Portland Center Stage at the Armory Quixote Nuevo Portland Oregon

Tom Webb, former director of Newport Visual Arts Center, dies at 58

Webb's colleagues remember him as a passionate and creative supporter of the arts.

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Tom Webb told a friend that what he did in a previous job with a literary journal was “feed the fire.” That friend, Scott Weber, says, “That’s what he did best, inspire creativity and passion among other artists.”

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.”

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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.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pup Gus.

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11 Responses

  1. Tom gave me one of my first opportunities as a journalist, beginning in about 1999 at The Bear Deluxe, and I still appreciate it. 20 years later, he showed my short films at the Newport VAC. That was amazing too. He believed in me. Thanks Tom!

  2. That second to last paragraph was completely unnecessary. Why should his struggles follow him still, and what does it serve?

    1. Would you say the same if the story and text had been, “Tom struggled with cancer, and it took his life in the end.”? Alcoholism is a disease, and to suggest that it not be mentioned because it somehow diminishes the life and accomplishments comes out of a view that alcoholism is a moral failing. It is not.

  3. Having attended Newport Book & Paper Festival for several years, I am sure a lot of its smooth function was due to Tom. So sorry to hear of this loss.

  4. I knew Tom as a young man and I remember how passionate he was about anything he undertook––whether teeing up balls in the early, early morning before high school to improve his swing, or just a few years later, devoting months of his young life to two presidential campaigns. He was an incredibly earnest and decent young man who quietly bore the weight of having lost his dear father to heart disease while still in elementary school, and then his beloved mother to cancer in high school, leaving his two older brothers to carry on the family business. Hard times for all four siblings and yet each with varied talents soldiered on through those devastating years with uncommon grace and academic success. Each of them impressed me beyond measure.m
    I am reminded once again that one may never know what private griefs those we meet may carry, or how brief a time we may have to know them. Alcoholism is a disease not a character defect. If you are suffering from this disease please seek evidenced-based care through your doctor or by consulting https://alcoholtreatment.niaaa.nih.gov/

    1. You reply is such a thoughtful response. I only knew Tom briefly when he came this past year to Emerald Art Center

    2. Hello and thank you Alberto! Good to have these pieces of the story: yes I too remember the amiable and earnest young person he was. And the horrendous losses those kids faced, so early in their lives.

  5. I hope that this last comment about a lot of artists struggle with this disease will be re-evaluated…this is not right and I don’t think this person thought this out before speaking…”be impeccable with your words”…one of the 4 agreements

  6. I only knew Tom this past year as our Director of the Emerald Art Center in Springfield, OR. I appreciated how involved and observant he made himself. In November, Tom didn’t look well at the end of the evening, but when I asked twice, “Tom, are you alright?” Twice he said he was fine. I am so sorry to hear of his passing. O:(

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