Is leading the Oregon Arts Commission an impossible job?

A dose of democracy might help a deeply entangled agency find its way

In general, I believe that many of the most important problems that arts organizations face would be helped, if not completely solved, if they were more democratic.

I am not headed into a long disquisition on art and democracy, but as a I assemble a few thoughts on the recent history of the Oregon Arts Commission and some suggestions for its future, sparked by the firing of longtime executive director Christine D’Arcy several weeks ago, that’s one of the key principles animating my ideas.

As you might guess, by democracy, I don’t mean holding a public vote on everything. Democracy is more about encouraging your community in a continuing conversation about your organization, even and especially about its most central practical issues and philosophical ideas, listening to their thinking about them, and then responding to that thinking in a responsible way. A democratic system, at its best, will locate and promote the best solutions its community generates, and because of that democratic procedure, the solution will arrive with the improvements and support of the community, making the solution better and the execution easier.

 John Trumbull, "Declaration of Independence," 1819/Wikimedia

John Trumbull, “Declaration of Independence,” 1819/Wikimedia

I know: it sounds “utopian.” But maybe that’s because democracy is so rarely attempted, let alone practiced, in American life.

Few arts organizations are set up as democracies. They are nonprofit corporations, run by self-perpetuating boards and employing staffs that are usually (not always) run from the top down. The examples of famous autocrats who ran roughshod over their arts organizations are legion. The whole “genius” problem aids and abets this management style: For some reason, we think that the genius artistic director/music director must know best, even when we don’t want to turn ourselves over to a dictator in our public life. Crazy.

But I digress a little.

The Oregon Arts Commission is part of a practicing democracy. A very small part. Its executive director reports ultimately to the governor of the state. Practically speaking, she directly reports to another bureaucrat who reports to the governor’s office. AND she receives the advice of a set of commissioners, themselves appointed by the governor. Actually, she also runs the Oregon Cultural Trust and its staff, advised by ANOTHER set of commissioners appointed by the governor.

So, you might ask, how does  “democracy”  apply to the executive director job at the Oregon Arts Commission? Because from where I sit, the will of the people is pretty far away from this chain of command, and ultimately that’s the most simple and direct measure of the quality of a democracy and the decisions it generates. And I believe that at least part of the solution involves making the institution more democratic.

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The relative lack of importance to state government of the Oregon Arts Commission is evident in that reporting chain. One of the most frequent responses I heard from arts community people in Portland after D’Arcy’s firing was surprise that she reported to Tim McCabe, the executive director of Business Oregon, the state agency in charge of economic development matters in the state. Why was the arts person reporting to the economic development person?

Well, a little historical context. The Oregon Legislature established the OAC in 1967 during Governor Tom McCall tenure. It was a separate entity until 1993, when the legislature moved it under the wing of the Oregon Economic Development Department (reconstituted as Business Oregon). As I recall, the thinking was that arts funding would be better protected as a part of economic development than on its own, given the culture wars and the beginning of the Great Divide between the two major political parties. It has been there ever since.

D’Arcy started as executive director the next year, so for 19 years we haven’t had a reminder about this ‘90s era political maneuver and the bureaucratic structure it generated.

Business Oregon also has a board of commissioners as does another of its divisions, the Infrastructure Finance Authority. So, D’Arcy’s performance was evaluated by her own two boards (arts commission and cultural trust) plus the Business Oregon’s commission, though her immediate boss was McCabe, who reports to the Governor.

I looked at the Business Oregon board of commissioners and even recognized a few of its members, but I wouldn’t say they represent…what? The people of Oregon? The best available thinking about economic development in the state? The first is impossible without an election, and the second would be hard to judge, though I doubt it seriously. Wouldn’t you want Joe Cortright on such a board if you were going for “best available thinking”? Among others.

I am a little better acquainted with the arts commission board, enough to know that most of them know a lot about various sectors of the arts but not enough to know how “representative” they are. Representative of whom, you might ask, and I’d have to say I’m not sure. The public at large? Artists? Major arts organizations? And if all of the above, in what order or percentage? And in any case they are there mainly to deal with the grants process and give advice on arts policy to the governor and executive director. They don’t have the authority the board of the Oregon Symphony, say, has over its executive director.

How important have the arts been to Governor Kitzhaber and his predecessors? Well, there’s no getting around that the funding level for the arts by the state has always been very low, though for some governors the arts have had a little more visibility than others, maybe peaking with Governor Goldschmidt, if my memory serves? (I know we aren’t supposed to attach his name to positive achievements.) And the Oregon Legislature hasn’t been a champion of the arts, either, though earlier this year they did extend the mandate of the Oregon Cultural Trust. Just keeping an arts funding source alive is cause for celebration, I suppose.

My point is simply that the arts haven’t been a front burner item in Salem, and it has been a struggle to give them any heat at all. These are our elected representatives, and they have by and large, with some major exceptions, ignored or actively opposed state support for the arts. The two arts boards the governor has appointed work hard, but their own power and influence has historically been small.  And there’s the unanswered and unasked, at least publicly, question of  what constituencies and/or interests they represent.

As a result, even as someone who has followed the arts in Oregon pretty closely for the past 34 years or so, I can’t readily articulate what the mission or the driving philosophy behind the Oregon Arts Commission are. To get as much money from the legislature as possible and distribute it—along with the money that comes from the National Endowment for the Arts—fairly to major arts institutions in the state? Well, mostly, though I know the small amount of money they distribute is divided other ways, too, for other missions.

The problem is that I, as a citizen, haven’t been asked about it, directly, so I haven’t had to answer key central questions: What is the role of state government in the arts? Where do I think the money should go? How much money do I think is reasonable to spend? Who should determine these things? And then I haven’t had to defend my ideas or question those of others. Which is how a successful democracy arrives at good solutions and directions.

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One of the people I talked to about this situation (and I talked to several, few of whom wanted to be on the record because they are knowledgeable exactly because they are deeply enmeshed in arts politics) reminded me of the historical context of the Oregon Arts Commission and government support of the arts in Oregon. It’s woeful.

For many years we ranked near the absolute bottom of support for the arts in US states and territories. By 2010, we’d climbed to 36th of 53, but primarily because other states dived beneath us after the Great Recession. Still, our $.55 per capita was less than half of what Louisiana provided and less than a tenth of Minnesota’s arts budget, the highest of any state (the District of Columbia’s  at $11.11 per capita tops the chart). (In the last decade the nadir was reached in Fiscal Year 2005 when the legislature dropped $584,337 into the pot, which was less than $.20 per capita.)

For the past few years we’ve hovered around the same level, this year reaching $.57 per capita. The national average is $.97, and again, because of the dives of other states, our standing has actually risen a couple of notches to 32nd.

Now, until last year, you might have persuaded me that this low level of support for the commission actually represented “the will of the people,” that the majority of Oregonians were satisfied with giving the arts a couple of quarters out of their state taxes. I can be just as pessimistic as the next guy when it comes to the wisdom of our politics, and in 2009 I’d seen the legislature raid $1.8 million from the Oregon Cultural Trust fund generated from selling “culture” licence plates in 2009. With impunity. Without outcry.

But then in 2012, Portland passed the Arts Tax measure, which was a combination arts education and arts organization support measure. We won’t go into that measure at great length here because we’ve done it before. The raw numbers were $35 per taxpaying adult over the federal poverty line and more than 62 percent of Portland voters in favor, with majorities in nearly every single precinct, regardless of demographics.

This convinced me that a reservoir of support for the arts existed in the city that I didn’t appreciate before.  Does it extend beyond the city limits? And what if we asked for for $5 (like Minnesota) instead of $35?  Would the state favor such a small boost for the arts? My wager would be “yes,” assuming a decent campaign could be mustered and that it was clear what the money would be buying.

During her 19 years as the head of the Oregon Arts Commission, though, D’Arcy had to deal with a legislature, whether run by Democrats or Republicans, that for whatever reasons decided that those two quarters, that 50 cents, was ample for the arts. And getting those four bits per capita out of them wasn’t easy, either.

Until the Arts Tax passed in Portland, that state of affairs extended to the counties and cities of Oregon as well. Funding for the arts in the US comes from individual and corporate donations, foundations, and the government, in addition to earned income from ticket revenue and other sources. We know that corporate giving to the arts is limited here (though huzzah to those who do). Foundation giving waxes and wanes (waxing a bit now thanks to a major gift to the Oregon Community Foundation by the Fred Fields last year). And Oregon individuals are middle of the pack when it comes to charitable giving as a whole.

The overall landscape for arts funding in Oregon, in short, has been poor to middling, and it hasn’t been a political “winner” for anyone, either. (Except for former Mayor Sam Adams: Some of his biggest accomplishments involved the arts, one way or another.)

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By now you may have figured out that I’m not going to weigh in on the firing of D’Arcy, except to say that surely it could have been handled more diplomatically. I know. These days the thinking is to get the newly ex-employee out of the building as fast as possible,  take the potential PR hit up front, and move on. Maybe from a risk management perspective that’s considered smart because you avoid the tiny percentage of the time someone goes ballistic. I actually don’t know. In this case, the haste  just didn’t seem…I don’t know…gracious?

In the crosshairs of various vectors of power (the legislature, the bureaucracy, her own boards, various governors) within a culture that was indifferent to the arts, D’Arcy’s situation was difficult at best. Add the rumblings of discontent about levels of state funding for the arts from a restless, occasionally desperate, but nonetheless growing arts community around the state? Maybe it moves to impossible.

Will D’Arcy’s successor manage it better? I don’t think she should be asked to. And that’s the subject we’ll treat on Monday—how we might organize the arts commission and the cultural trust going forward.

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