in The Dalles and Dufur, continues through March. And donations, of course, are being welcomed: Details here.
Meanwhile, about 22 miles west of The Dalles, the 18-year-old Columbia Center for the Arts in Hood River is undergoing a similar rethinking of how it should operate. Also faced with financial pressures prompted by the pandemic and its fallout, the Columbia Center has been undergoing what it’s calling CCA New Beginnings, a deep query into how it should go forward, including in-person and Zoom meetings with interested members of the public and an online survey, open through March 31, asking for fresh ideas and preferences.
“The arts center board of directors and a small group of community members are working to reinvent the organization and chart a path forward for full recovery after the pandemic-related shutdowns dealt a severe blow to the organization,” the survey introduction reads. “Now operating with only one part-time staff member, down from a pre-pandemic staff of four full time people, the arts center is in dire need of rebuilding its volunteer rosters and is inviting new leadership to come forward to help plan the future of the non-profit community center.”
The Hood River center is known for hosting some excellent gallery exhibitions, including Contemporary Native Voices: Prints from Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts a year ago, and the contemporary ceramics exhibit Beyond the Construct, presented in collaboration with The Dalles Art Center, in 2021. In addition to its 1.700-square-foot gallery, the center includes a black box theater and a multi-use studio/classroom space.