Painters and belly dancers in a net barnThe 19th Century Portland druggist and philanthropist Stephen Skidmore said that, "Good citizens are the riches of a city." In 2003 it might be said that new citizens with new blood and new money make small towns come alive.
Astoria received an infusion of new blood and imagination when Daren Doss and Lisa Chadbourne purchased three buildings in Alderbrook last year. Doss and Chadbourne are Seattle architects. They found the buildings on the Internet, and they inspected them on a surfing trip to the North Coast.
Last Friday night, Doss and Chadbourne opened the largest of the three buildings, a three-story net barn, to Astoria Visual Arts, which hosted a gathering to show off the work of two Astoria-based artists who have worked in Paris and Berlin.
As my wife and I climbed the steps of this vast wooden structure, we heard sitar music. Paintings by Roger Hayes and Nick Knapton looked out from the walls of the third floor. In the center of the space sat the musician, next to electronic equipment and a Persian rug. Over the course of the hour, a highly diverse, eclectic crowd came up the stairs. Then the belly dancers arrived. Led by Inge Hallman, this group of dancers practices weekly in the Commercial Street retail space, Adagio.
"Just another quiet evening in our small town," we joked as we walked into the dark and rain, away from the glow and cheerful noise of the net barn.
The thread that courses through that anecdote is the arts. The arts are giving a second life to a building that is no longer used for fishing. Astoria has gained a vibrant, contributing couple, drawn by the town's artistic potential. The evening in the net barn was suffused with the arts.
It is incorrect to view the arts in a vacuum, as though it were an isolated, rarefied topic. In the post-industrial economy, the arts, creativity and the economy are a critical nexus. Richard Florida explores this conjunction of forces in The Rise of the Creative Class.
It is stifling to think of art in "high art" terms, as though one needed an academic pass in order to participate or consume.
The fictional Broadway director Bill Sampson breaks down that wall with gusto in the movie All About Eve. The arts make money for Oregon. Speaking to the ingenue Eve Harrington, Sampson says: "Want to know what the Theater is? A flea circus. Also opera. Also rodeos, carnivals, ballets, Indian tribal dances, Punch and Judy, a one-man band - all Theater. Wherever there's magic and make-believe and an audience - there's Theater. Donald Duck, Ibsen, and The Lone Ranger, Sarah Bernhardt, Poodles Hanneford, Lunt and Fontanne, Betty Grable and Eleanora Duse. You don't understand them all, you don't like them all, why should you? The Theater's for everybody - you included, but not exclusively - so don't approve or disapprove. It may not be your Theater, but it's Theater of somebody, somewhere."
Sampson might have added that there is theater on the street and in restaurants. I have long believed that Astoria is a sitcom waiting for a half-hour time slot.
Like other states, Oregon's public spending on the arts is in jeopardy, just as arts in the schools have suffered over the last decade. As the legislature cuts spending, the arts are an easy target. But if Oregon does not have a state arts agency, it will forego $509,000 in funds from the National Endowment for the Arts that is distributed across the state.
The arts make money for Oregon. There is measurable return on investment in projects all across the state. Rick Bombaci, president of the Rotary Club of Wallowa County has said: "We think of our local economy and culture as standing on three legs - ranching, timber and the arts."
Secondly, the arts bring communities together. The arts revitalize communities and build social capital. Finally, the arts are essential to Oregon's students, helping children master multiple subjects, and developing a creative workforce.
For towns such as Astoria or Cannon Beach, the arts beckon to people looking for a new home for themselves or their business. The Chadbournes are one example of what is happening with greater frequency in these parts.