Oregon's classic university town gets the museums and music it deserves

Eugene arts

Andy Warhol. The Eugene Symphony performing Dvorôk’s New World Symphony. Satoko Motouji. Laurie Anderson. Led Ka’apana.

These artists ― or their work ― can all be found in Eugene, Oregon, this month. And if you’re familiar with only some of these names, that, in a nutshell, captures the promise of the city’s reinvigorated arts scene.

Home to the state’s leading liberal arts university and having a well-deserved reputation for counterculture and fresh thinking, Eugene would seem to be a natural haven for the arts. It has been ― in a limited way. There have long been music clubs and art galleries scattered throughout town. The Hult Center for the Performing Arts is a venue for national performers as well as resident music, theater, and dance companies.

But Eugene was feeling growing pains. Venues for edgier artists were slim, as were those for performing artists who had outgrown coffeehouses and clubs but couldn’t quite fill a 2,400-seat concert hall. And while the University of Oregon’s art museum holds a world-class collection of Asian, American, and European art, it had run out of room to display it. The town needed an upgrade.

All that has changed in the past couple of years. New performance venues have opened, encouraging more and different kinds of musical performances. Now Eugene is starting to draw audiences from out of town and out of state, and not just for its acclaimed Oregon Bach Festival in summer.

Live from the Shedd

Most of the music news in Eugene originates at the Shedd ― the John G. Shedd Institute for the Arts, home of the Oregon Festival of American Music. OFAM has been producing a summer music festival in Eugene for 14 years, but transformation of the old First Baptist Church into a permanent location for the festival has helped it expand into a year-round proposition ― and helped expand audiences’ definition of American music.

“Take Earshot Jazz and San Francisco Jazz and overlay on it the ultimate university cultural series,” says Jim Ralph, OFAM’s cofounder and executive director, in an attempt to define the series. It incorporates everything from the symphonic music of Samuel Barber to jazz, Brazilian-style percussion, and contemporary artists Laurie Anderson and Lyle Lovett. “You broaden your chops by coming to OFAM,” says Jim’s wife and cofounder, Ginevra Ralph.

Since creating the Shedd (and naming it for Ginevra’s great grandfather) in 2002, the Ralphs have turned Sunday-school classrooms into practice studios and the chapel into a space for film screenings and music and dance recitals. They’ve also fine-tuned the acoustics in the 800-seat sanctuary turned concert hall ― still furnished with pews ― to the point that a microphone is often superfluous.

Four blocks down Broadway from the Shedd, visual arts advocates are working toward their goal of building a major arts center downtown. In the meantime, the year-old DIVA: Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts exhibits a broader spectrum of artists than would otherwise be seen in commercial galleries around town. With its warren of galleries and full schedule of classes, DIVA is fulfilling a vision to use art as a catalyst for revitalizing the city center.

DIVA’s six galleries ― and every hallway and corner ― display an eclectic mix of work by local artists. Show openings are staggered, so you could visit every couple of weeks and always see something new (though in March and April, Artists Who Teach, a show by local art instructors, will fill nearly every wall). The art center is also within blocks of most downtown galleries ― putting it on the circuit for participants in Eugene’s monthly Lane Arts Council’s First Friday Art Walk.

New at the U of O

But it’s the University of Oregon’s newly renamed Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art that’s drawing the most attention. Closed for four years for a $14.2 million renovation and expansion, the museum reopened in January with nearly double the space, including room for traveling exhibitions that never could have visited Eugene before.

“Eugene has very strong anchors in the music field, with the Hult Center and now the Shedd, and many club venues,” says David Turner, the museum’s director. “And now, with this museum, we are growing into a city that has an anchor for the arts.”

Though the brick façade has been spruced up, the museum’s entrance has the same reserved elegance of its opening day more than 70 years ago. As does its intimate interior courtyard, perhaps the most romantic site in the city. “You really start to see the differences inside,” Turner says. “Different gallery spaces, resting spaces, light-filled spaces.”

Walk up the travertine-marble staircase, past tall windows screened with translucent alabaster, to reach new and renovated galleries for American and regional works, plus Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and European art. There’s also a new, nearly 4,000-square-foot Changing Exhibitions Gallery, with the inaugural show ― Andy Warhol’s Dream America: Screenprints from the Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation ― on display until May 1. When you feel like stopping for a bite, the Schnitzer’s new Marché Museum Café is operated by local celebrity chef Stephanie Pearl Kimmel.

Another major upgrade, which you won’t see, is down in the basement. The expanded and improved storage area now meets current conservation and security standards, enabling the museum to borrow more notable collections. It’s the least visible change in Eugene’s art scene, but it completes Turner’s vision of both recognizing artists in Oregon and “feeding those artists ― and others ― with other good visual arts.”

Now, the table is set.

Eugene arts

DIVA: Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts. Classrooms and galleries that showcase local art 12-6 Tue-Sat; free. 110 W. Broadway; www.divanow.org or 541/344-3482.

Hult Center for the Performing Arts. Site of Silva Concert Hall, Soreng Theater, and Jacobs Gallery (open 12-4 Tue-Fri, 11-3 Sat, and during performances; free; 541/684-5635). 1 Eugene Center (at Seventh Ave.); www.hultcenter.org, 541/682-5746 (information), or 541/682-5000 (tickets).

Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. The University of Oregon’s art museum recently reopened after a renovation. 11-8 Wed, 11-5 Thu-Sun; $5. The Marché Museum Café is open daily.1430 Johnson Lane; http://uoma.uoregon.edu or 541/346-3027.

Lane Arts Council’s First Friday Art Walk. A dozen or so galleries, shops, and other downtown venues with art displays stay open late on the first Friday of every month. Browse on your own, or take a free guided tour of selected stops. 5:30-8:30 on first Fri of each month (next event Mar 4); www.lanearts.org or 541/485-2278.

Oregon Festival of American Music. The John G. Shedd Institute for the Arts hosts live performances year-round. 868 High St.; www.ofam.org, 800/248-1615, or 541/687-6526.

Perugino. This coffeehouse/wine bar has art on its walls and is close to downtown galleries and the Hult Center. $. 767 Willamette St.; 541/687-9102.

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