Meanwhile, OHS’s infrastructure withered, first slowly, then precipitously. Vaughan’s oral history program vanished. The society’s press, which had once published up to 25 books in a year, shuttered in 2006. “When I came to the university in 1999,” says Katrine Barber, professor of public history at Portland State, a few blocks up the street, “I did tons of things at OHS. They had all of these different places, entrances, portals through which academics could enter and engage with a broader public. Those don’t exist anymore.”
But beyond the attrition in programs for dedicated historians, OHS’s connection to its audience frayed. Public school visits dropped off. Membership declined by 50 percent. A much-hyped Lewis & Clark exhibit successfully leveraged a $3 million expansion of the building’s entrance pavilion in 2003 but lured only anemic attendance. Oregon’s sesquicentennial in 2009 likewise passed with hardly a raised eyebrow. As annual attendance dropped to just 43,703 last year, the specter of the 2015 due date for the society’s $2.6 million mortgage on the Gresham warehouse has loomed ever larger. The treasures hidden in the Vault seemed to transform from assets to liabilities.
“They have a moribund facility,” says Matt Love, author of popular Oregon history books on subjects like Vortex I rock festival and the Trail Blazers. “How many courtyards are there in Portland that are uninhabited? OHS has the only one. And it’s dead."
The final blow came in 2009 when, after a brief increase in funding, the Legislature slashed its annual contribution from $663,000 to $312,000. Vogt laid off a third of the already skeletal staff and that March announced the closing of the research library. Local historians howled and mounted both a Facebook campaign (“Save the Oregon Historical Society Research Library & Staff!”) and a protest outside OHS’s doors attended by, among others, Tom Vaughan, then age 85.
The dire situation, and the ruckus, inspired the board to launch a Hail Mary pass—a tax levy—asking Multnomah County’s voters to approve 5 cents for every $1,000 of property value to bankroll OHS with a total of $10 million in funds over the next five years—about half of the society’s $4 million annual operating budget. With Vogt out in front threatening that a “no” vote would trigger a phased shutdown—and savvy campaign manager Liz Kaufman orchestrating speaking engagements, TV ads, and a trio of direct mailings to the 185,000 most likely “yes” voters—the levy passed with 54 percent.
WHETHER THE infusion of public money will fertilize OHS’s rebirth or merely delay its death is now largely up to incoming board president Hudson and interim executive director Tymchuk. Hudson holds a PhD in American History from Tulane University. As president of Willamette University from the 1980s until 1997, he saved the school from financial implosion, growing the small student body by 30 percent and overseeing an expansion of its endowment from $34 million to $141 million. He joined OHS’s board in 2007 after stepping down as head of the Collins Foundation, one of the state’s four largest charitable foundations, and a perennial backer of OHS.
"[Hudson]’s the best thing that’s happened to that place in ten years,” says Bill Lang, a professor of environmental history at Portland State, echoing others who know him. “The board made a smart move there.”
With experience as neither a historian nor an executive director, Tymchuk, 52, is a less intuitive choice (a fact Hudson openly acknowledges by emphasizing Tymchuk’s “interim” appointment). What he does bring is a fat Rolodex. During a 30-year career in which he became Oregon’s consummate political insider, he served variously as legal counsel, press secretary, speechwriter, and chief of staff for a range of Republican politicians: Oregon Congressman Denny Smith, Bob and Elizabeth Dole, and Senator Gordon Smith. Most recently, he helped orchestrate Chris Dudley’s near-upset of John Kitzhaber for governor.
“I have connections through my 12 years as Senator Smith’s eyes and ears in Oregon,” Tymchuk says. “I’ve been to every city and county in Oregon. I know the mayors, the city commissioners, the go-to people.”
Tymchuk’s first exhibit? A history of Oregon’s great legislative moments—a series of window panels covering the passage of significant laws like the 1967 Beach Access bill and 1994’s Death with Dignity Act—held in the Capitol Building in Salem.
Vague about institutional direction, strategy, or programming, but succinct in his spin, Tymchuk says he will apply his three rules of success for political campaigns: momentum, money, and message. “We’ve got the momentum now with the passage of the levy, the renewed interest in OHS, and a floor of some stable funding.”