LA GRANDE — A local community focal point is back on its feet after facing difficult odds during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After nearly shutting down in April 2020, Art Center East on Penn Avenue in La Grande is back open for in-person events and unveiled two new art shows in its galleries on Friday, July 9, 2021.
The “Strange Days” and “Canoy Benefit” exhibits mark the first in-person, full capacity openings for the art gallery since the pandemic. Support from the community and regional artists came through for Art Center East when it appeared the nonprofit would go under.
“Everybody just came to bat, which was really beautiful for us because it was all walks of life that were supporting us not going under,” Executive Director Darcy Dolge said.
Making ends meet through fundraising
When the pandemic began in March 2020, Art Center East found itself in line with nonprofits across the country whose incomes practically disappeared as their doors were closed to the public.
In late March that year, the art center was forced to furlough all part-time staff, trim the executive director’s hours in half and put a halt to nonessential business.
In April 2020, Art Center East needed to acquire $8,000 in order to remain afloat and afford utilities to operate the building. With their backs against the proverbial wall, ACE’s board members relied on artist and community backing to avoid closing.
“Like many nonprofits, we had to implement a save-face campaign,” Dolge said. “It was something I don’t think we had ever in our lifetimes thought we would have to do.”
Facing closure, the art center raised more than $8,000 in community donations and was presented with a major gallery donation from a regional artist. The center’s strong local following pitched in a generous amount of funds when the circumstances were dire.
Portland-based painter Don Gray donated approximately $33,000 worth of art that was discounted up to 70% for Art Center East. The $10,000 worth of proceeds went straight towards paying for utilities and keeping the building functional during a time in which the art center could not hold in-person events.
In addition to donations, the nonprofit was forced to think creatively in order to continue serving the community as well as bringing in the funds needed to stay open, at least virtually for the time being. A big monetary loss came from the lack of in-person art classes during the pandemic, which is one of the center’s primary means of revenue. The board members tried out methods such as online classes and DIY art kits that could be picked up or delivered around the community. In addition, John J. Howard & Associates Real Estate in La Grande partnered with the center to create virtual art gallery tours using their technology so the community could virtually walk through the exhibits.
“We just test drove a bunch of stuff to try and figure out how to keep going with our mission,” said Nancy Knowles, president of the Art Center East Board of Directors. “We worked to deliver our mission and keep ourselves in the public eye and make a little money in addition.”
Art Center East applied for grants and was able to bring staff back in August 2020 while the building was still closed to the public. The art center opened from September through December, but had to furlough staff again in order to reopen the building in January and February of 2021. It wasn’t until March 2021 that Art Center East staff members fully returned and the building opened with COVID-19 protocols in place.
Thinking outside the box
Some of the methods developed during the pandemic will likely continue at Art Center East, such as the virtual gallery tours, which allow viewers to purchase pieces online. The staff will look to continue online methods after COVID-19 in order to reach patrons outside of La Grande, which they say increased during the pandemic.
“It was forced upon us to think outside of the box for classes and how to get art in the homes of people who aren’t leaving the house,” Jenn Durr, ACE’s gallery director, said.
With COVID-19 case numbers dropping during the spring and summer, the staff has received increased outreach regarding in-person classes and other events returning this year.
“We get a lot of messages through email, Facebook and Instagram asking when we are going to have kids classes or when other classes will come back,” Durr said. “I think people are just eager to get back and, you know, have a good time creating again.”
Gaining momentum as restrictions ease
With the light at the end of the tunnel getting closer for Art Center East, a major stepping stone was the opening of the “Canoy Benefit” and “Strange Days” exhibits. The dual reception marked the first in-person gathering for an opening without mask mandates since the pandemic began and drew a crowd of more than 40 community members. While this number is lower than pre-pandemic openings, the staff recognizes the need to avoid comparing to the past as they build back up in 2021.
“You almost have to view it like the first time we’ve ever done any of this, which the public has been so gracious about,” Dolge said. “That support is lovely. They know that we’re coming from the ground up.”
Following a strong showing at the opening of the two new exhibits, which will both run thought Sept. 4, Art Center East is set to return many of its annual activities in the future. Events such as the Dia De Los Muertos celebration and Handmade Holidays are just two examples of upcoming gatherings that are set to return in their full capacity.
As a focal point in the Grande Ronde Valley, Art Center East has garnered an overwhelming amount of community support during trying times.
“It’s so humbling because there’s never a moment where you don’t wake up and know that we exist because of the community,” Dolge said. “That is so empowering because then you know that you’re on the right track to try and give and serve the community in the right way.”