Ross McKeen, beloved arts leader, dies

McKeen, who helped lead Oregon Children's Theatre to national prominence and helped launch the Oregon Cultural Trust, dies of pancreatic cancer

THE PORTLAND ARTS SCENE LOST A MAJOR CONTRIBUTOR AND A GREAT FRIEND on Tuesday when Ross McKeen, the longtime managing director of Oregon Children’s Theatre, died. “My beloved husband and best friend, Ross McKeen, passed away yesterday morning, six months after receiving a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer,” his wife, Robin Remmick, wrote Wednesday on Facebook. “He was a cherished son, father, brother, and uncle, and he was the kindest, gentlest, smartest and funniest person I have ever known. I can’t even begin to fathom how much I will miss him. He died with his best dog Kid by his side, with a serene and full heart.”

Ross McKeen, who died Tuesday of cancer. Photo: Rebekah Johnson, via Facebook

McKeen, in partnership with recently retired artistic director Stan Foote, built OCT to national prominence, and was known in Oregon arts circles as a smart and capable administrator, an excellent and generous mentor, and a man of keen humor. Before joining OCT in 2008 he had spent several years as a grant writer and fundraising consultant for several Portland arts organizations, served a year as the first manager of the Oregon Cultural Trust, and spent three years as general manager of Portland Center Stage. Ross understood the artistic side of the business (he was also a musician in a “swell cowboy band” called Bourbon Jockey), which helped him greatly as an administrator. He was a writer of great wit and erudition, as he revealed a dozen or so years ago, during the heyday of blogging, on the sites Mighty Toy Cannon and Culture Shock. McKeen and Oregon Children’s Theatre controversially parted ways last November. The company has not announced a replacement for him.

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Bob Hicks is a Senior Editor and writer at Oregon ArtsWatch. He's been writing about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, first as arts editor and movie critic at the Oregon Journal, then for 25 years at The Oregonian as a writer and editor covering the performing, visual, and literary arts. His most recent art books include "Kazuyuki Ohtsu" (Pomegranate), "James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time" (Hallie Ford Museum of Art), and "Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora" (Pomegranate). His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Prologue, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series “Today I Am.”

6 Responses. Have your say.

  1. Martha Ullman West says:

    I am much saddened by this news–one of the good guys for sure, and pancreatic cancer is a cruel disease.

  2. Ross was a kind and generous human who listened, really listened. He will be missed by so many, myself included. Beloved is the perfect adjective for this man.

    Thanks for the post, ArtsWatch.

  3. Leonard A Magazine says:

    I will miss his smile, warmth and bear hugs.
    So very sad.

  4. Louanne Moldovan says:

    This is such sudden, sorrowful news. Ross was a mensch, kind and generous in spirit, with a ready, warm smile and caring disposition.
    My heart goes out to Robin.
    My own heart breaks…

  5. Niel DePonte says:

    Ross was one of the smartest, kindest people I knew in the arts. Ross and Robin had everlasting impact on the arts scene here in Portland and beyond. A certain generation of arts leaders and community members grew up together over the last few decades in the arts. Ross was a pillar of that generation, one of the good guys and someone who though appreciated for his hard work was never appreciated ENOUGH in my view. Tough minded leaders who remain kind hearted humans are hard to find and Ross was one of the few. A visionary and a leader. The next generation has big shoes to fill in this town’s arts world. Be like Ross. It’s a huge loss. RIP gentle giant.

  6. Michael Griggs says:

    Ross was a great friend, an inspiring collaborator, a kind and generous man. Ross worked with me for year as a grant writer for Portland Taiko,. and I became a better writer because of him. But he was not only a colleague, but a good friend. I will miss him terribly, and my heart goes out to Robin and Ross’s family.

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