Eclectic Corvallis event looks to keep buzz going despite budget challenges
Da Vinci Days, Corvallis’ zany smorgasbord of art, science, technology — and mud — turns 25 this week.
And anniversaries and milestones can be useful in several ways: figuring out where you stand, looking back ... and looking ahead.
In 25 years da Vinci Days has brought in Oscar-winning films, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, kinetic sculpture races, mud bogs, activities for kids, science exhibits ... and, for awhile, an honest-to-God trebuchet that would lob dead printers like a siege weapon targeting a medieval fortress.
Raan Young remembers that in the first year, 1988, he had to rush from a lecture by the oceanographer Robert Ballard on his discovery of the Titanic wreckage to make it to the Marsalis concert.
“There was so much going on, it was impossible to fit in everything,” said Young, an ex-Hewlett-Packard employee who was the driving force behind the Graand Kinetic Challenge sculpture races.
Susan Johnson, then executive director of the Corvallis Arts Center and the Linn Benton Council for the Arts, recalled dancers swinging on ropes from a tree in Central Park one year and a performance on the roof of a downtown building during another festival.
Even the planning sessions were a thrill.
“These were the most fun meetings I have ever attended, and they resulted in a first festival that was really exciting,” Johnson said. “I remember one time we were so excited and making so much noise the park staff had to close our door.”
“I have never seen anything like da Vinci Days anywhere else,” said Dave Warneking, an Oregon State University employee who coordinates the festival’s cadre of more than 1,400 volunteers.
“It has the perfect festival pace and remains a social, noncommercially driven community event.”
Though not commercially driven, da Vinci Days faces commercial realities. The festival has a $200,000 annual budget — with 70 percent of the money coming from ticket and concession sales — but has been battling declining sponsorship during the economic recession and has seen gradual declines in attendance the past five years, according to board Chairman Michael Dalton.
Dalton also is serving as de facto executive director for 2013 after Nicole Beachboard-Dodson resigned in February to spend more time with her family. There wasn’t time to hire a new executive director for this cycle, but Dalton said the board plans to fill the position.
In the meantime Dalton and his troops are working to keep the current momentum going while also strategizing for the future.
“We’re trying to reinvigorate, rebuild and put some energy back in,” said Dalton. “We’re trying to add zip.”
Da Vinci Days will have three days of music this year, adding a Sunday show featuring Crazy 8s, which formed at Oregon State University in the early 1980s.
Also new is an expanded speakers series (above at right), and everyone under 12 gets in free. Previously, only those 5 and under were exempt. And the Electrathon battery-operated car races return.
In a June appearance before the Corvallis City Club, Dalton noted that other arts organizations — he mentioned the Mount Hood Jazz Festival and the Oregon Symphony — have either shut down or suffered through budget cuts.
When da Vinci Days was spawned in 1988, the city of Corvallis, Benton County and Oregon State all signed on as partners to the tune of $18,000 apiece. That support has changed from cash to staff time, facilities and infrastructure, adding up to a value of about $25,000 per year.
In addition, the festival is paying back a $10,000 interest-free loan from the city. In April the City Council reduced the annual payment from $2,000 to $1,000.
“The city and county provide lots of ‘in-kind’ and staff time,” said Dalton. “That’s really commendable, but you can’t pay the bills with in-kind.”
“It is an important festival, and it brings thousands of people to Corvallis,” said Steve Clark, OSU’s vice president for marketing and university relations and also a da Vinci Days board member.
“But it’s difficult in today’s public sector to write a check, so faculty and staff volunteer and donate materials and services.
“We have folks here who literally take vacations to work (at the festival) because they believe in da Vinci Days.”
Julie Curtis, executive director of the Corvallis Convention & Visitors Bureau when the festival began, noted that one of the goals was to boost the local economy by attracting out-of-town visitors.
“Though I don’t believe da Vinci Days has achieved the original goal of being an overnight draw, it appears to be something that is now ingrained in the community,” she said.
Dalton confirmed that most of the attendees are local and that “how do we draw out of the area?” remains an unanswered question.
“Therein lies the dilemma,” said Warneking of the financial challenges.
“Community support is weak for the event, in my opinion. ... And who will sponsor this amazingly accessible festival for the sake of inspiration and exposition? I volunteer hundreds of hours each year at a great cost because we — all of us — need inspiration more than ever.”
Looking to the future
Dalton and his board are holding strategy sessions and surveying volunteers and others to get a sense of where the festival should go next.
“We’ll discuss the pros and cons of various options,” said Dalton. “The board hasn’t decided how assertive to be on this. We’ll want to get some closure by the fall. We can’t wait until November or January to have a plan.”
The people that were there in Year One tend to view the path going beyond Year 25 as containing both opportunities and challenges.
“The future of da Vinci Days will depend on its leaders, their vision, their management skills and their ability to create an aura of excitement about the event and the future,” said John Byrne, president of OSU when the festival began.
“It’s clear that we are living during a period of transformation unparalleled in human history. The possibilities for da Vinci Days to capture the excitement of this transformation are enormous. We’ll see.”
Kinetic sculpture pioneer Young also is optimistic.
“Highlighting the wonders of art, science and technology while demonstrating that those elements, so often perceived as in conflict, can actually play well together, and I do mean play,” said Young.
“That is what da Vinci Days is all about.”
Contact reporter James Day at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-758-9542. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.