The five-year-old Ashland Arts Center, which has 170 member artists and provides them space for studios, classes and sales in the heart of downtown, recently received an unsolicited gift of $33,000 by an anonymous donor in New York City.

The five-year-old Ashland Arts Center, which has 170 member artists and provides them space for studios, classes and sales in the heart of downtown, recently received an unsolicited gift of $33,000 by an anonymous donor in New York City.

Seeing the gift in the center's bank account on Wednesday, a delighted Executive Director Denise Baxter began upgrading the lighting and wall paint, increasing staff pay, hiring a coordinator to handle 28 volunteer workers and paying down debt, all while feeding reserves.

"We're really happy. This puts us in a better position to sustain our growth," said Baxter, noting the center, one of the few nonprofit community art centers in the nation, brings in about $2,000 a month less than expenses of $15,000 a month.

The gift is from a private trust that gives millions of dollars' worth of grants for humanitarian causes in Mexico, Burma and other struggling spots in the world, Baxter said. The director of the foundation likes to find his own recipients and doesn't want to be identified, she said.

"It was just a normal, run-of-the-mill connection through an Ashland photographer who knew us both, then (the benefactor) called me on the phone and we hit it off and found we had common goals in life, to serve the common good," Baxter said.

"We said that you only live once, so you have to do your best ... to make the world a better place."

Baxter started the center five years ago on A Street with a $40,000 investment of her own money. In 2009, she expanded it into the old Provost Furniture store on East Main, where the rent for the three-floor space is $6,000 a month.

Noting it's hard for an artist to "work at homwe in a vacuum," Alissa Clark, manager of the center's clay studio, said, "This is a great hub for artists. There's always a class going and you can talk about technique with other artists and bounce ideas off each other."

All three floors have studio space, often with two artists sharing the same space. As per the rental agreement, the artists are willing to chat with and educate any customers who happen by. Such encounters often lead to sales, class enrollments and mentoring arrangements, Baxter said.

Baxter's vision came from her early years as an oil painter in Ashland and her frustration in "learning the secret handshake" to break into the gallery scene. She wanted something dynamic, she said, where art was not just hanging there for sale but actually happening before your eyes, and, for a small fee, you could take classes, learn the art from professionals, throw and fire pots, buy art supplies and become one of the artists.

"It's the one place in the region where you can get all your needs met, see lots of great art and talk to artists one-on-one," said painter, fabric artist, teacher and art marketing coach Diane Ericson. She noted that the center's big day is the First Friday Art Walk, with lots of visitors joining in the process and buying art as well.

A glance at the center's online class schedule shows an amazing array of art opportunities, some with nationally noted artists and most in the $10 to $20 range. They include a painting lab, beading, figure drawing, pouch-making, felting, art journaling and history of European art.

"It's a very lively venture here," said painter Dorothy Baker, "and it's wonderful to associate with other artists."

"It warms my heart and is truly a community," noted Christer Rowan, a graphic artist who offers business services to fellow artists.

Assemblage artist Dale Muir said, "Visitors can watch us work and for many, it's their introduction into art for themselves. It's a community, not just a gallery as such."

The center got $10,000 from the city of Ashland's Economic, Cultural, Tourism and Sustainability Grant, $8,000 from members of its board of directors, and money from community fundraising. Its new Art-to-Business program charges $500 a year to bring art to area businesses, a fee that includes four annual, on-site art shows. Fourteen businesses are enrolled, with a goal of 40 by summer.

Member artists can rent working space, a wall to hang art or a page or link from the center's website, www.ashlandartcenter.org. The center is at 357 E. Main St.; call 541-482-2772.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.