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Sowing A Legacy Of Community Arts

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Oregon businessman and philanthropist Fred W. Fields cared about education and the arts so much that, before he died, he planned a little surprise for the Oregon Community Foundation. Now, his bequest is showing up in the Rogue Valley.

Ashland’s beat-box a cappella vocalist Cornflower makes the music as Artistic Director Robin Stiehm of Ashland’s Dancing People Company leads rehearsals for this weekend’s performance of their winter solstice show, “Call Back The Sun.”

Stiehm’s dance company is one of Oregon’s 87 small, non-profit, arts and culture organizations receiving grants of $1- to $5,000 from the Oregon Community Foundation.

Robin Stiehm: “Without the extra funding, I would have had to raise my ticket prices so people that come to the show would have to pay more. The artists involved would get paid less, which is very stressful as they’re putting many hours into making this happen.”

Stiehm says small non-profits like hers often find it difficult to compete for traditional foundation grants, but before he died, Oregon philanthrophist Fred W. Fields left one sensational secret to be revealed posthumously.

Robin Stiehm: “The Oregon Community Foundation got a surprise bequest to support arts and education. It was a very large amount of money.”

It was OCF’s largest bequest ever, roughly $180 million. The foundation’s Amy Cuddy says OCF spent a year preparing a grant program that would honor Fields’ wishes. Those grants were offered to Oregon’s smallest non-profit arts groups, about 80 percent of those registered with the state.

Amy Cuddy: “That’s what we do. We create charitable funds to support the things that our donors care about.”

Cuddy says Fields wanted to support education ... because it breeds innovation; and art ... because it stretches the imagination and drives new ideas. She says community groups like Stiehm’s Dancing People Company are appropriate recipients, along with groups that protect endangered archeological sites, promote Chinese culture, after-school music programs – even the Southern Oregon Kite Festival in Brookings.

Amy Cuddy: “It seemed appropriate to have a program that was designed for those grassroots organizations that are doing good works in their communities...”

Such as the Modern Roots Foundation. Executive Director Dee Fretwell says their award will go directly to disadvantaged youngsters for music lessons, and instrument rental.

Dee Fretwell: “What we have found here in Jackson County is we’re perceived as being very arts-rich, but our children are not receiving a lot of that benefit. So I’m trying to help fill the gap and support the schools by also connecting them to independent instructors.”

Fretwell says music has been but one target of school system budget cuts over the years, so children who live in poverty have little opportunity for hands-on exposure to music.

Dee Fretwell: “Thirty-seven percent of our kids in Jackson County have families who’re receiving basic needs assistance. And that’s housing, food, and some basic cash flow assistance. That’s an astronomical number.”

Her mission at the Modern Roots Foundation is to help children discover how music, specifically “American roots-based stringed music,” can help lift their spirits for a lesson, or for a lifetime.

Dee Fretwell: “And it’s really amazing what you can see when children actually find this kind of exposure and expression. One of my selfish intentions is to be able to watch that happen.”

Dancing People’s Stiehm says she patches together her annual budget from private donations, foundation grants, and earned income from ticket sales and dance school tuition. Ticket prices depend on expenses like publicity, facility rents, paying guest artists, and ... as the only professional dance company in Southern Oregon ... the company’s dancers.

Robin Stiehm: “My artists are paid for that work. They come in. They work every day, Monday through Friday, they start with a warm up and then rehearse for three to five hours. You know, this isn’t a hobby for these people. It’s their life. It’s their career.”

The Fields gift enables OCF to invest $300,000 for at least each of the next five years in groups that don’t typically attract large donations, groups like the Modern Roots Foundation and Dancing People that help their communities navigate and celebrate life’s often subtle events. Events like this weekend’s winter solstice and a dance to welcome the coming longer days.