Noted local artist Eugene Bennett, who died in 2010 at age 88, bequeathed $500,000 to Medford's Rogue Gallery & Art Center for an endowment that will create about $25,000 a year.
The earnings will shoulder about 10 percent of the gallery's budget, says Executive Director Kim Hearon, and will augment its educational programs and scholarships for classes. It will also help with building upgrades, including a new roof.
Many of Bennett's artworks will be sold off at the gallery from June 29 to July 6, with prices ranging from $90 for small collages to $4,500 for a large, impressionistic floral oil, "Early Spring." They cover his life from age 19, in 1940, up to the present century and represent many styles — abstract, assemblages, geometric, impressionist. Receipts from the sale could reach $45,000, Hearon says.
The gallery was given half of Bennett's estate. The other half went to the Oregon Community Foundation. It will be invested "very carefully and conservatively," Hearon says.
"We knew he was leaving us a bequest, but we had no idea how much," she notes. "When we found out, we said, 'Oh, my goodness, this is so exciting.' This will make my job as director a lot easier."
"He was very well known in the valley, a very engaging man who could charm a room full of people with his wonderful stories," says Hearon, who knew Bennett for the past two decades of his life. "He had a mischievous grin and a huge, warm laugh."
Most of Bennett's work was in oils, but it was a "delightful surprise" to find a few watercolors, which will also be on sale, she says.
The several dozen works for sale include a large, abstract oil, "Green Machine," from 1962, a monochromatic oil of a blustery day, "Wind Hover," from 1978, an ink abstract called "Dance," from 1954, a realistic portrait of Ray Lewis from 1949, and an oil of the Jacksonville Reservoir from 1945.
Board member and former executive director Nancy Jo Mullen curated the show, which will emphasize his earlier work.
"He had a very interesting sense of humor and used to tease me about leaving me all his collage materials (in his will), and they did end up here at the gallery," says Mullen, who knew him for many decades. "He was always responsive to local artists and kept up with what they were doing. He was always open to new things and would never disparage any artist."
Bennett inherited many properties from his family and kept a studio in a house on Grape Street in Medford, with small studios that artists could rent for a reasonable sum, says Mullen, who rented one of them for a time.
Bennett loved the Rogue Valley, says Mullen. "He could have been a lot more prominent in a big city. He forged a life here, and we were lucky to have him."
In cataloging the collection, Mullen says she enjoyed discovering many new works, some not matted or framed. They will be sold to benefit the gallery, according to Bennett's wishes.
A Rogue Valley native, Bennett served in the Navy in World War II. He started as a pianist and earned a master's degree from the Art Institute of Chicago. In the late 1950s, he and three other artists started the Rogue Valley Art Association, the forerunner of the Rogue Gallery.
His work has been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, New York City Museum of Modern Art and San Francisco Museum of Art. In 2002, he received the Governor's Arts Award for work that has "significantly contributed to the growth and development of Oregon's cultural life."
Bennett's art will be shown for sale again in 2014 in an exhibit with other artists, "Eugene Bennett and Friends."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.