Oregon museum bypasses threat of mayoral vetoes

Thursday, November 5, 1998

Opting to avoid possible mayoral action against future art exhibits, the Grants Pass, Ore., Museum of Art's board of directors last week took steps to buy its own building instead of going into a joint venture with the city.

“I think we have certainly made a statement for freedom in southern Oregon,” board member Medora Nankervis said. “We are almost out from under the city's thumb.”

Earlier this summer, the arts board and the Grants Pass City Council agreed to build a new museum in a downtown city park. The board planned to contribute $325,000 toward the building while the city would give $223,000. The city would then lease space to the museum for $1 a year.

Construction on the new Izaak Walton Building in Riverside Park was to begin in September.

But Mayor Gordon Anderson demanded that the contract include a clause giving the city final authority over the exhibits in the new museum, even though the museum is privately owned.

“I don't want to see a crucifix in a glass of urine,” Anderson told the council this summer. “I think it is a good thing the governing body has the last say.”

In published reports, Anderson said he doesn't condone censorship but said that artists have had too much freedom in recent years. He and others specifically mentioned a Judy Chicago exhibit at the museum nearly 10 years ago that featured abstract paintings of female body parts.

“I wouldn't have worried about this 40 or 50 years ago, but now we need to keep the ability of saying this is good and this is not good for our community,” he told the Grants Pass Daily Courier this summer.

Anderson hasn't returned repeated calls to his office.

While the City Council declined to add Anderson's clause to the contract, it did approve one allowing the city to buy out the museum's share of the project at half the building's appraised value if “the interests of the City and the Museum are not compatible.”

Nankervis said that the arts board rejected the final provision and decided to use its own money as down payment on a building in downtown Grants Pass.

“I couldn't stand it,” Nankervis said. “I'm 73, and I've seen so much of the freedom I knew as a young person dissolved. This was just one thing that I couldn't sit by and watch happen.”

She said the board appreciates that the city leased them space in its former maintenance shop in Riverside Park for the last 19 years, but the business relationship must now come to an end.

“They let us rent the building for a dollar a year, so we took it,” Nankervis said. “We were grateful to them. But we will be much better off not being in their park. Besides, parks are not so safe anymore.”