Artstra (formerly Arts of Clark County) was formed in 2010. The group emerged from a two-year monthly forum called Art Conversations that engaged the community in discussions about the state of the arts in Southwest Washington. At that time Vancouver’s Cultural Commission had suspended operations and Clark County had no formal participation in the arts other than its investment in the Clark County Amphitheater (now the Sunlight Supply Amphitheater).

Art Conversations flyer, August 2009

This void in local governmental leadership in the arts left many arts and culture organizations without a formal vetting process or local government sponsorship. Dene Grigar, digital artist and professor at Washington State University Vancouver identified this gap in particular. She personally shared the challenge that local arts projects and programs have in applying for grants in a competitive environment where many grantors favor applicants with local arts commission endorsements.

The core group of artists and arts supporters who met regularly for Art Conversations also saw the value of having a local arts council or commission to generally support the arts in the region. Under the leadership of Laurel Whitehurst, who had previously formed an arts commission in Kent, Washington, the grassroots group chose to approach Clark County with the idea.

Becoming Artstra
Ultimately a formula was reached where the County would form an arts commission with appointed board members but was given no budget, relying on a separately organized nonprofit to act as fiscal sponsor. The Clark County Arts Commission (CCAC) was then chartered as work began on seeking nonprofit status for the separate group, Arts of Clark County, now known as Artstra.

Artstra’s founding members supported CCAC to provide governmental vetting and endorsement of grant applications and to champion the arts throughout the area. Artstra would be the nonprofit advocacy organization to raise funds and create programming and projects since CCAC had no County funding and was restricted from raising or holding funds, applying for grants, or signing contracts. Under a memorandum of understanding with the County, Artstra acted as CCAC’s fiscal sponsor and in return, the County would provide printing services to Artstra.

For several years Artstra offered CCAC their support and partnership on projects and programs. But that support ended in 2018 when CCAC voted to no longer use fiscal sponsorship to fund their programming. As a result of this transition, Artstra needed to publicly communicate and clarify its status as independent from government and so it began the process of rebranding and changing its original name, Arts of Clark County, to Artstra.

Karen Madsen, Leah Jackson, Terri Elioff, and Anne John scout building locations for a potential art center, August 2009

Energizing the art scene
The enthusiasm around the arts in 2010 and earlier spawned not only Artstra, but ideas like VOCA  (Vancouver Organization for Contemporary Art) and Windows Into Art. Meanwhile the influential North Bank Artists Gallery, which hosted many Art Conversations, played an important role along with Angst Gallery and others in strengthening the downtown art scene.

Over the years, Artstra has consistently provided community-wide engagement in advocating for the arts in our region. Its early participation with the Washington State Arts Commission (ArtsWA) in developing the region’s Creative Vitality Index (CVI) reports for 2013–2014 and following up as mentors to Ellensburg and Spokane’s CVI efforts earned recognition for Artstra at the state level in Olympia. Organizing two Arts and Culture Summits in 2012 and 2017, bringing together community leaders and experts in the fields of arts infrastructure and development, set the stage for and influenced the 2018 revision of Vancouver’s Culture, Arts & Heritage Plan.

Programming and advocacy aligned with a vision
By organizing the first open studios tour in Clark County in 2013, Artstra has helped create a unique arts identity in the region. Artstra’s Clark County Open Studios program has proven that there are thriving artists north of the river and, not just local residents, but visitors from the broader region are eager to discover Clark County artists.

North Bank Artists Gallery (2003–2017)

Another program supporting Artstra’s mission is Poetry Moves, developed in partnership with C-Tran in 2015. Launched with the generous support of then Clark County Poet Laureate Christopher Luna and co-founder of Printed Matter Vancouver Toni Lumbrazo Luna, Poetry Moves has been embraced by poets and riders as a unique public art form that is alive (and moving) in the public sphere.

From Artstra’s inception, providing grants and supporting other arts nonprofits has been an integral part of our organization. Artstra has offered fiscal sponsorship and more than $30,000 in grants to individual artists’ projects and small nonprofit arts groups. Artstra has partnered with Vancouver’s Downtown Association, The Historic Trust, Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, Washington Arts Commission, Washington State Arts Alliance, Artist Trust, City of Vancouver, C-Tran, Clark County, Peace Health Hospital Foundation, Vancouver Public Schools and the Vancouver Chamber of Commerce in providing support, programing and mentorship in developing and providing arts experiences in our region.

Leading the way
Artstra’s guidance and advocacy contributed to community leaders recognizing the important role arts and culture plays in the economic vitality of the community. There once again is forward motion in creating both a performing arts center and visual arts center. The arts today are less likely to be seen as simply an amenity (accessible for the most part across the river), but an essential economic driver for our region.

Artstra is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit arts organization advocating for the arts in Southwest Washington through programs, projects, and partnerships with community stakeholders. Artstra’s mission is to elevate the arts, build greater arts awareness, reward creative excellence, and expand arts accessibility. Our vision is of a vibrant arts economy in our region where arts and culture are essential with public/private investments and facilities that sustain artists and enrich our community. We are an all volunteer-run organization with a working 10-member board. Our core value is good stewardship of the resources our community so generously provides us.

(Note that Fort Vancouver Regional Library card login is required for Columbian articles over one year old.)

Efforts to create civic auditorium unsuccessful so far, Karen Morely Smith, The Columbian, 19 Feb 1995
City Council moves toward bolstering arts, Thomson, Stephanie, The Columbian, 29 Apr 1997
Has final curtain fallen at Columbia Arts Center?, Michael Heywood, The Columbian, 05 June 1998
City takes over Columbia Arts Center, Brett Oppegaard, The Columbian, 11 June 1998
Arts center served well by embattled crew, Alfred P. Maurice, for The Columbian, 18 June 1998
Arts center operating trust quits, Brett Oppegaard, The Columbian, 22 Dec 1998
Arts center gets new life for new year, Brett Oppegaard, The Columbian, 29 Dec 1998
It’s up to us top rescue arts center, Zuzel, Michael, The Columbian, 25 May 1999
It’s do or die time for Columbia Arts Center, Brett Oppegaard, The Columbian, 13 July 1999
Columbia Arts Center closes suddenly, before big weekend, Lori Bettineski, The Columbian, 17 July 1999
Hold your applause: Columbia Arts Center, Brett Oppegaard, The Columbian, 17 Sep 1999
Arts advocates to tour Vancouver Barracks, Columbian staff, The Columbian, 15 Aug 2000
Columbia Arts Center may rise again for local arts groups, Brett Oppegaard, The Columbian, 10 Dec 2000
Clark County arts community will assess its future, Brett Oppegaard, The Columbian, 25 May 2001
Experts say Vancouver Barracks could be home to artist studios, Brett Oppegaard, The Columbian, 30 May 2001
When the cash heads out of town…, Brett Oppegaard, The Columbian, 08 Dec 2002
Vancouver’s Push for a Performing Arts Center: Renewed Vision, Brett Oppegaard, The Columbian, 18 May 2003
City panel awards arts funds, Brett Oppegaard, The Columbian, 31 May 2003
Money requested for arts center study, Brett OppegaardT, The Columbian, 15 Jan 2004
Public art can help define, energize a city but there’s a price tag, Brett Oppegaard, The Columbian, 24 May 2004
‘ARTillery’ could revive Vancouver Barracks, Jeffrey Mize, The Columbian, 10 Jan 2005
Group to sketch plans for art community, Jeffrey Mize, The Columbian, 10 Mar 2005
Hundreds take tours of barracks that might house artists’ community, Kelly Adams, The Columbian, 13 Mar 2005
Friends of the Arts commended for pursuing arts community at barracks, The Columbian, 14 Mar 2005
Historic inn considered for barracks, Jeffrey Mize, The Columbian, 27 Feb 2007
Will Post Hospital make an artful transition?, Tom Vogt, The Columbian, 16 Feb 2011
Grant sought for arts campus plan, Tom Vogt, The Columbian, 24 Feb 2012
Fort Vancouver: A potential catalyst for the arts?, 03 Feb 2017
Other cities our size are building arts centers, Artstra, 02 May 2017
Building an art center that works, Karen Madsen, Artstra, 30 May 2017
8 reasons to be optimistic, Karen Madsen, Cam Suttles, Artstra, 05 Jul 2017
Ingredients for a Certified Creative District, Artstra, 04 Aug 2017
Summit to focus on “Creating space for the arts”, Artstra, 31 Aug 2017

Ideas sought for arts spaces in Clark County, Scott Hewitt, The Columbian, 05 Sep 2017
What we learned at the summit, Cam Suttles, Artstra, 05 Oct 2017
Arts plan builds community support, Artstra, 27 Feb 2018
How to create a future audience for the arts, Karen Madsen, Artstra, 01 Apr 2017
A virtual pop-up arts center, Artstra, 04 Sep 2018
Seeking a unified vision for a new performing arts venue, Scott Hewitt, The Columbian, 15 Sep 2019

The development of a thriving arts center north of the Columbia River has been key to Artstra’s vision as an organization. In advocating for arts infrastructure, we encourage visionary leadership committed to learning not only from excellent built examples across the nation, but from history.


City of Vancouver buys the old First Presbyterian Church. Columbia Arts Center begins operations and renovations, subsidized by the City.

Volunteer nine-member Cultural Commission established to advise Vancouver City Council.

Vancouver Cultural Commission introduces “cultural plan” to promote, fund and enhance the City’s arts and heritage programs.

Royal Durst Theatre opens at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics.

City takes over financially troubled Columbia Arts Center, asks nonprofit group to leave.

The Cooperative Arts Council of Clark County takes over operations of Columbia Arts Center.

Columbia Arts Center closes suddenly, locks changed, performances cancelled.

Vancouver Symphony Orchestra begins performing at Skyview Concert Hall.

Arts organizations tour Vancouver Barracks with Minneapolis-based Artspace.

City sells old First Presbyterian Church building, new owner offers a portion of the space for a revived Columbia Arts Center.

Public forum on the future of the arts in Clark County held at WSUV with speakers Barbara Shepherd of JFK Center for the Performing Arts, Kristy Edmunds of PICA, and Chris Velasco of Artspace who, The Columbian reported, shared study “showing that 150 artists working in various media within this region would move into the [Vancouver Barracks] tomorrow if they were turned into studios. In addition, he said he has interest from 20 arts organizations within a 100-mile radius that also would like to relocate here.”

WSU Vancouver considers building performing arts center.

North Bank Artists Gallery opens.

Southwest Washington Center for the Arts (SWCA) founded with a mission “to facilitate the building of a world class center for the arts to enhance the educational, economic, and cultural vitality for SW Washington, to be centrally located in the city of Vancouver.”

Proposal developed for ARTillery arts community at Vancouver Barracks.

Historic Trust decides Artillery building is better suited for lodging and suggests Post Hospital for arts center.

SWCA produces a feasibility study showing option for performing arts center within $110 million mixed-use development on downtown Vancouver’s Block 10.

City halts development on Block 10 for two years while SWCA seeks funds for development.

SWCA’s 2-year option for Block 10 runs out.

Historic Trust holds community conversation about Post Hospital building as a possible arts center.

Artstra holds Arts and Culture Summit, “Creating a voice”

SWCA produces feasibility for a performing arts center on the site of the Vancouver Police Headquarters in the Vancouver National Historic Reserve.

Vancouver seeks new proposals for Block 10.

VOCA opens flexible space arts venue.

Slocum House Theater closes.

Vancouver City Council dedicates downtown Arts District

North Bank Artists Gallery closes its doors.

Art at the Cave gallery opens

Artstra holds second Arts and Culture Summit, “Creating space for the arts”

SWCA produces a feasibility analysis for a waterfront performing arts center.

Vancouver establishes new Culture, Arts and Heritage Commission.

KO Projects with Opsis Architecture produces feasibility study for a performing arts center possibly co-located with an arts-focused elementary school and maker space on the site of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library’s headquarters.