Art Helps Drive Springfield's Downtown Renaissance

Mar 16, 2017

Over the past several years, Springfield has worked to improve its image. Once known for empty storefronts, seedy bars and crime, the city has used art in its efforts to revitalize downtown.  This took a lot of help from the community.

Every second Friday of the month, Springfield is host to a downtown art walk, a smaller cousin of Eugene’s First Friday Art Walk. The art walk is organized and hosted by Paula Goodbar, Executive Director of Emerald Art Center at 5th and Main. She sees the difference that the art walk has made for the entirety of the downtown corridor:
Goodbar: "The art walk started bringing in people who had never been to Main Street. And every 2nd Friday we still hear people who are amazed at what is available here on Main Street, restaurants and shops as well as the art venues."
That’s not an accidental outcome. She recalls their initial goal of using art to replace blight when people came down Main Street. One example, was putting art in the windows of empty storefronts.
Goodbar: "Our key was to bring families back downtown, take the streets back kind of thing."
A block down the street from Emerald Art Center, the Wildish Theater is celebrating its tenth anniversary. A similar goal motivated its creation, according to director Dan Egan.
Egan: “At the time that we built it, we had a few simple goals. One, bring people from outside of Springfield to downtown Springfield; and two, to have something alive after five.”
The Wildish Theater has been successful in meeting those goals. Over the course of the past decade, it’s hosted concerts, theater, dance, weddings, even funerals. It’s now home to five resident companies.
Getting people to come to the theater at night was a challenge before the city made some improvements to public safety.
Egan: “We needed to have the jail built. We needed to see that property crime dropped in Springfield. We needed to see that there was a commitment to have these streets be safer, because there’s more activity.”
Across the street from the Wildish Theater is A3, the Academy of Arts and Academics, a charter high school with a strong focus on arts and sciences. A3 Director Mike Fisher says that the Wildish Theater wouldn’t have opened without the initial investment made by the Springfield Public Schools. He also says that the kids are now an essential element of downtown’s renaissance.
Fisher: “The stuff that happens artistically, all over downtown Springfield, from the EAC to what’s happening at the Wildish Theater to the 2nd Friday artwalks, the kids are, regardless of where and when they touch it, they’re always a part of it, and, of course, kids are vibrantly artistic, naturally.”
Partnerships between schools and arts organizations are essential, in an era of diminished arts funding within many school systems.
Monique Ripley is president of Rose Children’s Theater, one of the Wildish’s resident companies.
Ripley: “What I love is the cooperative nature of the schools, and how they’re sending people to us, to get that arts experience.”
Ripley notes many alumni of Rose Children’s Theater have successfully gone on to make contributions in the arts, whether in the local community or as professional working actors in New York City.
Partnerships are key in the arts, and Ripley expresses a desire for greater partnership with Springfield city government.
Ripley: “We have a scholarship program, and part of our issue is even getting the word out in the Springfield area about how these kids can access the arts.”  
Niel Laudati is Springfield’s Community Relations Manager. He agrees art has played a dramatic role in the downtown resurgence.
Laudati: “Art is the thing that makes Springfield Springfield.”
He mentions the centrality of the Main Street murals of Ken Kesey and the Simpsons, and the Veterans’ Memrorial. Laudati applauds the city for being willing to take risks on quality art. He also acknowledges the risks involved, and the inevitable voices of dissent.
Laudati: “Definitely, any time you spend money on art, you’re going to get feedback that that money could be spent somewhere else better.”
However, the arts do have a ripple effect with other business economics. Laudati gives the impact of The Gateway flame sculpture as an example:
Laudati: “The flame is the largest public sculpture in Oregon. And it’s here in Springfield. And people come to see that. And we’re hearing from developers in that area that it makes a difference in how they’re going to develop that area.”
Paula Goodbar at Emerald Art Center feels art is sacred. She sees an art gallery as a sanctuary for the revitalization of soul.
Goodbar: "This is where you go when you need a bit of inspiration. You need a pick me up. Something to make you feel good about the world again. People come in here looking for that."