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A plea for arts and artists we all need

As a sweeping plague continues to wreak havoc on our country and the world, Ashland remains something of a harbor against the storm, with fewer cases than many areas of Oregon, and not much going on in town, despite a blisteringly hot summer and an abundance of alternative adventures being made available each weekend in an attempt to lure tourists into spending a few dollars at local establishments.

During the weekdays, the town remains eerily quiet, although not so much as in the early days of the pandemic, when the streets were so empty it felt as though there had been a disaster.

Here at home, the reality of health crises, political divide, economic decline and oligarchic greed are all vying for attention beneath the overarching actuality of climate change and wildfire.

We are feeling more and more the impact of a summer unsung, the vision of what a small town can become when the creative classes upon whom we rely for a vivid and magical canicule are driven from our midst by factors that cannot be controlled. There are no actors on the streets of Ashland, and while some musical acts have come up with inspired solutions to continue their song — one such panacea has included taking to the back of a flatbed truck and driving a melodic minstrelsy across town, ala U2 in the streets of New York City, circa 2006 — for the most part, social distancing has dampened the roar of the crowd to a subdued chatter. Artists of all stripes continue to ask for help and seek out innovative solutions in a way that no doctor or financial advisor has ever had to think of.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with reliably deployed tranches of economic support, has managed to soldier on after collecting a $4.1 million relief package from the Oregon Legislature. Meanwhile, many local musicians and performers continue to go it alone. Smaller venues that are just as important to the health of the community when it comes to morale and solidarity — such as Oregon Cabaret Theatre, Camelot Theatre, Ashland Contemporary Theatre and Rogue Theatre Company — are bound at the neck by restrictions and overheads, with no end in sight.

A Taste of Ashland, which benefits the Ashland Gallery Association and is traditionally one of the bigger draws of the calendar year that is not linked directly to the Shakespeare Festival, has been forced to move to a virtual platform this year. The Schneider Museum of Art at SOU is one of the few visual arts centers that has managed to reopen during the pandemic, with strict protocols in place. Elsewhere, small, local galleries are struggling with reduced hours and dwindling revenues.

At the beginning of the outbreak, I urged Ashlanders to open their hearts and wallets whenever and wherever they could to support artistic vitality in our town, lest it disappear altogether.

Now, with 74 days left until a presidential election and high stakes abounding, I am sending out a second plea. Let’s band together to make the arts a continuing priority for our city. Not just in terms of magical thinking about what the future might be, but with tangible and sustained financial support in all directions. Our combined futures depend on it.

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a columnist, arts reviewer and cultural commentator. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

Jeffrey Gillespie