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The Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko

We’re back from two weeks of hiking in Nevada – the Ruby Mountains, near Elko – and I’m slowly settling back in to the Eugene arts scene.

The sad news here, of course, is the coming demise of the Gallery at the Watershed, one of the few remaining commercial art galleries in town. Owner Amy Isler Gibson fought the good fight, and lost, and announced two weeks ago that she was closing her doors after one final show (“The Last Picture Show: Exceptional Contemporary Prints by 5 NW Women,” with work by Mika Aono Boyd, Heather Halpern, Allison Hyde, Dune Erickson Hyatt and Chelsey Iida, through Aug. 29).

The gallery has been open two years, nearly closed once before, and has served up a steady stream of appealing local and regional art.

From my lofty perspective high up in the Rubies – we literally enjoyed a 10,000-foot view of life, every single day, while hiking – a couple thoughts on the loss of yet another Eugene gallery gradually came into focus.

First off, it is nearly impossible to run an art gallery as a real business in Eugene. It is just really, really hard to make money selling fine art here. That is no matter how good you are at understanding art, how noble your intentions are, and how many friends you have to help support you.

And it’s not just here. A few years ago, I interviewed Arlene Schnitzer (mother of Jordan Schnitzer) about her Fountain Gallery, generally regarded as the first significant fine art gallery in Portland.

At one point I asked her whether the gallery had made money in its first year. She paused, then asked if I wanted the truth. I said yes, indeed I did. Schnitzer told me the Fountain Gallery had never made money, not ever, not in its entire existence, despite its successful reputation and outsize influence. Instead, the gallery was always subsidized by her husband, Harold Schnitzer. She managed to convince him that art was so important that it needed constant support.

So if the Schnitzers couldn’t make money selling art in Portland, how can anyone hope to make money selling art in Eugene? Success is clearly not a matter of hanging beautiful paintings, opening your doors, taking our a few advertisements in glossy art magazines, and then waiting for customers to arrive with checkbooks in hand.

How do we fix this? As much as I find alternate exhibition spaces appealing (think pop-up galleries, street shows, artists’ collectives), none of those represents any kind of actual business model, with financial stability. And art, to prosper, needs just that kind of long-term stability.

I’ve often wondered whether the city (or county, or state) might be able to extend to art galleries the kind of tax breaks that we seem delighted to offer bigger businesses, the most recent example being student housing. The trouble there is that for tax breaks to work, you need an actual taxable income. Tax breaks aim too high, and aren’t enough to foster starving businesses.

The solution, I think, has to be longer term. We need to create, and nurture, a culture of supporting – and, yes, buying – visual art in the community. And we have a long ways to go.

Eugene, which has in the past tried to bill itself as various versions of the world’s greatest city of the arts and outdoors, doesn’t have a central visual arts center to match the scale and scope of the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. We have the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon, but that belongs to the state (or, more properly, to Phil Knight, I suppose). And with no parking nearby, it remains fairly inaccessible for many Eugeneans.

The community also offers, or has offered, a blizzard of current and former small non-profit arts centers: The Jacobs Gallery. Maude Kerns Art Center. Emerald Art Center. DIVA, which I believe has moved to Drain. The New Zone Gallery. Watershed Arts, the non-profit wing of the soon-to-close for-profit gallery. The now-defunct Oregon Arts Alliance. They join a depressing list of commercial galleries that have closed in recent memory: Opus VII (and its predecessors, Opus6ix and Opus V), La Follette, Fenario, Gallery 268, and some I’ve already forgotten.

IMG_0907All this came to mind during my visit to Elko, a city of less than 20,000 people (about twice the size of Cottage Grove) that boasts the 40,000-square-foot Northeastern Nevada Museum, pictured above.

Founded in 1968, the museum combines regional history and natural history (in the form of a large collection of taxidermied animals from a southern California businessman and game hunter) with an increasing emphasis on fine art – the latter primarily focused on a growing collection of western art surrounding 58 pieces the museum acquired by cowboy artist and writer Will James. It offers a small collection of photography by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, along with rotating shows by local and regional artists, sculptors and photographers.

Situated in a city park, the museum is substantial and well designed. It doesn’t have the shoddy feel of so many small-town museums that you find stuffed into an old church or other repurposed building. In fact – though this isn’t actually the case – the museum seems designed and built to be what it is.

They’re currently in a $6 million capital campaign, too.

Finally, the museum in Elko seems to understand its mission. Open the museum website, and you’re greeted by a clear message: “We’re building the Great Basin Home of World Class Western Art.” (This sounds a lot better to my ear than Eugene’s “We think we might be the world’s sort-of greatest city of the arts and outdoors.”)

What good would a visual arts center do here in Eugene?

It would give a physical focal point to the visual arts, a place for people – artists and art lovers, both – to hang out and view art and think about art and talk about art. It would offer regional artists a prestigious place to exhibit their work, and would encourage serious artists to move here. (I love the Jacobs Gallery, but it’s very small.)

A visual arts center here would make a clear statement about the importance of art here.

And, over time, I think a visual art center in Eugene would help art become a business – a real business, one that helps the community grow.

Now we just need to build it.

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