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CCA director and long-time event coordinator Leith Gaines in front of the gallery-theater facility on Cascade Street in downtown Hood River.  At right, Say her name: “Unfinished Life: Breonna Taylor,” oil by Hood River artist Nancy Houfek Brown, in Best of the Gorge, is for sale for $275; sale proceeds of this painting will go to Southern Poverty Law Center. 

An arts and events curator and organizer for more than 20 years in the Gorge now serves as director of Columbia Center for the Arts (CCA).

Leith Gaines, a Hood River resident since 1997, has held a number of arts and education roles including organizing the Bite of the Gorge events from 2007-11. Gaines was hired at CCA in February 2020 and recently sat down with co-editor Kirby Neumann-Rea to talk about the state of CCA, arts in the Gorge, and recovery and forward movement in pandemic times.

After college, Gaines worked in Boston and went to work planning and organizing events for Environmental Protection Agency at its regional offices, and then in Seattle for Bumbershoot arts festival and Goodwill Games. In Portland, she was hired to coordinate restaurants in the ArtQuake festival. When she moved to Hood River, she worked with Gorge Games founder Peg Lalor, including concerts in Bingen and Hood River.

“I had a little baby hanging on me the whole time. That was 23 years ago,” she recalled.

Gaines later was hired as director of Arts in Education in the Gorge, after she had consulted with the non-profit on its fundraising plans, which included the idea of a “Bite” event featuring food and drink from local restaurants and beverage vendors. 

“I am the creator of that number,” Gaines said. “That’s how I got the job. Mike Schend (former board director) hired me to consult with them to figure out what kind of event to have because I was an event producer. The first thing I said is, ‘A bite is a terrible way to go,’ and we talked about all these different things, and then Mike offered me a job and informed me the board was doing a ‘Bite’ and I had three months to put it together.”

She has fond memories of the event that grew progressively from the Hood River Armory, to the old Expo Center, and then to Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Musem, before running its course.

“It turned out, being in April, everyone came out of the woodwork, everyone was hungry to hang out,” she said, joking that “it turned into this big food and drink party. I couldn’t get anyone’s attention to give us money because everyone was so busy talking.

“Event production has always been in my world,” said Gaines, who has lived in both Whistler, B.C., and Hood River in recent years, continuing to run her wedding planning business, I Do Events. Over the years, she’s done private art curation, including Columbia Family Medicine, and has done acting locally and improv while in Whistler.

Gaines said the spirit of improv has helped her in her new role. “I love improv. It’s a very good way to tone your muscles, your theater muscles. You have to be willing to give in 100 percent, and it’s challenging. I tend to want to think everything through, but with improv you have to just go.”

To take stock:

  • Gaines talked of the changing role of CCA, and plans to meet community needs in art exhibition and education, theater performances and education, and other outreach. CCA was closed in April and May but has resumed a steady, if restricted, pace since June.
  • Theater has been put on hold during the pandemic but Gaines has hopes of restoring CCA’s role as a performing arts facility for adult and youth programming.
  • Currently filling the walls of CCA is the annual Best of the Gorge art exhibit. (See columbiaarts.org for details on seeing the show.) 
  • Gaines said, “We asked artists to make work in response to current events, and we are not giving monetary awards, instead the artists were informed that we would donate proceeds to the ACLU, from submission fees, and they were all in support of that.” 
  • In August, the “Metamorphosis” exhibition featured a temporary installation by former Hood River artist Susan Murrell, whose permanent work can be seen in front of The Dalles High School: A steel sculpture with student-inspired words, Murrell, now a professor at Eastern Oregon University in LaGrande, is a conceptual artist who builds 3-D experiences off of walls, Gaines explained.
  • Since March, the heavy schedule of art, dance, acting, and writing classes for youths was pared way back due to the coronavirus.

•••

CGN: Much of CCA’s education programming has gone virtual in recent months: What are examples of classes that lend themselves to on-line?

Leith Gaines: “Most of it is visual arts: Collage, print-making and clay work, and in the theater piece there is some character development where people sit apart and work on character development separately. But we probably won’t do improv; it would be weird to do that and not interact. (Hood River artist Michelle Yamamoto taught a class in August on skateboard art.)

“We can’t just sit still and wait, and we’ll be ready when the doors open again and we’ll have things happening.”

•••

CGN: How are things now at CCA?

LG: “We’re right at that place which all arts organizations are dealing with right now, particularly venue-driven organizations,and the question is how do we stay relevant and provide the service of creating arts experiences for people when they can’t walk in and use the space? The first wave of response is to get content on line, which is great if people are savvy about getting online and experiencing it, but it’s not an income-generator, so that’s challenging for us. But we want to be receptive, we want to serve, particularly right now. We want to provide connection and inspiration, and art is a very healing, transformative experience and we want to provide that. That’s our job, it’s what we do, and how do we do it with this situation? And it may be going on for awhile.”

•••

CGN: How has the center been doing financially during the pandemic?

LG: “We’re sort of on hold; financially we’ve been very fortunate, we have had some people who understand the situation and have donated. We had a PPP loan that took us through most of July. We had received a grant from Ford Family Foundation that was helpful and I (repurposed) some program grants into operational grants as, fortunately, foundations have been very understanding and sympathetic. We’ve been able to, essentially, un-earmark those funds, which will be helpful. I don’t want to speculate. We’re fine for a short period of time but it’s not sustainable under the current situation.”

(Update: “Re-Imagine came along at a good time,” Gaines said. The online July fundraising campaign, Re-Imagine CCA, surpassed its $100,000 goal with $105,000 raised. “We were fortunate to have a few generous major donors that made our successful outcome possible,” Gaines said. “Altogether we had over 300 donors,” Gaines said, noting that “the online platform appealed to a larger audience range.” The campaign carried the message that “we have been working hard to be a vital arts hub and we want to continue to plan for that and bring new work and new experiences into the space for the community but we need funding to get ready for that and to plan for that and to continue building online content for people to access and we have to have funds to do it.

“The community stepped up and were very supportive about keeping the arts center alive through these tough times,” she said.)

•••

CGN: How do you plan ahead through COVID-19?

LG: “It’s an opportunity. It’s a crappy time, but it has been an opportunity to take a breath and ask ‘what’s working? What’s not working?’ And time to really focus on that. The (CCA) board has really stepped up. They recognized that we have to address this now. What the outcome will be is up to the universe to a degree, for sure. The tricky part is all of us to recognize the importance of supporting first the front line of responders and making sure everyone is fed and healthy and safe, so it’s that fine line of how to ask for support and reach out to the community without taking funds away from making sure people are okay on a day-to-day, survival basis. But I think now is the time, we’re a little farther along now, and more organizations and services have been restarting and we’re figuring it out and asking, ‘How can we reconnect and stay connected?’ and I think the arts play a part. How do we stay connected in a way everyone is watching safely?”

•••

CGN: What are those ways?

LG: “There’s the audience and there’s the performance. There are ways to do it, readers’ theater where performers are static and in place, but how do you find room for a large enough audience and they’re all staying safe? Is it outside performances? It has to be the right place; in the Gorge, you’re dealing with wind and noise.

“We’re doing something called the Spotlight Series, which are solo performances. Lucy Gorman was in doing a flower arrangement, we had the Nika Kermani dancers, and Ben Bonham played the guitar. We’ve had Leigh Hancock do storytelling and Tina Castañares do a reading. All with no audience, we film and then we upload it to our YouTube channel and put out on social media.” (Website: columbiaarts.org.)

“It’s having any kind of artist come in, film it and it’s through this community of performers, people who want to get up and do something, that we can provide content. It’s a space for local artists to come and perform when they’re not performing right now.

“We are evolving the Spotlight Series to curate more highly produced story-based short videos about what inspires anyone to commit to a creative process whether you are an artist, business owner, innovator, teacher, parent, child, elder or seeker. We will focus on people living in the Gorge.”

CGN: Talk some more about moving ahead.

LG: “There will be changes here. We will have art shows that honor our traditions and artists who are part of our community and also work that will be more challenging and pushing the envelope, and hopefully with theater, bringing back theater for all ages.

“Columbia Gorge Theatre Works (CRT) was formed a couple of years ago, with representatives from CGOA, Big Britches and other groups. We met (in July) for the first time in months, at my request, and are meeting monthly now.”

•••

CGN: You’ve had an active children’s theater program in recent years but very little theater for general audiences. What is CCA’s role in local theater?

LG: “CCA has to figure out our role in the theater community. We have all these different theaters out here and limited number of actors who are being overused and underpaid, but there is a real scheduling problem and a problem of actors and what plays to be in and an audience problem because audiences want to see all the plays and they had been happening at the same time. And it’s a great problem to have but if you throw CCA back into the mix, because we’ve been out a few years because of children’s theater, and we want to bring more adult content in here, how do you do it without competing? That’s the question that has come up for Theaterworks, is trying to solve that problem. One idea is to provide more workshops: Acting, tech, directing workshops, so we can develop actors and directors, and also build confidence and skill in existing actors, but we’d also like to use the space as performance and theater space, too.

“I am hoping Theaterworks will work on how to bring in plays and musical pieces that are being planned out there theater smaller into the space and have them happen here, that at least some of them get to perform in this space and probably what will have to come from that is CCA will probably have to write a grant, in partnership with PACT or Big Britches, so we can all do it without losing our shirts.

“My gig is I’m a collaborator. I don’t want to do anything by myself, and I don’t think a community arts center should operate by itself. I am all about building partners and figuring out how to work together and creating a vibrant arts scene here. I am a bit of an optimist.

“We (CRT) are currently exploring a Gorge Got Talent community-wide talent show inspired by the America’s Got Talent format. We are still in the planning phase, but hope to get going on it in early winter.”

•••

CGN: This is an opportune time to regroup and take a long look at how to do this because everyone’s been on hiatus and few groups have more than minimal schedules planned. The timing is right.

LG: ”We’re (CCA) in a more of a desperate situation in that we have a venue here that has expenses between the staff and operations, and it’s not just like, ‘Oh, we won’t have a season.’ There are livelihoods at stake and what do we do with it? How do we create something so that so everyone wins — and money falls from the sky?”

She laughs: “I’m going to keep after it until I fall down. Nothing like starting a new career at 60. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

•••

CGN: Good for you. It’s just a number.

LG: “I was in this place where we were living in Whistler in the winter and it was sweet but I wasn’t really happy with it, I was missing community, and it was hard to come to terms with it and, as lovely as it was, it wasn’t feeding my soul and I didn’t realize how much I needed that until I didn’t have it. So I feel really grateful I have this opportunity. It’s healing me as much as I’m contributing to it. It’s definitely a two-way relationship. I am given the opportunity to really make some changes, and make it work, but one day at a time.”

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