"Small Town" Arts Center Redefined: A Look at an Impressive Pacific Northwest Give

Port angeles, washington

Port angeles, washington

For those of us living here in California, we have found that it's perfectly acceptable to make fun of Southern Californians, especially those from Los Angeles. Turns out these folks have a propensity for moving to other Western cities—Portland or Seattle most readily come to mind—thereby driving up real estate prices and ruining a perfectly good Western city in the process.

But fortunately there are exceptions to every rule. Take the late Donna Morris, for example, who died in 2014 at the age of 67. She grew up in Pasadena and moved to Port Angeles, Washington—population 19,190—in 1993.

(Yep, you read that right. Port Angeles. The irony abounds.)

She had a deep love for the arts, and although she didn't flaunt it, made a "large sum of money through sound investments in California." And now the Port Angeles community is reaping the dividends of Morris' investments.

Earlier this year, executor of Morris' will announced that Morris bequeathed $9 million to the Port Angeles, Washington-based Peninsula College Foundation solely for the construction of a performing arts center. The foundation is serving as the conduit for the funds. In October, we learned more about the details of this project, which can be found here. But what about the donor's motivations? 

According to Judith Finfrock, Morris' best friend and the executor of her will, Morris wanted to ensure her love of the arts would help inspire generations of Port Angeles residents for years to come. "She loved Port Angeles, and it pleased her to think that she would encourage and maybe help other would-be artists of any form of art," Finfrock said.

What's more, Morris directed that her executor appoint a committee of local citizens to ensure that the facility meets the needs of the performing and fine arts community. Stakeholders include the Port Angeles Symphony Orchestra, the Port Angeles Fine Arts Center, and the Port Angeles Light Opera Association.

In addition, a seven-member Performing Arts Center Committee was formed with representatives from various arts groups, Peninsula College and the city.

So what to make of Morris' impressive gift? Most obviously, the $9million aims to make Port Angeles an arts destination in its own right. In this sense it resembles a common trend in the philanthropic arts space across the past 24 months. That being said, the gift is unique for two reasons.

First, Port Angeles truly redefines the term "small town," particularly when you consider that it's the largest city in its county. Is there enough demand for the arts in Clallam County, population 72,312? We'll soon find out. Second, unlike recent gives earmarked for arts centers at, say, the university or neighborhood level, Morris' performing arts center is starting from scratch, both from a funding and construction standpoint. 

But perhaps most encouragingly, Morris' gift indicates that sometimes, every so often, Southern Californian émigré can make their transplanted homes much better off than when they found it.