Eugene Art Talk

What’s up with the city, the Hult and the former Jacobs Gallery?

It’s been more than a year since the Jacobs Gallery closed its doors in downtown Eugene, another victim of — of what, exactly? The sluggish economy? City Hall’s indifference to the visual arts? Poor management by the nonprofit organization that ran the Jacobs, created in 1987, on the lower floor of the Hult Center?

Pressed for an answer, I’d have to choose a bit of all of the above. What I can’t put my finger on, though, is this: Why hasn’t the city gotten around to taking down the signs at the Hult Center that say “Jacobs Gallery”? You can still read the operating hours of the now non-existent art gallery. Do they think the Jacobs is magically going to resurrect itself?

I got the chance recently to pose that question to a couple city officials — Theresa Sizemore, the Hult Center manager, and Isaac Marquez, the public art manager. They’re both friendly and hard working, and seem quite sincere in their explanations. And they both indicated that things just plain take a long time to accomplish when the city does them.

“The signage is part of an overall plan,” Sizemore said. “And a lot of the signs are attached to the building …”

The 35-year-old Hult Center is showing its age. Water began leaking into the lower levels of the building even before the Jacobs closed. There was fungus involved. Repairs involve rebuilding a small commercial kitchen, and that means bringing the kitchen up to current health codes, which will make it bigger, and …

Anyone who has remodeled a house will recognize this kind of mission creep.

“Construction could still impact the Jacobs space,” Sizemore said.

Bigger questions still hover around the ghost of the gallery. What’s the city’s role in promoting visual art? Should it replace the Jacobs Gallery with another equivalent space? Or should it focus on other ways of presenting art, and other kinds of art besides paintings hung on walls?

“The visual arts fall between many models,” Marquez said. “How many galleries have closed in Eugene in the last five years?”

More, I’d have to admit, than survive.

To its credit, the city spent some time in the past year trying to find another private group to operate something like the Jacobs, if only for the occasional show. That never really panned out.

On the other hand, I haven’t been totally convinced the city is behind the idea of another city-supported art gallery. More than a year ago, city staffers told the Cultural Services Advisory Committee that “the gallery model is not doing well, nationally, internationally or in our state.”

The same could also be said about symphonic music, ballet and opera. Yet traditional non-profit performing groups continue to operate in the Hult’s two performance halls, though, of course, the ever-ailing opera is, once again, broke and in debt, and the Oregon Bach Festival has moved most of its operations back to the University of Oregon.

Sizemore says the city doesn’t subsidize performances, not even for the Hult’s six resident companies. So the city wasn’t showing favoritism by cutting its $30,000 annual subsidy to the Jacobs, leading to the gallery’s demise; instead it was putting painters and printmakers and sculptors on the same neutral financial footing as musicians and dancers and actors. (In fact, the Jacobs never paid rent on its space, so it came out ahead.)

Bottom line is this: If the visual arts world wants a visual arts center in Eugene, it’s going to be up to those artists and their supporters to build it. I don’t believe the city will stand in the way of a solid plan, but no one should wait around for City Hall to make the first move.

After all, Eugene can’t even decide how to replace its now-demolished City Hall.

Some of you may recall Eugene Art Talk, the arts blog I wrote for a couple years between working for that other newspaper in town and taking up residence in here at Eugene Weekly. I didn’t quite know what to do with the name, but I’ve grown fond of it. So here it is, on top of a new and occasional column about the arts world in and around Eugene.

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