A Rich History

Corvallis Arts Center helped unify arts program

Hester Coucke is the curator of public exhibitions at the Corvallis Arts Center.

Dan Wise
Hester Coucke is the curator of public exhibitions at the Corvallis Arts Center.

In the late 1950s, Corvallis was a small town with groups of arts people segregated between those at Oregon State University and those who weren’t.

Enter Marion Gathercoal, the wife of a businessman, a stay-at-home mom and the Women’s Club president who had an idea for a project that would bring the two segments together. Her project eventually became the Corvallis Arts Center, uniting the two segments under the arts banner.

It’s remained a vibrant center of arts for Corvallis since the early 1960s, now under the administrative leadership of Cynthia Spencer.

Grass roots

But before the Corvallis Arts Center became the fascinating place it is today, residents often endured conflicting or overlapping events. For example, one night the OSU orchestra held a concert on the same night as the high school play. Such events made it hard for patrons to see and do everything they wanted.

Armed with a book called “Survey of Arts Councils,” Gathercoal began working to develop the arts center as a home to the city’s different artistic groups. These included theater groups, painting groups, reading groups, musicians and crafters, mixing those from the university with those from the town, says her daughter Bonny Gathercoal Potter.

As a first venture, the Women’s Club held an Allied Arts Festival combining paintings, ceramics, handcrafts, music and dancing in the summer of 1960. During the festival, one volunteer suggested using a container to collect contributions.

The first gross totaled $74, and the Arts Center began, according to a book written by Gathercoal, “The Unfolding of an Idea: A Brief History of the Corvallis Arts Center.”

To prevent duplicate performances, Gathercoal began tying leaders of local arts groups together. She set up a meeting of heads of OSU’s humanities departments, Corvallis public school representatives, community arts group heads and those heading the Allied Arts Council.

This grass roots group together enthusiastically began supporting the arts council project. The first grass roots meeting, which included more than 30 cultural groups, be-came the 21st U.S. arts council and the first in Oregon.

Arts Groups

Besides Gathercoal, the participants included a mix of university personnel like Robert Walls, OSU’s music department director, and John O’Conner, OSU’s orchestra director and a church music director. Corrine Chaves Woodman, a local singer and actress, her assistant Kitty Bunn, and Joe Malango — the high school speech and drama teacher — also were members.

Others included Martin Chaves, who worked with groups to make the building usable, including repairing the old church bell. OSU drama professor E.S. Cortright and various others from Corvallis who joined the group, supported a bond levy to fund the center and donated materials and labor. The city provided the land for the center, according to Gathercoal’s book.

During that time, Gather-coal began looking for a place to house the center. This turned out to be an empty Episcopal Church, built in 1889 at Seventh Street and Jefferson. It was vacant be-cause the church and its members had built a new church and moved; the local paper planned to take over the spot. But the Elks Lodge had purchased the building, and Stan Wilt later donated it to the group.

Publicity for the proposed center started bringing in mailed donations to Gather-coal’s home. Check amounts varied but one day the potential for the center turned with a $150 donation from Jim and Ruth Howland. Other donors established a patron’s program for $10 donations. More than 250 residents and organizations each provided $10 and became charter patrons.

The city donated the land for the building at 700 Madison. Added support came from $5,000 levies passed by residents, beginning in June 1965. The levies were extended for 10 years in 1970; again in 1988 and 1995. While the levies are lower now, they still provide support, Spencer says.

Other donations came from OSU, whose drama department chair D. Palmer Young says the $2,500 for 250 chairs would be paid, according to Gathercoal’s book.

Locals also helped out buying chairs and Lucy Gruetzmacher donated a grand piano. The public first came to view the center in 1962 at the Christmas Arts Sale, which included sale items from the Weavers Guild, enamellists, OSU art students, library friends and the local Reader’s Theater, all members of the Arts Center.

The center officially opened in late January 1963. The town’s mayor, Kenneth McGregor cut the ribbon, and Gathercoal dedicated it and thanked the Elks for their donation. During its two opening days, 1,000 people visited the new venture.

Today’s Arts Center

Spencer has held her administrative position at the Arts Center for the past two years. Under her administration it remains a place where artists meet and share their works and opinions. But not just that; the center is the home of a gift shop, adult and children’s classes as well as various shows.

And, Spencer has the arts and administrative background to make Gathercoal proud.

The current administrator began her career as a potter making unique sculptures. She also taught arts classes.

“I joined the Oregon Potters Association and began selling my wares at fairs and shows,” she says.

She later began serving on the board of the Corvallis Fall Festival and was asked and accepted the directorship of that organization for nine years.

“This job has a bigger learning curve,” Spencer says of her administrative work. “My job is to see how an organization with a long, rich past can continue to serve today’s and future needs. Currently, I’m assessing the community needs and seeing how best to serve them.”

People continue to crave connections with others, she adds. The center provides active participation with families and friends with the objective of meeting and making new friends and connections.

“A lot of what people seek is sharing benefits. And, there are studies showing that such groups provide health and well-being as well as stress reduction,” she adds.

Spencer has insisted that the arts center is more than a place for visual and auditory arts. She thinks people are looking to cook a good meal, design beautiful gardens and sing in a choir.

“We get many visitors, we get a lot of people coming during their lunch hours seeking the inspiration of connecting with art works and rejuvenating themselves,” in order to benefit their work and social lives, Spencer says.

But she’s also looking for methods of improving life for upcoming adults. “I recently went to a conference dealing with the future of learning. Among the subjects was reintegrating arts into the curriculum,” she says.

Spencer plans to help local schools integrate arts into the STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — foundation that districts across the nation are using as the basis for project-based learning. “We’re advocating turning STEM to STEAM to allow the arts to pull everything together,” she says.

Programs, programs

But her ideas don’t stop there. The center also has turned to promoting arts in area and nearby assisted living facilities and veterans programs. Spencer notes that the addition of singing, painting, playing instruments and other art and music activities provides active engagement thus reducing stress and connecting lonely, separate lives into various projects.’’

For example, the Arts Center offers ArtsCare using visual arts and music professionals for men and women undergoing cancer treatments or other health problems along with various sessions at local assisted living facilities and the Oregon Veteran’s Home in Lebanon.

For children there are In-House Education programs after school and in the summer; and art studio and classes for days without school. Summer programs include arts and culture camps. Adults benefit, too, with adult art education workshops.

As if that’s not enough, there’s an At-Risk Youth Education coordinator providing outreach and artists in the schools programing. There’s also an ArtShop offering acquisitions of new and existing regional artists. It offers anyone myriad designs in jewelry, art works and other items for purchase and provides some income for the center.

But it wouldn’t be an arts center without exhibitions. Hester Coucke is the center’s curator of public exhibitions. Like the other program leaders she has an arts background with degrees in art history and art education. She’s also been working at the center for the past 25 years.

Coucke works with a committee of about 10 to 12 people representing different mediums: fiber, photographs, woodworking, ceramics, glass, painting and printmaking. There’s also an exchange student and an art intern attached to the committee, she says.

“It’s a real benefit that we have all the different views. It’s harder to make decisions, but we get different views on proposals and ideas. That way we can offer a balanced program,” she says.

The center has two galleries, the Main Gallery just off the ArtShop and the Corrine Woodman Gallery. The larger Main Gallery offers local, regional and national art shows. The Corrine Woodman Gallery houses art from the smaller area of Linn and Benton Counties. Often, Coucke says, the center sells more work from the smaller gallery.


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