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The John G. Shedd Institute for the Arts

Rules of Engagement

American Ensemble


“Our number-one job is empowering our audience,” says James I. Ralph, executive director of The John G. Shedd Institute for the Arts. The Eugene, Oregon-based organization, housed in a former church, presents roughly 120 events a year in its three performance venues. The offerings center around American music, but they’re nonetheless an eclectic group, including the Emerald City Jazz Kings, a resident classic-jazz ensemble; Now Hear This, a year-long series of visiting jazz notables; the Oregon Festival of American Music, a week-long celebration of the Great American Songbook; and Shedd Theatricals, historically informed mountings of Broadway classics, in their original instrumentations.

Linking these endeavors together is a profoundly community-based curatorial philosophy. “The conventional model for addressing the community is ‘You give us money; we’ll hire an artistic director to tell us what to do,’” says Ralph. “But our most active tool is listening. We write to everybody who comes to our concerts and say ‘Thanks for coming, got any suggestions?’”

The Shedd Institute’s roots go back to 1991 and the original Oregon Festival of American Music, at first consisting of two days of orchestral pop under the musical directorship of Marin Alsop. The organization started non-Festival-related events, and also added an educational component. A space of its own soon became a priority, and in 2002, the operation moved into a former First Baptist Church, naming itself after John G. Shedd, a Marshall Field mogul and great-grandfather of Ralph’s wife Ginevra. “We’re pretty sure he wasn’t into music,” Ralph says, “but he had a deep sense of giving back to the community.”

The Institute’s commitment to education is widely evident, both in the free tickets it offers local students for jazz concerts, and in its Community Music School, which offers classes and private instruction to musicians of all ages and all abilities, with 550 students a week coming through its doors. “We aren’t trying to get them into Juilliard,” says Ralph. “We’re champions of amateurs, as opposed the quote-unquote ‘cult of excellence.’ By amateurs, I mean the word in its original sense: not ‘bad at’ but ‘lovers of.’ You want to help people develop the confidence and ability to walk through the world and have strong visions. Our idea is to work with the community to create resonance for them.”

© 2017 Chamber Music Magazine