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Keeping Art Alive: Arts Central is just one Oregon arts organization vying to stay afloat

Cate O'Hagan at the former Mirror Pond GalleryWhile giving a tour of what was until recently the Mirror Pond Gallery, Cate O'Hagan moves quickly but


Cate O'Hagan at the former Mirror Pond GalleryWhile giving a tour of what was until recently the Mirror Pond Gallery, Cate O'Hagan moves quickly but thoughtfully. She's a busy woman, to say the least, but she takes time to show off the architecture work of third graders, which although not on par with Frank Lloyd Wright, is nonetheless creative. We breeze by some watercolors on the wall and then we sit down, O'Hagan taking off her stylish square-framed glasses and setting them on a massive square table.

O'Hagan, the executive director of Arts Central, the region's state-designated arts and cultural council, seems to enjoy the chance to sit down, because again, she is a busy woman who's had a busy week.

That Tuesday, she met with Bend city officials to hear the final word on what would become of the $12,000-plus tax debt the organization owed as a result of an unexpected tax bill Arts Central was slapped with last summer by county tax assessors who ruled that the group could not operate a gallery that created revenue for artists and the organization without paying property taxes. Then, on Wednesday, she was in Salem with the Oregon Arts Commission while it reviewed Arts Central's request for an annual grant. It's a stressful and in some cases daunting time for non-profit arts organizations in Oregon - many of which were considered under funded by arts advocates before the recession hit hard.

Arts Central is just one of many in Oregon vying for a rather limited amount of funding. The organization - which is responsible for several of educational programs, including efforts to offset cuts to art programs in public schools, in addition to advocating for public art installments and aiding the region's other artistic groups - is waiting along with many other Oregon groups in a long line for state and national funding. As art-based groups collapse around the state, one thing is certain: there isn't enough cash readily on hand to offset the lack of funding created by the sagging economy. And what funding is available is meant to preserve jobs and programs, but isn't a long-term solution.

Amazingly, O'Hagan says it's been a good week. The city decided to pay off the tax bill (which had been already slashed in half after talks with the county), and allow Arts Central to repay it over the coming years.

"We are very pleased. We got 100 percent of what we wanted," O'Hagan says, "For the city to help us out allows us to move forward."

After speaking with city councilors both formally and informally, O'Hagan says that the city was accepting of Arts Central's proposal for the city to pay off the $12,600 tax bill and allow the money to be paid back to them in installments over the next few years.

According to City Councilor Tom Greene, the council was entirely supportive of the proposal, viewing Arts Central as a vital part of the community. Greene provides a not-always-common argument for why a city needs to support its artistic organization.

"It's one of those things that as a realtor in town - and I've told the city council this many times- that when people come here from Portland or California they remark about how little arts we have in Central Oregon. I think that if we lose Arts Central and other organizations, it would take us a step backward," Greene says.

O'Hagan is relieved to move past the tax debt issue, which has been on her plate since last summer, In the meantime, Arts Central also had to revamp the building into an educational center, which qualifies as a tax-exempt use.

Although the influence of Arts Central remains prominent, the organization has cut its budget by more than 40 percent over the past year. And this has, quite predictably, resulted in some markedly significant changes in the way Arts Central operates.

"We were never a fancy organization, but this has been like going from a Volkswagen Bug to a lawn mower," says O'Hagan, who hasn't escaped the budget cuts. Every other month, O'Hagan trades off with one other employee to go on unemployment insurance.

Arts Central's influence on our region's culture extends far beyond the 100-year-old walls of the former Mirror Pond Gallery. Through its Art Station, the organization holds classes for children as well as adults and its mobile arts program, VanGo, reaches out to at-risk youths and rural communities. Arts Central also runs the Artists in Schools program and manages public arts projects throughout the region - in addition to assisting other area art organizations.

What was once a non-profit group operating on $620,000 in 2008 is now surviving on $370,000 to get through this year. This means that about half of the staff has also been cut. Still, O'Hagan wants to keep the organization afloat so that if and when the economy turns around and more big donors are able to give to Arts Central, there will still be an Arts Central to give to.

"You can't resuscitate a drowned person," says O'Hagan on why there needs to be an effort to maintain a certain level of structure to Arts Central should things turn around.

Now that Arts Central no longer can rely on income from Mirror Pond Gallery, it is now wholly reliant on class fees as its earned income. O'Hagan says that earned income should make up half of a non-profit's budget, which is a problem given that Arts Central saw its class registration drop by 55 percent in 2008.

The day prior to our meeting, O'Hagan was in Salem with the state-run Oregon Arts Commission, a division of the Oregon Economic and Community Development Department, reviewing Arts Central's annual grant from the OAC, which is in the neighborhood of $25,000. Clearly not an earth-shattering amount, considering the group's $300,000-plus annual budget, but hardly nominal and certainly appreciated, in O'Hagan's view.

And the OAC seems to appreciate O'Hagan and the way she's run her organization.

"In Cate you have very, very strong leadership. She is recognized throughout the state for her background in arts administration," says Brian Warner, Community Development Coordinator for the OAC, referring to O'Hagan's 30-plus years in Oregon's art scene.

But compliments aside, Warner admits that some arts organizations throughout the state are struggling. "In some parts of the state, they've remained strong, but we've seen an economic weakening for many of our regional arts councils," says Warner.

There are nine different regional arts councils throughout the state. Arts Central is the council for Central Oregon, serving Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson counties. These councils are responsible for advocating for arts education, lending support to arts organizations and a myriad of other responsibilities, including promoting art in public places.

The problem with public arts funding is nationwide. Americans for the Arts, a national arts advocacy group, estimates that 10,000 art groups around the country may close this year, meaning more than a quarter million arts-related workers could be out of work. But Oregon has always been near the bottom of the list in public arts funding per capita and has been hit especially hard by this recession.

The Obama administration, as part of the economic stimulus packages, poured money into the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which in turn, sent the cash out to the states. The OAC is responsible for distributing the money in Oregon, and organizations are lining up to get it. The problem is that while the NEA money is valuable, the amount of cash needed by applicants far exceeds the funding available. There have been some $1.6 million in requests for only $307,000, according to OAC executive director Christine D'Arcy. She says she was hardly shocked by the overflow of applicants.

"Many organizations have had to lay people off or cut their working hours. It didn't surprise me that we received as many [applications] as we did," says D'Arcy.

D'Arcy says that the NEA funds are meant exclusively to preserve jobs in the arts sector, which she considers as important as any other profession.

"If you're a union musician playing in the symphony or a stage hand at the Hult Center [in Eugene], that's no different than any other job," she says.

The OAC's "gap grants" are still an option for other struggling organizations. There is $300,000 available for this program, and while the parameters are a bit broader than the NEA stimulus dollars, the mission is the same: keep arts organizations afloat.

The deadline for the gap grant applications was Tuesday and the OAC won't know the total dollar amount of requests until early next week, but O'Hagan estimates that there could be as much as $1 million in proposed requests.

When asked about the future of the arts in Oregon, D'Arcy says it will take more than just state and national grants to keep groups in business. There will also need to be an effort on behalf of the people in the form of increased membership and donations.

"It's up to Oregonians to decide if these programs are valuable and if so, they need to step forward to save them," she says.

ABC Awards

At the end of May, the city of Bend Arts, Beautification and Culture Commission (ABC) released the recipients of the commission's annual ABC Awards. The awards are meant to recognize groups and individuals that had an impact in promoting and preserving the city's arts, culture and public spaces in 2008.

Arts Recipients:

Art in the High Desert

Artists Local 101

Pakit Liquidators for Transformations

Bend Experimental Arts Theatre (BEAT)

Innovation Theatre Works

Marlene Moore Alexander for Arts in the Hospital

Beatification Recipients:

Newport Avenue Market for the Market-Façade Mural

River West Neighborhood Association for the 12th Street Triangle

Culture Recipients:

Deschutes Public Library Foundation for A Novel Idea

John Flannery for Bend Cycle Cab and Green Energy Transportation & Tour LLC

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