Local arts scene captures attention

The Rogue Valley has been rated one of two top spots in Oregon for "creative vitality" in the arts — an honor that gauges public participation in the arts, arts-related employment and the impact of the arts on the local economy.

Thanks to the prestigious Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Britt Music Festivals in Jacksonville, the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in Medford and other arts organizations, the Jackson-Josephine county region scored 1.3 on the Creative Vitality Index, published annually by the Oregon Arts Commission.

That compares to 1.5 for the Multnomah-Washington county (Portland) area, 1.02 for Oregon as a whole and 1.0 for the United States.

Oregon Arts Commission Executive Director Christine D'Arcy cited the valley's profusion of art galleries, art walks, freelance artists, revenues to theaters, bookstores and music outlets, arts festivals, non-profit arts organizations, the new Ashland Arts Center, the Craterian and a host of other venues that are feeding the arts environment here.

"I'm sure Shakespeare and Britt, as thriving, large-budget organizations with high employment, are the main drivers," she said, "but it's also because of the beauty of the valley. The magnetism of these large organizations helps other groups develop. Ashland is the major concentration of creativity because of the presence of the largest nonprofit regional theater in the U.S., as well as Southern Oregon University. A lot of artists relocate there for the quality of life."

Like many artists, potter Dennis Meiners of the Applegate and his wife, painter Leslie Lee, settled here from Portland because "we just always loved it," he said. "We came here for the creative environment and the total feeling of the place. We loved the light.

"We'd stop in Ashland on our travels (to sell at art shows) ... and we felt totally at home here. Ashland has the good things of a big town, but we couldn't afford to live there."

Being around other creative people, Meiners added, "is essential to my well-being. I'd be really lonely without it. ... Having others to talk to, it's a wonderful exchange of information."

Jim Giancarlo, artistic director of Oregon Cabaret Theater in Ashland, said the creative vitality of the area comes from OSF and "everything else crops up around it ... things gather and proliferate. Like attracts like. It's a beautiful place to live and a destination center for arts and the intellect, for access to culture."

Being remote from urban centers, the Rogue Valley presents a decided challenge for making money as an artist, Giancarlo noted.

"A lot are making it, but in a pretty minimal way," he said. "Why do they keep trying? Because it's what they love to do and the quality of life is more important than the big bucks."

There are more than 3,000 active artists in Jackson County, and the Ashland Gallery Association has 30 galleries or working studios among its membership, said its administrator, Suzanne Heinrich.

"It's a lot of creative talent in this area," she noted. "Ashland is an arts destination, like Carmel and Santa Fe — a magnetic draw for people with creative juices."

Nancy Jo Mullen, former director of the Rogue Gallery in Medford, said a lot of art energies fortuitously came together here 50 years ago, with the creation of the Britt Festivals, OSF's Bowmer Theatre and the Rogue Gallery.

"It was something in the water. It all took a big jump forward," said Mullen. "All the organizations fed on each other and still, today, everywhere you look, people are coming forward with good ideas and believe they can create a good following."

Jean Boyer Cowling of Medford, chairwoman of the Oregon Arts Commission, said the Creative Vitality Index helps demonstrate how arts are tied into the local economy by identifying those who are actively engaged in selling art.

"You understand how many things in the economy are arts-related — graphic design, textiles, music — this (study) expands that horizon," said Cowling.

Artists sell locally, but most realize they have to use the Internet and market themselves regionally or nationally, so they can do their creative work here, she said.

"I'm always delighted by the wealth of creativity in this valley," said Cowling, noting she's often surprised to discover the education, skills and accomplishments of so many residents who seem like average people until "you explore and find the treasures."

Medford artist Richard Jarrel moved originally to Ashland because it was a "culturally, creatively aware town with so many galleries and a college. With a college, you find diversity and openness to exploring and trying new things. Ashland, Medford, Jacksonville and Grants Pass all have art walks now. That says it."

The Creative Vitality Index weighs festivals, retail arts outlets and arts organizations as 60 percent of the score and arts-related employment as 40 percent, D'Arcy said.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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