Celebrating a Decade of Reaching Creative Heights in Oregon
As Oregon Community Foundation celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2023, one of OCF’s signature arts programs is celebrating its own milestone. For nearly a decade, OCF’s Creative Heights initiative has stood apart in the state’s arts landscape for the size of the grants (up to $100,000), the ambition those grants fuel, and the risks they allow artists to take.
On top of the career-changing impact that Creative Heights has on grantees, OCF's nearly 10 years of financial support for bold new ideas and works has created countless opportunities for Oregonians to experience innovative arts and culture in their communities. There’s nothing else like it in the state.
In 2012, a gift from the estate of Fred W. Fields transformed OCF into the largest charitable funder of the arts in Oregon and made Creative Heights possible. To date, OCF has awarded $7.7 million to 109 artists, culture bearers and nonprofits for projects spanning nearly every discipline.
For artists, a Creative Heights grant provides the freedom to bring a long-cherished idea finally to life or pursue an entirely new path. It’s a rare opportunity to stretch one’s creative capacity, test challenging approaches and share new projects. Grants are between $10,000 to $100,000 and come with unique flexibility and ongoing support from OCF staff.
For Oregonians, the impact of Creative Heights can be seen, heard and felt throughout the arts community. A few of the high-profile and enduring endeavors that received substantial funding from Creative Heights:
- In a Landscape: Classical Music in the Wild, a concert series that traveled statewide
- ASTORIA at Portland Center Stage
- new works by orchestras in Medford, Pendleton, and Eugene
- Hollywood Theatre’s microcinema at Portland International Airport
- exhibits at museums and cultural centers in Joseph, Warm Springs, and Bend
- a play-development program at Artists Repertory Theatre
“Our interest is in shifting the power and the resources to the artist, to the person with the creative vision,” says Jerry Tischleder, OCF’s senior program officer, arts and culture. “Creative Heights asks, ‘what becomes possible for artists when they have the resources and time to do what they’ve always dreamed about?”
“They said do anything — but just push yourself”
Since 2014, 109 artists, culture bearers and nonprofits have received Creative Heights grants from OCF. Here is what a few recipients had to say about the program and its impact. Quotes are from video interviews conducted by Open Signal Labs (a past recipient of Creative Heights funding). They have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF)/Chava Florendo
To create Visual Sovereignty Project, a digital commissioning project for Indigenous artists to be showcased on O!, the digital platform of the OSF
“I reached out to some artists across the nation, seven in particular, and asked them, if you were going to express your sovereignty as an artist, what would it mean? What would you do? How would you tell the story you want to tell without any stipulations?
...they all said kind of the same thing, which was, ‘Nobody’s ever asked us that. I’ve never thought of, if I could do anything, what would it be?’ And most of them also said ‘I’ve been sitting with this project for a really long time. It’s been in my heart. It’s something I’m super passionate about, but I don't have the resources.’ And I said, sweet. Let’s dream.”
— Chava Florendo
Lewis & Clark College/Malia Jensen
To create a series of four interactive sculptural installations by artist Malia Jensen (Nearer Nature: Worth Your Salt) to engage diverse and rural Oregon communities in hands-on production in nature
“I received this grant in 2018, and it’s 2023, and it is still supporting what I'm able to do with entirely unrelated projects. It’s the momentum, the cycle of support that I was able to create for myself because I had that foundation, that continues. If I stay attentive to the connections and the opportunities that came from that grant, it’s like, ‘Oh, I could do this, and then I could this...’ And it just builds. If I hadn't had that support, I would still be working as an artist, but I would be doing something smaller. I would be having smaller ambitions.”
— Malia Jensen
Oregon Symphony Association
To present Sounds of Home, a symphonic exploration of critical social issues such as immigration, homelessness and the environment that combines classical masterworks, commissions, and visual art forms to spark dialogue on social themes
“I think that there’s a particular challenge in protecting and nurturing new work. And this is where Creative Heights, in support of the Sounds of Home project, was really, really crucial, because we need to be reminded from the outside that this work matters to our community, in order to remind the folks on the inside, on the board or donors, that this is the work that is going to bring us wider recognition. Whether that means a piece like emergency shelter intake form being performed by the San Francisco Symphony or going to London and being done by the BBC Concert Orchestra — but it doesn't even have to be those kinds of fancy external signifiers. Just the sheer support from a local (foundation) means a lot in buttressing the value of the work.”
— Gabriel Kahane, performer and composer of the oratorio emergency shelter intake form, a work that explores inequality in America through the lens of housing issues
Portland Chinatown History & Museum Foundation/Horatio Hung-Yan Law
To support an artist residency program at the Portland Chinatown Museum (PCM) that will provide up to six Asian American artists who live and work in Oregon or Washington the opportunity to collaborate, create, and exhibit new art that reflects on the past, present, and future of Portland's Chinatowns and Oregon's Asian American communities
“Public art has a very different take on art. What most people know is that when you make art, you express yourself. It’s all about the artist, himself, or herself. In public art, you are working with a community, so you bring it into a community. But you also have to connect with the community to know what the community is about. What is this place they are living in? You kind of have to give up a part of yourself, the control. But at the same time, you gain from learning about the community itself. You give something up and you learn something back. And to me, it is about generosity.”
— Horatio Hung-Yan Law, artist residency director and show curator
Oregon Center for Contemporary Art/Willie Little
To create a multimedia, interactive installation (In My Own Little Corner) depicting the artist's hometown near Little Washington, N.C., exposing the often untold stories from a rural Black child's perspective while revealing the universality of the inner turmoil many gay children experience
“I was determined to get out of the sticks. I was determined to succeed. I was determined to tell my story. And I'm determined to continue telling stories. It’s all about expressing this young boy's pain and shame of growing up where he grew up, and the fact that that little boy who had all that shame grew up to be shameless...
I have a friend who is a gallerist, who is my mentor, and she asked me, ‘why haven't you done anything about your personal life?’ And it kind of struck me. And I said, if I ever have an opportunity to do that, I will. And when this opportunity came, I knew that I was going to do that. And I wrote the (Creative Heights) proposal probably in a day because it was in me, it was in my head for years.”
— Willie Little
Rainbow Dance Theatre/Darryl Thomas
To support Selfie, a project to expand the theater’s creative range in dance choreography through the use of technological advances in real-time motion tracking and personalizing the theatrical experience by integrating audience-generated text and images into the performance
“Financially, (the Creative Heights grant) helped us to acquire equipment to be able to produce this kind of work. We were able to take it on tour and to perform it in different locations in Canada, throughout the Pacific Northwest, many different locations...The impact was also artistic because it gave me a chance to explore things in a way that I would not have explored, had I not had the resources to get the equipment…
It's also caused me to think about art in a very different way — not to be totally limited by my resources…It's challenged me to say, what do I really want to do and how can I go about getting resources to do that?...That was really one of the biggest gifts that it gave me, the fact that I can do much more than I thought possible.”
— Darryl Thomas, artistic director of Rainbow Dance Theatre in Monmouth, Professor of Dance, Western Oregon University
Portland Institute for Contemporary Art
To support A Black Art Ecology of Portland, a multifaceted, multi-discipline, multi-sited new initiative bringing together community organizations in a cross-sector coalition to devote resources to creating, reclaiming, and redefining spaces for Black art and Black audience in Portland
“They said do anything — but just push yourself, push the boundaries for yourself or for others. I did things I had never tried before. I’m not a director and yet, I directed and produced a comedy special because that’s what felt good to do. It felt right at the time. I have done small murals at community centers in the past, but I hadn’t done three large-scale murals. I certainly hadn’t done one that I integrated hundreds of feet of lighting in...
The project is still going. It’s expanded into a four-year initiative. I'll probably keep doing this project until 2024. It still is doing its work on me, and I'm doing the work on it.”
— Sharita Towne, creator, A Black Art Ecology of Portland