Artists lament loss of school programs

Because of a "drastic" decline in contributions, the Arts Council of Southern Oregon has given pink slips to its paid staff and will discontinue the Artist in the Schools Residency Program.

The AIS Program for many years has supplied and paid for artists who taught painting, movement, weaving, drumming and other art forms, serving about 5,000 students a year in 22 schools in Jackson and Josephine counties.

"Definitely, the downturn in the economy played a huge part in it," said Julie MacDiarmid, ACSO board chairwoman, noting that it became apparent last fall that fundraising needed to stay afloat would be very difficult.

Executive Director Lyn Godsey will be laid off at the end of April and Arts Education Coordinator Kate Jack will leave at the end of June, MacDiarmid told members in a letter sent last Monday.

The council, she said, will try to operate on the volunteer labors of its seven-member board and, if a foundation grant comes through, will be able to continue its other major effort, the Lithia Program, which provides music education for high-schoolers in the Lithia Springs Music Program for youth referred from the Juvenile Department of Child Welfare.

Thalia Truesdell, who taught kids weaving and spinning for 21 years through AIS, said, "I think it's terrible. It's the only art some kids get. It's a terrible injustice to the kids. It's a highlight of their year. They've told me that."

Jill Fjeldheim, a teacher of mime and circus arts in schools for 11 years, concurred. "It's sad. It was a great resource for me as an artist and for the schools. The council produced a wonderful catalog of artists of all kinds (for schools) and acted as an agent for me, setting up schedules and paying me."

Foundations, private donors and the Oregon Arts Commission all pulled back significantly on their giving, leading to a "drastic" implosion of the council's $150,000 budget, said Godsey. Membership dropped 25 percent, she added.

However, said MacDiarmid, the council got a grant for a consultant to lead the board and community in preparing a new strategic plan, looking at its new role in promoting arts in Southern Oregon.

"It's a big loss," said MacDiarmid. "For some kids, it's the only contact they have with professional artists. Most elementary schools don't have it and the teachers say they don't know how to teach art. It's an incredible program, but we have to figure out how to pay for it."

Two Talent Elementary School teachers decried the loss of the AIS program.

"Honestly, I'm bummed," said teacher Heather Lowe. "She (Fjeldheim) really enhanced our science curriculum when we were doing the life cycle of frogs. We don't have a lot of time to address the arts. Anytime they get an artist, it enhances every aspect. It's kind of sad."

"What a bummer. I'm disappointed," said Talent teacher Jordan Saturen. "It added excitement and variety to the school year and the kids were enthusiastic about being in school. It's unfortunate. We don't fit in a lot of art. We're pretty packed academically."

Godsey said she would remain in the valley and "look for another job and live frugally. I've watched my 401(k) disappear into dust. A lot of people are losing their positions.

"But the council is not going out of business," she added. "The board is taking this as an opportunity to step back and really figure out what the community wants us to do in the arts ... The economy has changed. If GE (General Electric) is trying to figure out what to do in this economy, then we can do it, too."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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