High Desert Museum to grow mission with $6 million donation

The Sisters-based Roundhouse Foundation has awarded $6 million to the High Desert Museum, the largest single donation in the Museum’s nearly 40-year history.

The gift will support the long-term vision for the future of the Museum, which includes more capacity for educational programming, immersive experiences to bring visitors into the forest canopy, and, in collaboration with Tribal partners, an update of the Museum’s permanent exhibition on the past and present of the Indigenous people of the Columbia Plateau, By Hand Through Memory. 

The exhibition opened in 1999.

“Central Oregon and the High Desert are rapidly growing, and we’ve been working during this time to create the foundation for the future of the Museum after COVID-19,” said Museum Executive Director Dana Whitelaw, Ph.D. “We’re working right now with Tribal partners, regional stakeholders and others to implement that vision. We aim to serve Oregonians and beyond as a resource, a place for discussion and a source of inspiration about the High Desert.”

The vision also includes adding a permanent art gallery, providing the eastern side of the state with its first dedicated art museum.

The Museum’s roughly 29,000-object collection includes a growing collection of art.

The Museum holds works by artists such as Charles M. Russell and Edward S. Curtis, and in recent years has focused on growing its collection of contemporary Indigenous artists, including pieces by Rick Bartow, James Lavadour, Lillian Pitt and Pat Courtney Gold.

“Central Oregon is fortunate to have a top-flight museum,” says Kathy Deggendorfer, a founder and trustee of the Roundhouse Foundation. “The High Desert Museum is a cultural hub and portal for learning about the High Desert, through its art, its history, its environment and its people. There’s no place else in the region that does that.”

The Museum opened in 1982.

Founder Donald M. Kerr envisioned the space as an immersive experience that highlights the wonder of the High Desert, often saying that its mission is to “wildly excite and responsibly teach.” He also intended for the Museum and its programs to spark dialogue and bring people together in conversations about what they want for the region’s future.

Today, the Museum shares up to nine rotating temporary exhibitions annually, such as 2020’s Infinite Moment: Burning Man on the Horizon and 2019’s Desert Reflections: Water Shapes the West, which won the Western Museums Association’s Charles M. Redd Award for Exhibition Excellence.

The Museum serves more than 12,000 students each year with field trips, camps and, in the pandemic era, virtual and offsite programs.

For instance, until recently the Museum offered a daylong program at La Pine Elementary to help families who needed it most while in-person school remained closed. Also, the Museum and partners received a federal grant in September to develop remote-learning, educational programs that will serve approximately 2,000 families.

The Roundhouse Foundation gift will support the continuation of Kerr’s vision.

The Museum today is the largest cultural institution in Oregon east of the Cascades. It welcomed nearly 200,000 visitors in 2019 and contributes roughly $20 million annually to the local economy, according to a recent economic study.

“We believe the Museum is critical to the future health and economic vitality of our communities,” Deggendorfer says. “Now more than ever, we believe in investing in arts and culture, and that the Museum can foster creativity and community in the region with its exhibits and programs. We’re proud to support it as it plans for the next 40 years.”

The Roundhouse Foundation started in 2002 as a collaboration by Deggendorfer and her mother, Gert Boyle.

The organization supports and encourages creative thinking and efforts to help increase the viability of the arts as a large part of the Sisters and Central Oregon economy, as well as supporting social services, education and environmental stewardship throughout rural Oregon and beyond.

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