Interview: Rural arts group leads change with limited resources

The base of the scenic Blue Mountain foothills.

This August when I was driving through Eastern Oregon I was struck by the beauty and intensity of the landscape. While I expect to find incredible vistas and endless skies in the rural west and northwest, I was also surprised to find a burgeoning arts scene around Pendleton, Oregon. It is anchored in part by Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, an art center, print shop and residency that focuses on Native American artists.

I had the opportunity to visit the institute and was given a tour by Melissa Bob, its new Interim Executive Director. Melissa is a tribal citizen of the Lummi Nation, located in Bellingham, Washington and  recently completed her Master’s in Public Administration and Tribal Governance. I was struck by her energy, enthusiasm and vision for addressing the organization’s challenges and finding new opportunities for the center and the Native artists that they work with.

Melissa Bob

With the exception of several artist colonies or art destinations, such as Marfa, Texas, rural areas are rarely considered centers of innovation. However, arts organizations in rural areas like Crow’s Shadow play multiple roles in their communities, reach a wide geographic area, and function with a very small core staff. Given these conditions, organizational change can be very challenging because the expectations of the community served are very high, but budgets to bring in change and staff power with which to enact it are very small.

However, precisely because of this, leaders of rural arts organizations like Melissa have unique experiences to share and a perspective on how to innovate on limited resources that can benefit arts administrators no matter where their organizations are located.

Eleanor Whitney: Crow’s Shadow is located near Pendleton, Oregon, almost four hours east of Portland.  How would you describe the area?  What does your area look and feel like?

Melissa Bob: Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts (CSIA) is located in the foothills of the Blue Mountains on the Umatilla Indian reservation outside of Pendleton, Oregon. Since the early 1990s our offices, gallery and printmaking studio have been housed within the former Catholic mission schoolhouse on the St. Andrews Mission campus where there is an active church.

CSIA is housed within the historic St. Andrews Mission

The location of Crow’s Shadow is one of the reasons I wanted to work here.  It is a peaceful, rural location surrounded by rolling hills.  Our visiting artists have the option to stay in town at a hotel or at the studio and they often prefer the studio because the landscape inspires their work’s process and final outcome.

EW: Your mission is to provide social, economic and educational opportunities for Native Americans through artistic development, primarily printmaking. Why did Crow’s Shadow begin in Pendleton and why printmaking as a medium?

MB: The Umatilla Reservation is the home to three confederated tribes–the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla. There are about 2,800 citizens in the confederation, though not all live on the reservation. In our work we primarily serve Native artists, but we also work with non-Native artists to gain broader exposure within their communities.  We are bringing opportunities to the reservation and creating opportunities outside of it.

Tamarind Master Printer Frank Janzen collaborates with artist and CSIA founder James Lavadour

Crow’s Shadow arose from brainstorming sessions between Walla Walla tribal member and painter James Lavadour and Cayuse/Nez Perce tribal artist and scholar Phillip Cash Cash.  Both artists lived in the area and had positive experiences with printmaking.  In 1990 Lavadour was a printmaking fellow at Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and Cash Cash was an artist in residence at Tamarind Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  With the ability to produce multiple, identical images through printmaking, Lavadour and Cash Cash identified printmaking as an economic development tool for artists.  Instead of selling only one original piece of art, artists are able to sell an edition of original, hand-pulled prints.

EW: As an arts organization located outside of an urban area, do you think you face the same challenges as your urban counterparts?  What challenges are unique to your setting?

MB: Many Oregon-based foundations do not fund in Umatilla county, where we are located.  We do not have the same resources or networking opportunities our urban counterparts have.  That poses a challenge, but we are usually able to find solutions to meet our needs.  Sometimes it feels like we have to think through our work more thoroughly since some resources that we rely on are not readily available.

EW: Right now, Crow’s Shadow is facing a number of challenges: you are working to expand your reach in the Northwest and nationally while funding for an art program you contracted to run for a tribal charter school got cut.  These aren’t the kinds of challenges you can solve by going about business as usual.  Was there a moment when you realized you had to do things differently?  What were some of the things you realized you needed to change?

MB: My arrival at Crow’s Shadow represents change.  I started here as the Interim Executive Director in June of this year.  Over the next few years, I will apprentice with the Master Printer Frank Janzen and become his successor upon his retirement.  I came in at the perfect time, because we have several important grant-funded projects in progress to help build a solid foundation for our future work.  I was able to jump right in because my background is in printmaking, Native art history and public administration/tribal governance.

I am working with the staff and Board to understand what successful pieces of the past can be carried forward and to update our strategic plan for 2012 through 2017.  We are taking the time to reflect on the organization’s accomplishments, evaluate our strengths and challenges, and then create a plan to move forward with intention. Our intention is to deepen our programs over the next five years and follow through with the transition plan.

Our priorities are to are to strengthen our connection to the local tribal community and to broaden our exposure across the country.  The art program with the tribal charter school was an effective way for us to have a connection to the younger people in the tribal community.  We are looking for ways to support that with our own funding.

We are also addressing revenue challenges from multiple angles.  To improve our print sales, which have so far been limited because of our rural location, we created a marketing plan. We worked with a graphic designer to develop branding guidelines and applied them to our printed materials and new website, which will launch in November.

New website home page

We are working to introduce our prints to a larger audience by creating more national exposure through exhibitions.  We are scheduling an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in both New York City in 2012 and in Washington, D.C. in 2013.  In 2013, we are also scheduled to have an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA) in Santa Fe, NM.

We are also establishing partnerships with galleries throughout the country to sell prints on consignment.  We are researching print fairs and tribal gaming conventions and considering that tribal casinos, hotels and government centers could be a market for us.  The local tribal government recently built a new governance center and purchased our prints, as did the tribal casino.  Tribes are often looking to support and display Native art in their buildings and we can facilitate that.  They can even contract Crow’s Shadow to work with artists to make prints.  For example, we have done contract printing for artists like Dale Chihuly.

Artist Maria Watt

EW: The transition in leadership, such as the one your organization is going through, is a transition process that many organizations face.  What insight can you share from your work facilitating this process with your colleagues?

MB: We are in the initial stages of this process and may need additional facilitation support from an organization like the Oregon Arts Commission or the Nonprofit Association of Oregon to more fully identify our needs and guide the process.  We are at the stage where we are putting our ideas on paper.  The only advice I have so far is that communication and timing are important.  Everyone has to be aware of what is going on and the plan has to be ready in time for it to get funded according to the implementation timeline.

EW: As a small organization do you think it is easier or harder for you to adapt to changing conditions?

MB: Crow’s Shadow is celebrating its 20-year anniversary in 2012 and we have had to adapt in order to survive.  The organization experienced some very difficult, lean years and though we are not facing those same challenges at the moment we must strategically adapt and stay focused on our goals.

We are at a point of great change where we are moving forward with more intention and planning to take on additional responsibilities.  The guiding questions are: Who are we?  Where are we going?  Who do we need to work with to get these goals met?  What do these individuals need to know?  These questions are basic, but can be difficult to answer because the answers change over time.

Based on their location, funding challenges and the needs of the community they serve Crow’s Shadow Institute has had to think outside of the box of traditional arts funding, strategic planning and finding venues to promote and sell artists work. In addition, arts organizations like Crow’s Shadow that are located in rural areas drive economic development for a wide range of artists and communities. In my next post I will investigate the development of an arts organization focused on raising the artistic profile of a rural region “back east.”

Eleanor is an ArtsFwd Blogging Fellow.

Eleanor Whitney is a writer, educator, arts administrator and musician raised in Maine and living in Brooklyn, New York. She has also worked at the Rubin Museum of Art as the Coordinator of Educational Resources, the Brooklyn Museum as the Academic Programs Coordinator, and at POV/American Documentary as a development assistant. She is completing her Master of Public Administration degree at Baruch College and received her bachelor’s degree from Eugene Lang College in Cultural Studies and Education.