Since 1977, Art Center East in La Grande has coordinated arts programs in a 10-county area that includes Baker, Gilliam, Grant, Harney, Malheur, Morrow, Umatilla, Union, Wallowa, and Wheeler counties. The nonprofit community art center houses two exhibit galleries, a gift gallery, and three educational studios in a former Carnegie Library owned by the city. At the center alone, classes, concerts, exhibits, and workshops are offered year-round. Organizers recently estimated that roughly 25,000 people visited the center every year.
VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS
Given the far-flung reach of the center’s programs, we ran our questions by not one, but three women who play key roles. Darcy Dolge is executive director at Art Center East (ACE) and an entrepreneur and owner of Blackberry Moon Sound. Nancy Knowles, a poet and professor of English at Eastern Oregon University, serves as the nonprofit board’s president. Sarah West, also a local entrepreneur and owner of Teahouse La Grande, is the center’s community outreach coordinator. She also sits on the board for the La Grande Farmers’ Market. Their comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Who comes to the Arts Center? What do they use it for? Basically, what goes on there, year-round? Can you give us a general sense of it?
Dolge: Ours is the only art gallery in Union County open to the public six days a week, and we see a wide range of visitors, both locals and out-of-towners. We’re often surprised at how many visitors wander through our doors to have a look at our exhibit or inquire about the local art scene.
We offer a lot of programming, including an average of 150 classes each quarter, nine-plus exhibits each year, a monthly author reading series, a community music program, monthly dance nights hosted by a partnering organization, along with several free community events and cultural performances all year long. We also serve local artists in the form of retail sales in our gift gallery and an annual maker’s market around the holidays, exposure and notoriety via gallery exhibits, as well as giving those who are interested a place to earn income by teaching their craft.
We have several local partnerships to bring art instruction to underserved populations, including the Union County Juvenile Department, Union County District Attorney Parole Restitution Program, Shelter From the Storm Victim Rehabilitation Program for victims of domestic abuse, and the Center for Human Development. Lastly, our Artists in Rural Schools program places professional art educators in rural schools in 10 counties of Eastern Oregon.
How would you characterize the general state of artistic and cultural life in your area?
Knowles: Outsiders might be surprised at how much art happens in rural communities. Part of that comes from artists who sell their work or teach, but a strong piece of it is individuals who practice their art at home. Over the years, I’ve encountered lots of closet writers, visual artists, and musicians — folks who may not even be comfortable with calling their hobby “art.” They often end up in writers’ or readers’ groups, music ensembles, theatrical productions, weaving guilds, or sewing groups to share their interests and learn from each other.
West: The local music scene is especially nuanced. There’s something about an isolated rural community that both attracts musicians from elsewhere and gives “amateur” musicians a more accessible platform than they might have in a big city — and that same phenomenon is true for writers and visual artists.
There’s live music at one bar or another at least twice a week, if not more. Since we’re on the interstate between Portland and Boise, we also see a fair number of touring indie bands that are grateful for a paying gig between their scheduled stops. Locally, we have world-class classical and jazz pianists, folk and rock musicians based in town that tour regionally, and tons of musical residents that share their talents in local ensembles. In Union County alone, there’s a symphony orchestra, community band, community choir, African drumming ensemble, and several ensembles within the EOU music department.
Just the other night, I was at Ten Depot’s open mic and a guy got up and played some amazing jazz piano for 20 minutes. I asked the host if the guy was a regular and he told me that he’d only come once before, noting that he’d told him he just practices a lot at home and thought it might be fun to come and play for an audience every once in a while.
Dolge: Probably because of our isolation, I see a lot more collaboration and cross-pollination among artists than I see purists who only paint, or only work with clay, etc. There’s a group of painters that have been a part of the local scene for a long time who have really inspired each other to try new things over the years. Several got interested in batik watercolor a while back, and now they teach classes at the regional art centers, and each one of them has incorporated batik into their work in their own unique way. Our annual open show, The Big, which is going on now, features over 40 regional artists in a wide range of mediums. It’s our nod to the diversity of artwork being made in our region.
I visited Art Center East last summer and got the sense that it’s a work in progress, as most centers are. I know making the building itself more disability-friendly was high on the agenda. What’s the current state of things? What are the goals, ongoing projects, challenges?
Dolge: Much of our work revolves around accessibility. Making our 116-year-old building ADA compliant is a priority. The building is actually owned by the city, and they have pledged to cover half the cost of updating the building to ADA standards, leaving the rest of the fundraising up to us.
Our other focus regarding accessibility is an effort to build relationships and design programming that is more inclusive. The arts carry a stigma of being pretentious — an unnecessary luxury. We’re always striving to be a place that both upholds and values all kinds of art, while facilitating the kinds of meaningful experiences that might help someone connect with art in a way they never have before.
You have a 10-county service area in Eastern Oregon. Could you give us some examples of the type of outreach work you do, some success stories, etc.?
Knowles: ACE has been an active partner in the regional arts community, partnering with other regional art centers and Travel Oregon to produce the Arts Trail Map and aligning with Fishtrap to extend their annual Wallowa County Big Read into Union County. ACE also works to provide events, classes, professional development, and community conversations that draw people to the county. For example, the Community Choir includes people from Baker, Umatilla, and Wallowa Counties. We have members from outside La Grande, and visitors to La Grande often stop in to see what is happening.
Dolge: Our widest reaching program is known as AiRS (Artists in Rural Schools). Once the flagship program at the Eastern Oregon Regional Arts Council — through which they facilitated artist residencies in rural schools — AiRS is now one branch of Art Center East’s busy annual programming schedule. We keep the program alive because it is the only one in our region and serves so many artists and young people. In 2019, AiRS served 18 schools in six counties, in art forms ranging from bookmaking, ceramics, and watercolor, to traditional Ballet Folklorico, fiddle playing, and acting. Just a few weeks ago, one of our longtime teachers, Kelly Thibodeaux, stopped by on his way through the area to express how touched he is by schools wanting to continue bringing AiRS artists back year after year, so much so that he often knows students from first grade up until junior high. Many of his former students have purchased fiddles and continue practicing, eager to show him the following year what they have learned.
West: In town, we do a lot of outreach, bringing art experiences to different locations. I offer a rotating selection of free art activities that encourage creativity and self-expression at the La Grande Farmers’ Market twice a month. Many parents tell me it is one of the main reasons they come to the farmers’ market, which means that art is not only playing a role in empowering young people, it’s helping to support community gathering and perhaps even bolstering the local food economy.
What more than anything else has had the single biggest impact on the arts in your area in the past few years — either a person, some demographic change, some financial factor, etc.?
Knowles: I’ve seen a lot of shifts, the major being the decrease in state and federal funding for the arts. That loss of funding could have spelled doom in our region, but the community has risen up. We continue to see our membership base grow. Because of that, we’ve been able to make improvements to our galleries, more than double the number of annual exhibits, build out a gift gallery to offer artists a venue for selling their work (and the community a place to buy it), and significantly increased our arts programming. For example, before its merger with another arts organization in 2015, the art center was offering about 90 classes in a calendar year and we now offer over 400. Other regional arts organizations have made similar gains. The Elgin Opera House completed a capital campaign that allowed them to increase their annual productions, which in turn motivated and engaged the community (from local performers and musicians to artists and crafts people who build the sets). Likewise, the Eastern Oregon Film Festival grew from a small effort in 2009 to a vibrant annual festival attracting filmmakers from around the world and earning the ranking as one of the country’s best rural film festivals.
Dolge: We are lucky to have three other regional art centers in addition to ACE: the Pendleton Center for the Arts, Crossroads Carnegie Art Center in Baker City, and the Josephy Center in Joseph. Being less than a two-hour drive to any of them allows us all room to specialize. It’s nice to have three other art centers I can call on when needed!
I know that the outreach work you do puts you in touch with schools. What are you seeing on the arts education front there?
West: For the past two years, ACE has hosted a Day of the Dead exhibit and community ofrenda. The exhibit was designed to showcase Mexican folk art created in local schools, giving kids an opportunity to see their work in an art gallery and providing a prompt for teachers to bring an art tradition into their classroom that they might not have otherwise explored. Our assumptions were a little off — several local teachers were already doing Day of the Dead art projects in classrooms. Participating in our exhibit became a fun and easy extension for their existing projects.
The AiRS program funnels teaching artists (usually from outside the region) into schools requesting an art residency. The Day of the Dead project required us to make stronger connections with local school districts. We learned that three local districts (Cove, Union, and North Powder) have dedicated art teachers that serve K-12 students. Working with local teachers on this project also provided a compelling invitation for teachers to bring their students to the art center. This year we had 12 classrooms make a field trip to see the exhibit during its 10-day run. Our goal now is to engage classroom teachers to visit our gallery throughout the year.
Dolge: Many of the schools in our 10-county AiRS service area don’t have dedicated art teachers. AiRS is a program through which schools can request an affordable artist residency. This gives schools an opportunity that doesn’t exist otherwise, but it’s much more labor-intensive than it might be in an urban environment. Schools have to allocate or raise money to offer this kind of art programming. That it’s happening at all shows that the arts are valued.
Knowles: We also work closely with EOU, which has consistently had a strong arts program, with student art exhibits held regularly in the Nightingale Gallery on campus, the only other gallery in town that brings in visiting artists.
Is there any specific artistic discipline that has made particularly worthwhile advances locally, or gone through an interesting evolution?
Dolge: That’s a hard one! I think both music and film have continued to stay strong in the area. We have the Eastern Oregon Film Festival that continues to grow, and Baker City has the We Like ‘Em Short festival. It’s interesting that our region can support two film festivals.
What are your goals and expectations for the coming year in the arts? Both in a professional and community sense, but also at a personal level.
Knowles: Professionally, I want to continue to strengthen and diversify the ACE board and board-member expertise, write more grants so we can do more for the community, and grow the ACE Writing Project (our monthly author series and open mic). As a writer myself, I want to continue to produce and publish poetry, and maybe join the Community Band with my daughter.
Dolge: At ACE, I am always looking to increase the number of teaching artists on our roster and diversify our programming. It’s also more than time to get our building up to current ADA standards and I’m looking forward to breaking ground on that project in the coming year. I’m in the midst of launching a new arm of my business, Blackberry Moon Sound, that will introduce sound healing to the community. I am finishing renovations on my home-based studio and hope to have it open for regular clients in early 2020.
West: I want to see ACE serving more people in 2020. ADA will go a long way to increasing our audience, and I’m also personally invested in finding creative partnerships and extending invitations to groups we haven’t reached out to in the past. I’ve learned through my work at ACE (and previously as manager of the Hillsdale Farmers Market in Southwest Portland) that an authentic invitation can be a powerful thing, from a chat with the bank teller to a formalized memorandum of understanding! I’ve been meaning to do it for a long time, so I’m going to declare it here: 2020 is the year I will learn to play the accordion.
This is the third in a series of twenty interviews in twenty days with arts and cultural figures around Oregon, creating a group portrait of the state of the arts in the state. It looks at where we’ve been, where we are, and what might or should happen culturally in the 2020s.