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Arts Center should be arts-central in the Gorge

Kyle DeVaul aims high as director of Columbia Arts Center

Second of two parts

Twenty years in nonprofit arts administration has put Kyle DeVaul in touch with artists, musicians, teachers, students and sponsors at theaters, universities and other settings throughout the upper eastern seaboard, most recently in Baltimore. In June, she was hired as director of the Columbia Center for the Arts in Hood River, which she said she plans to make “the go-to arts organization of the Gorge.”

DeVaul talked recently in the office she shares with two other staff members at the center.

Columbia Center for the Arts moved into its home at Third and Cascade (the former American Legion hall) six years ago. Co-founder Judie Hanel served as charter director followed by Joanie Thomson, who stepped down this spring after five years in the position.

DeVaul, 43, is a native of New Jersey who studied at Rutgers (“the state university of New Jersey”), and New York University. Part one of DeVaul’s profile, in the Aug. 4 edition, described her early career arts positions in Baltimore, Princeton, N.J., Bar Harbor, Maine, and other East Coast locations.

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She took an interim consultant job at Montclair State University in New Jersey, where Art Director Jed Wheeler had been hired to elevate Montclair in the arts, centered in a new, state-of-the-art theater, The Casper, where the goal was “to get people to come from New York City.

“I came on as public relations director, but I still had my house in Maine, and had this opportunity work with Jed and make something new. We brought in amazing progressive artists, but then the folks back in Maine called; they had hired an executive director who didn’t work out, were asking me what to do. I said, ‘Are you asking me if I want to come back?’ and I said, yes, and it was great.

“The sense of community drew me back. It was the most important thing ever. I loved the kids and I loved the families. Bar Harbor is like Hood River, though more remote, and I felt so proud and honored to do the work I did. I still do, and the program is still going on after 20 years. One of the teaching artists started there as a third-grader.”

More Changes

DeVaul moved on to Baltimore, and Everyman Theater.

“I moved because, well, my mom died the day of my college graduation, which was a little tough, and I always felt a little compelled to stay close to my dad ... he remained in Hopewell, and a few years ago had a massive stroke.”

Her sister lived an hour away in Philadelphia and did most of the care, so DeVaul decided to move closer to home and help as much as she could.

“I loved Baltimore, it was a great transition place but I always had in mind that I missed home. After a year at Everyman, I decided it wasn’t the place for me, not as flexible a job, and I had little time to see my dad, so I got job at a non-arts job, company called Parks & People Foundation, which does greening, and youth programs; a really great organization.”

Her father died in December 2011, and DeVaul said, “I think I just instinctively knew it was time to send out resumes to see ‘Where’s my life going to take me now?’ I wanted to come West, but I thought no one would interview me — after all I’m from Baltimore, and why would anyone out west interview someone from Baltimore?

“Sometimes there’s a thinking, and I think it goes both ways, that somehow there’s a mindset of ‘East Coasters and West Coasters’ and the two shall not meet.” But I got a bunch of interviews, all in Oregon. I must have some kind of Oregonian magnet in me.”

How’s it going?

“Really well. There is a lot to be done for a six-year-old organization. They’re in great shape, pretty buttoned up. It’s two sets of organizations coming together. It’s these two separate entities coming together with strong histories and very strong values of what they want to see done, and it’s a tough proposition to get all that together and make everyone happy. Kudos to Judie and Joanie for doing that for me,”

What’s next?

“One thing that seems sort of simple and trite to say is, ‘I just want to see more people through the door for more reasons. We are not even close to our capacity. Not even close.”

How do you see accomplishing this?

“Certainly the gallery is aware of that. Their situation is unique, in that they have great support from local folks who collect, and they have a built-in audience; but at a certain point there is no more wall space left in those people’s houses. There is a saturation point and I feel like the gallery is coming close to that.

“I think it is thinking further outside of the box. What are we programming? The last two years have diversified, and there is great potential there, and great potential for outreach; start with families with young children. I meet people every day who are moving to town, so really look at outreach and education and what holes can we fill? And not only filling holes but what enriching programs can we offer?

“I think people see us as a hub for the arts but I think now we need to stand up and say, ‘We are going to be THE umbrella organization, the go-to arts organization in the Gorge, period, for performing and fine arts. Most performing arts organizations don’t have what we do, which is the gallery, which is unique.”

“We can create some destination events such as Mt. Hood Independent Film Festival (in September) which could turn into a great destination event, and the whole piece of the economic impact, and I feel responsible for that; and I think that has to be part of how we look upon our work — creating audiences that will come not only to our place of business but come downtown.

“We all know the arts is a strong economic engine and we need to be conscious of working with other businesses and other organizations to make this a destination. I don’t know if that’s dreaming big, but I think we have the resources. There is this call to ‘Get people from Portland to come.’ Well, why wouldn’t they? This is a great town, and there are great things to do here.”

What do you see as holes that need to be plugged?

“We are already trying some things, like (art education specialist) Shelley Toon Hight, who came up with a great afterschool program. There is empirical information, and it’s just common sense, that kids need things to do after school.

“It’s got to be a balance between ‘This is what Columbia Arts wants to make for this community’ and also being sensitive to what the community really needs or wants. You’ve got to have both sides; got to be driving what people might want and then convincing them to come; but you’ve also got to listen and understand and be honest about your audience. That’s the balance I will be trying to strike.

“As to performances there is so much more to be done. This theater should never be dark. It’s using the resources, expanding to more performance-based outreach, such as improv classes. I would take an improv class!

“After two months (on the job), it’s hard to say what the community needs or wants, and how much it is willing to pay for it. Just increasing capacity, getting more people into the gallery; a lot of it is just more communication, just getting the word out in ways maybe people aren’t used to coming here.

“I think we need to look at non-traditional use of the gallery. I think people think, ‘‘It’s an art gallery’ and it’s all expensive, but we have the (July) Art-A-Day exhibit, with paintings for $100 or less, and a lot of them were hip and cool — not just beautiful Gorge landscape — and affordable.

“Maybe you don’t think you’re an art collector and you’re not going to come to the art gallery, but if I had a new house, and I do, I’d absolutely come here and buy new art for my house, and I’d do that if I was from away. (That’s a Maine expression.)”

Audience development

“With the whole idea of audience development, you have to be unafraid, and be bold and take some chances, and that’s hard to do when you’re a relatively new organization and looking at the bottom line. And it’s hard to place yourself in that world when the economy is as shaky as it is and people are losing jobs and you’re asking people to spend their relatively disposable income and come here; and that’s why it’s important to look at the quality of the programming you offer and make sure it’s really good.”

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