Introducing Oregon’s new Secretary of the Arts: A proposal

It's time for Salem to catch up with the public on the importance of the arts

From Friday’s ArtsWatch story, perhaps it became apparent how daunting a task Christine D’Arcy faced as the executive director of the Oregon Arts Commission and Oregon Cultural Trust. That was the intention, anyway.

D’Arcy, regardless of her set of strengths and shortcomings as ED, had an impossible mission meeting the wishes, so far as she could determine them, of so many masters. Buried deep on the bureaucratic flow chart, she had to contend with a legislature that really didn’t want to think about the arts most of the time, various governors with varying degrees of interest, with two small staffs administering grants panels giving small amounts of money to many open mouths, two boards of advisors without true oversight power, an arts community growing larger and more vocal, and a divided public, some increasingly aware of the importance of the arts, but unable to do much about it in the public arena, and others adamantly opposed for ideological reasons to funding the arts at all.

Time for a shake-up.

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If D’Arcy’s job is impossible, then we should create a position that is. Two key premises going into this set of proposals: 1) The public is far ahead of their representatives in understanding the importance of funding the arts and making them more available throughout the culture, and 2) we should reward them by making the institutions serving the arts more democratic, which happily is often the beginning of making them better.

Let’s begin with a numbered list.

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1. The Governor and Legislature should create a “cabinet”-level position that oversees the Oregon Arts Commission and Oregon Cultural Trust, develops and seeks to implement wider policies concerning cultural policy in the state, and works to integrate the arts and artists into all the state’s other departments.

2. The House of Representatives should create a standing committee to deal with issues related to arts, culture, and design.

3. Abolish the boards of the OAC and OCT.

4. Create an advisory board for the arts from existing arts constituencies.

5. Develop a “matrix,” however incomplete, that measures such key components of arts policy as levels of participation, accessibility, diversity, availability of education (at all levels), and the importance of the arts to economic development.

6. Develop a budget that has a chance to budge the needle in a positive direction on that matrix.

And now we’ll discuss them in order.

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Clearly, I think that the arts and the health of the culture in general are far more important than nearly all of the people representing and/or serving us in Salem do. In fact, like the great American philosopher John Dewey, I think they are central to what we do, not dessert but the main meal. Look around you, and just about everything you encounter has been touched by the arts somehow, from the design of your bed to the rhetoric you employ at work to make your case. You can read the ArtsWatch “ABOUT” essay for a greater elaboration of this idea, which itself is deeply influenced by Dewey’s “Art as Experience.”

And as I wrote Friday, I think this sense of the right proportion for the arts is far more common than I once believed it was. I think that our representatives and servants are not reflecting the general thinking on the importance of the arts in the state. So this set of suggestions is an attempt to give that “general thinking” some shape, extend the discussion further, and sharpen it into a government structure.

The Governor and Legislature should create a “cabinet”-level arts position.

Maybe I don’t understand the process correctly, but I think the Legislature would have to pass legislation that reorganized the bureaucratic flow chart to dislodge the arts from Business Oregon and create a new “Secretary of Arts and Culture,” who reports directly to the governor. Oregon doesn’t actually have a Cabinet with Secretaries who oversee the bureaucracies beneath them, which may be a mistake. We’ll call the position Secretary of the Arts, though it probably would be director of the Department of Arts and Culture (or something like that).

The new Secretary would oversee a department that includes the functions of the arts commission, cultural trust, and other initiatives the state needs (my list is pretty long, as you can imagine, and it involves increasing the opportunities to learn, make, and enjoy art at the neighborhood and small town-level). More than that, the Secretary would work with the legislature to develop and sell various ideas and with other department heads to make sure art and artists and designers were able to sit at the table whenever education, the environment, transportation or public safety were discussed. And maybe more important than all of these, the Secretary would lead the discussion about the arts and culture across the state, listening and suggesting and making arguments.

I think we want more than a good internal manager for the job. We need someone with passion for and wide experience in the arts, who understands a little about how culture works and changes, and then can help to figure out how to translate that to public policy. In some ways, the Secretary would be the leading arts politician in the state, first, and needs the skills appropriate to that task.

The House of Representatives should create a standing committee to deal with issues related to arts, culture and design.

Successful arts policies need the creativity of our representatives to shape and improve them. The arguments for their effectiveness need to be tested by them. And ultimately, they need the support of knowledgeable legislators to lobby the rest of the House and Senate.

A successful Secretary of Arts should be part of the process that convinces the legislature that it needs a committee dedicated to improving the condition of the arts and design in the state. This shouldn’t be that hard: The arts commission has done a good job of figuring out the needs of rural counties and sending money their way, for example, so the typical rural/urban split shouldn’t be quite so corrosive. Studies that show the advantages of educating our kids in the arts, the importance of the arts as part of the creative economy, the way they work to create livable neighborhoods with lower crime and better self-regard, and the way they come to symbolize us and our places, should be convincing, even in the toxic ideology-driven debates of Salem. But really, I’m not trying to “prove” that these ideas are probable (I’m not THAT naive): I’m just arguing that they are necessary.

Abolish the boards of the OAC and OCT.

This one doesn’t SOUND democratic, but then, I don’t think boards are all that democratic to begin with. Oregon has more than 300 of them scattered hither and yon through the bureaucracy, some with real power, some merely ornamental. To me, they seem to be a strategy to make it seem as though there is more citizen participation in the government than there really is.

When it comes down to it, no governor is ever going to lose her job because she makes bad appointments to these boards, which is the same thing as saying that they aren’t accountable to the people they’re supposed to serve.

I’m not diminishing the hard work and good ideas of the boards of the Oregon Arts Commission and the Oregon Cultural Trust over the years. I just don’t think it’s clear who they represent or why they were selected and over whom. And I don’t think it’s clear how they themselves are evaluated.

If they are kept, I think this set of issues needs to be addressed somehow. Maybe by taking nominations for the board from the public, having them “campaign” online by communicating their background and set of interests and major concerns, and then having an advisory vote online that the governor would take into consideration when filling the spots.

The staffs would remain, of course, preferably larger, and perhaps run by an executive director, who reports to the Secretary of the Arts.

Create an advisory board for the arts from existing arts constituencies.

This is a replacement of sorts for the boards. A successful Secretary of the Arts would want to bring together an advisory committee, and it would help if that advisory committee include representatives of the House committee, the staff of the arts department, local arts commissions, arts institutions (big and small), various artist professional groups, arts students (of various ages), arts teachers (of various sorts of schools) foundations, and volunteers who support the arts. I’m undoubtedly leaving out some other important sector.

These representatives wouldn’t necessarily agree on everything. In fact, they often oppose each other. But that makes recommendations that they agree to make all the stronger. This sounds like a big group to me, and I’d understand if the Secretary wanted an “executive committee” created by the group.

Develop ways to measure levels of participation, accessibility, diversity, availability of education (at all levels), and the importance of the arts to economic development, among others.

How do we measure the success of any given Secretary of the Arts and/or the performance of state government as a whole around the arts? We need to develop a way to do some testing of our efforts, starting with a baseline. The size of the grant we give the Oregon Shakespeare Festival shouldn’t be how we measure success, though the numbers of kids the festival reaches is. The Arts Tax greatly increased the number of kids receiving regular arts instruction, which would make the needle on that particular graph jump wildly upward! Sure, we should measure the efficacy of the particular programs and initiatives the state funds. But the general situation is even more critical to understand. And the more granular our data gets, the better.

Once we have the data, then we can develop goals, right? And once we have goals, short-term and long, we can…

Develop a budget that has a chance to budge the needle in a positive direction.

Sometimes it’s going to take real money to move it, especially when it comes to education or seeding community arts centers around the state or helping colleges and universities create better programs in the arts and design. I deliberately selected things that you might NOT funnel money through the arts department to execute, though I can imagine a Department of Arts that would help in various ways. (OK, yeah, silo-ing and departmental antagonism, etc.)

But some of them would need more money than the paltry $.57 per capita we provide now. As the suggestions for funding bubble through the system I’ve described, though, they’ll be aggregating support as they rise. I don’t know what a reasonable overall request would be. A first step would be just to get us up to the national average, which is a little less than a buck ($.97), and then see where the support is for more. But clearly, the budget as it is, is far too low.

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I haven’t discussed the things I would attempt to ramrod through such a structure, the things I really believe in. For example, I think that if the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Governor’s office had an artist/designer sitting in on the planning meetings for the Columbia River Crossing, that artist would have warned them that idea was too big to work. They wouldn’t have listened, but they would have been warned. And I think that money the public invested in arts and crafts centers in Glenfair, Wilkes or Argay, just to pick out three east Portland neighborhoods, would reap the richest possible rewards. I think the same about the state’s poorest counties.

Right now, though, I have no forum for these arguments other than Oregon ArtsWatch, which is great and all, but doesn’t actually include a mechanism for accomplishing these things!

That’s the point. We need a forum and a platform and a mechanism. State government is a great place for it to happen, because the effects are so wide-ranging. I’d extend the argument and say that Portland Mayor Charlie Hales should have a Secretary of the Arts on his staff, too, and that municipal and county governments around the state should be thinking along these lines.

The great thing about bringing artists to your discussions? They are used to making great things from the smallest resources. Government and business (not just individuals) could learn a lot from them.

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I know each of these proposals conceals a massive amount of heavy political lifting. I’m certain they can be improved, modified, adjusted to make them work better. And I’m not certain anyone in Salem now has the inclination or the power to venture down this road.

Instead, D’Arcy will be replaced, likely by a promising employee of the bureaucracy now, one with some sympathy for the arts. And ArtsWatch will wish her well.

But I don’t think the most energetic and skillful bureaucrat in Salem could give us what we really need, operating within the current system.

2 Responses.

  1. Right on, Barry, but you don’t go far enough. The work and thinking of artists and their arts organizations are pervasive across each state. However, we artists typically eschew government except to apply for grants. The creative class and their supporters must get involved with government as policy makers. The work of arts awareness is bottom up as well as top down. Only connect!

    • Barry Johnson says:

      I couldn’t agree more, Helen! Minneapolis, for example, has an artist-in-residence whose job is to figure out how to bring artists into various government processes as well as the planning of regular civic events. Seems to work great there. That’s one of the things I had on my mind when I talked about “bringing artists to the table” in the post.

Comments are closed.

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