Now that the Jacobs Gallery is dead and gone, what actually is the future of the visual arts in Eugene? A noontime discussion at the City Club of Eugene today brought in four experts to address that very question in front of an audience of a hundred or more people.

Listening to the hour-long presentation nudged my own thinking forward quite a bit about how and why we might pull together here to create a visual art center. I have, for too long, conflated the ideas of “art museum” and “visual arts center” without paying proper attention to a huge distinction that needs to be made.

An art museum hangs paintings.

A visual arts center provides a broader spectrum of experience.

In a talk I gave in November to the Round Table Club of Eugene, I mentioned these five ingredients as a minimum for a visual arts center here:

1. Gallery space for changing exhibitions as well as a permanent collection of art.

2. Studio space, including live-work studio space for visiting resident artists.

3. Classroom/auditorium space for teaching and presentations.

4. A cordial place where people can hang out and drink beer or wine or coffee and waste time on a rainy day. I think this is a necessity.

And, finally:

5. Magic.

Panelists at today’s City Club discussion were Tina Rinaldi, former Jacobs Galley director from long ago and now head of the University of Oregon Arts & Administration Program; Charly Swing, an artist who is head of a new venture, ArtCity, which she describes as “a multi-disciplinary artists’ studio community”; Miriam Alexis Jordan, former board member of the Jacobs and of DIVA; and Libby Unthank Tower, chair of the Oregon Arts Commission. Eugene architect Otto Poticha moderated.

Right off the bat, I found myself listening to Tina Rinaldi read from an article I posted in July about the need for a visual arts center here and pointing out – justly, I think – that the vision I expressed there had some shortcomings.

“Having a fancy building with pictures hanging on the walls is not enough,” she said, citing statistics from a couple of national surveys showing that engagement with traditional art is in serious decline. “Most people under the age of 50 don’t want to sit down and hang around and talk about art.”

Yes, that’s probably true (though I can’t imagine why they wouldn’t want to). But attendance at well programmed arts events is good here in Eugene. Lane Arts Council’s occasional First Friday Art Talks has been wonderful.

What I need to make clear is that any possible visual arts center that can be dreamed of, planned and built in Eugene needs a solid foundation of programming from which to grow. You can’t just create a big, beautiful building. It has to be a building that houses the energy thrown off by lively arts institutions that are already functioning. (That may have been one of the biggest factors in the demise of DIVA some years ago.)

Look back to the 1970s and ’80s, when the Hult was being planned and built. The Hult didn’t happen in a vacuum. We already had a symphony, a ballet, and a repertory theater all wanting to perform there. That kind of arts programming made the Hult not just possible, but necessary.

Is there such programming in the visual arts here? Yes, but it’s scattered. One of the great success stories in Lane County has been the Emerald Art Center in Springfield, founded by a Sunday watercolor society but now housing gallery space and offering instruction. Another is Maude Kerns Art Center. Another is Whiteaker Printmakers.

We also have a university art museum in town – a museum that has, for some time, been looking to establish a downtown presence.

What if the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art teamed up with Emerald Art Center and with Maude Kerns and with WhitPrint and, perhaps, with the film and video group that grew out of the now-defunct DIVA and Charly Swing’s new ArtCity – and found temporary quarters to move into, together, downtown?

Yes, there are million problems. Maude Kerns and Emerald Art Center, for example, own their current facilities. Why should they move into something with an uncertain future? Collaboration is always uncomfortable.

But collaboration also has huge benefits, from efficiencies of scale to the synergy that comes from packing creative people into close proximity day after day.

And drawing on the existing institutional strength of those organizations and others like them might just be the surest way forward.

The entire hour-long City Club program on the visual arts will be broadcast on KLCC at 6:30 p.m. Monday, March 28.