Tom Webb, former director of the Newport Visual Arts Center and passionate supporter of the arts, died unexpectedly Dec. 9 in Newport. During his tenure from 2014 through 2022, he curated and promoted more than 150 exhibitions featuring the work of artists including Rick Bartow, Sandy Roumagoux, Erik Sandgren, and Henk Pander, according to the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts. The cause of death was not immediately known. He was 58 years old.
Webb was born in Minneapolis and moved with his family to Portland as a young child. He attended Lincoln High School and earned a BA in economics at Vassar College. Prior to taking the position in Newport, Webb was co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Bear Deluxe, a publication by Orlo, an environmental-arts organization based in Portland.
Catherine Rickbone, retired executive director of the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts, worked with Webb both as part of the council’s staff and as a member of the Newport Public Arts Committee. “Some things that really stick with me about Tom are his expertise in creating exhibits, his ability to create multi-disciplinary exhibits for OCCA,” Rickbone said. “He led OCCA into areas it had never been before.”
That included expanding an exhibit’s scope by adding elements, perhaps a poetry reading or play. He also added a media room to the visual arts center, which brought another element to an exhibit, Rickbone said. “Viewers could see an exhibit, then go into the media room and see other things, like a film, relating to that exhibit.”
Writer Scott Weber was a close friend of Webb’s for 20 years, collaborating on various projects, including what he called an “ambitious idea” to celebrate Pablo Neruda’s Centennial in 2004 with events for 100 days.
“I always had a lot of fun collaborating with Tom,” Weber said. “Primarily, Tom was a writer. He enjoyed most what he did best, which was interviewing luminaries in arts and culture — politicians, influencers — as well as working in collaboration with gifted artists of all types. Years ago, when asked what he did for Orlo — he also was a board member for Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission — he said, ‘I feed the fire.’ I remember that well. That’s what he did best, inspire creativity and passion among other artists.”
Webb was deeply concerned about protecting the environment and made it his life’s work to elevate public awareness and appreciation for environmental stewardship through the creative arts, Weber said. Beyond the arts world, Webb loved basketball, particularly the Portland Trail Blazers. He also enjoyed movies, Weber said, watching repeatedly the same ones: Sometimes a Great Notion, All the President’s Men,The Towering Inferno, Earthquake. “He took great comfort in the familiar. That was one of his quirks.”
Sandy Roumagoux worked closely with Webb both as an artist and as three-time mayor of Newport. She remembered him as an “excellent writer, knowledgeable about the arts and helpful.”
“He came on board with a certain vision for the VAC, which was to expand offerings for exhibits and to take full advantage of the gallery space, plus outreach and working with other VACs up and down the coast,” Roumagoux said.
It was Webb who, when approached by Roumagoux for ideas to bring city officials and the arts together, suggested tying the annual PushPin Show to a mayor’s exhibit. Jurors, including Webb, Roumagoux, and alternating mayors from neighboring cities, selected their favorite pieces to hang in The Mayor’s Show in the Runyan Gallery at the center. “I just thought it was a terrific idea, and we did it the whole time I was mayor,” Roumagoux said. “He was open to ideas like that.”
But Webb also struggled with alcohol use and that jeopardized his career, Roumagoux said. “Tom had a vision for his position. He was always polite and a good friend. I admired him. But his struggles diminished his potential. I have had many colleagues who have had the same struggles with alcohol. It seems to be something artistic people, who are often sensitive, are vulnerable to.”
Plans for Webb’s celebration of life are being made for a date and venue in Portland to be held in mid-January.