As I walked through downtown Portland on my way to the City Club of Portland’s May 20 Friday Forum (subject: Are the Arts Getting Squeezed Out?), I almost had to step over a couple of homeless Portlanders who’d set up makeshift spaces off the sidewalk. In the context of the city’s explosion of homelessness, how could a talk about the plight of local artists matter?
As it turned out, the speakers (including maker space consultant and moderator Kelley Roy, founder and owner of ADX and Portland Made; Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish; and Portland property manager and real estate broker MaryKay West, all experienced in securing space for artists) connected the city’s housing emergency to the affordability challenges confronting so many creative organizations. The rising rents sparked by Portland’s economic boom have pressured artists, many if not most of whom exist at or not far above poverty level, too. If most aren’t (we hope) in immediate danger of sleeping in the streets, many are finding it difficult to live and make art in the city.
Ultimately, that displacement could undermine much of what has made Portland so successful in the first place. Fish drew an explicit link between the economic growth of what he called the fastest growing urban economy in America and its desirability, which has attracted the much-vaunted “young creatives” whose talents are making money for the businesses that employ them and fueling the economic surge, new jobs, and the rest. That desirability, in turn, stems in part from wise policy choices like the land use planning that keeps Portland from turning into just another anonymous sprawl zone where cars are essential to get around (an added financial burden for artists and everyone else) and there’s no vital cultural center. But it’s also due to the artists, musicians, designers and the rest of the creative community that makes Portland what Fish called “a destination city.” And that desirability, with the demand for space outstripping supply, has pushed up the price of housing for artists and everyone else, prompting dislocation for artists and non artists alike. For some, Portland’s affordability crisis might mean moving out of the city or even the state — or even onto the streets.
Fish, whose portfolio effectively makes him the city’s de facto arts commissioner, also squarely defined the tough choice suggested by the street scene outside the downtown hotel where the lunchtime discussion occurred. “I believe we are morally bound, duty bound, to address the crisis on our streets,” he said. “But if we take our eye off the challenge that artists and nonprofits are facing, we’re at risk of losing something that makes Portland really special, and that’s the arts and culture scene. My belief is they’re not mutually exclusive.”
Interpolated among the main speakers’ presentations were concisely crafted true stories of displacement told by Portland artists that put a face on the city’s arts space affordability crisis. Choreographer and New Expressive Works founder Subashini Ganesan, writer/visual artist and Independent Publishing Resource Center director A.M. O’Malley, and painter Joanne Licardo all shared stories of the daunting new economic reality facing so many Portland artists, who labor with little margin to accommodate soaring rents.
Happily, the rest of the discussion at Portland’s Sentinel Hotel, which you can hear in full by clicking on the link below, mostly refrained from preaching to the choir, focusing instead on nitty gritty specifics of ameliorating the crisis rather than merely decrying it: what kinds of configurations “maker” spaces need; how city policy might encourage developers to provide opportunities for affordable creative spaces; specific publicly owned properties on Portland’s industrial central east side that might be transformed into creative spaces; even a model to allow artists and arts supporters to invest in redeveloping a property into a shared creative space. (In that regard, you’ll hear the term that sounds like “Reet,” which wasn’t defined but which I assume refers to a community Real Estate Investment Trust or REIT, similar to what Mercy Corps has created as a way for communities in danger of gentrification and displacement to participate in their neighborhoods’ increasing value, rather than falling victim to it. In this case, the pool of investors would be determined not by geographic proximity but rather by shared interest in supporting the arts.) While the hour-long discussion veered occasionally into such cheerful wonkiness (“EOS overlays to the comprehensive plan”), addressing such practical considerations is much preferable to high minded platitudes that won’t actually make the city more affordable for artists.
Though there’s no way to comprehensively address such a significant issue in an hour, and many more hours of discussion, debate and planning are needed, this brief overview effectively spotlighted the impact of the city’s affordability crunch on artists, and demonstrated that practical approaches exist to at least begin to alleviate it. Given the magnitude of the crisis facing Portland artists today, the tone of the discussion wound up being more upbeat and constructive that I expected. Not that anyone diminished the severity and urgency of the crisis facing artists and maker spaces, but there was a sense that this is something our community can and will address. Reasons cited for optimism: mayor-elect Ted Wheeler’s announced commitment to the arts; the success of publicly supported initiatives like the Right Brain Initiative and Work for Art, as well as community organizations like New Expressive Works (formerly Zoomtopia) and Artists Repertory Theater’s ArtsHub; the potential availability of big spaces (the downtown Post Office, Memorial Coliseum) that might be at least partially transformed into arts-related centers (“repurposing is very Portland,” noted West), and more.
Some potential conflicts emerged too — should investments and incentives flow primarily to the city center, or to neighborhood hubs? Should the public or private sector play the leading role? No doubt some combination of all of the above will eventuate, and the real debate will be over just how balances will be struck among various interests.
Of course in the end, it will all come down to money. Certainly, as Fish said, those homeless people outside deserve the highest priority. But Portland taxpayers have sometimes evinced a willingness to pony up for important projects when a clear need and plan are demonstrated. Judging by last week’s detailed conversation at City Club, the former is obvious to almost everyone, while some very smart and pragmatic arts advocates are well on the way toward assembling the latter. ArtsWatch looks forward to covering what promises to be an exciting and productive community conversation on affordability and the arts in the coming year. And we welcome your contribution. Listen to the discussion in the video above, and then feel free to offer your own thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below. We’ll make sure to pass them on to the advocates and policymakers represented at City Club.
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