Oregon Cultural Trust: Giving once is giving twice

Double your gift to the state's arts and cultural organizations without forking over more money? Such a deal!

When I visited the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in July this year, the temperatures were on the hot side, but unlike a few previous years, the air was clean and at night, quite pleasant and fresh. Given the vast conflagrations in California earlier in the summer, I thought the festival might just miss the smoky days that had plagued its productions sporadically earlier in the decade. I knocked on wood, but I failed to throw salt over my shoulder.

The subsequent outburst of forest fires in northern California (creeping into Oregon) and Washington started filling up the Rogue Valley with smoke later that month—the source of the smoke alternating with wind direction—and continued into September. If you’ve been to Ashland for the festival, you know the largest theater on the campus, the Allen Elizabethan Theatre, is open to the skies and the smoke. As a result, the festival had to cancel or move (to a much smaller indoor theater) 26 productions from that 1,190-seat theater—more than they have had to cancel or move a production in the past five years combined.

Detail from Sheryl LeBlanc’s “Fire in the Log Yard.” Photo: Jon Christopher Meyers

The company figures that the cost of all that smoke is in the neighborhood of $2 million. I would add the phrase, “at least.” No one can determine exactly how many visitors decided to skip a spur-of-the-moment trip to Ashland because of all that smoke. That’s too bad, financially for the festival, of course, but also because a lot of people missed some excellent productions. From my point of view, this season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was the best as a whole that I’ve ever seen, and I go back to the early 1980s (with a few missing years, here and there).

Lucinda Parker, “Slash Fire, 2017, acrylic on canvas, 48” x 36”

Now, I’m about to suggest that if you’ve enjoyed the festival before, hope to enjoy it in the future, or just acknowledge that its existence is good for the state and the country, you might contribute some money to help the company get past this particular disaster. (You can contribute online: https://www.osfashland.org/Rising.) But I’m going to impose on your good will a bit more.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with a total budget around $40 million, has by far the largest budget of any arts organization in the state. A $2 million revenue hit would crash almost any of them—of course, only a very small percentage of arts organizations in the state have budgets in excess of $2 million. Most of those are especially fragile, even in an economy as strong as Oregon’s is right now, because they lack endowments or sufficient cash reserves that could buffer them from sudden financial upsets. (The confluence of a major national recession and a big snowstorm in Portland during “Nutcracker” season almost pushed Oregon Ballet Theatre over the edge in 2009, for example).

So, right, here’s the ask: If you have the funds and disposition to give, please donate to your favorite arts and culture organizations this holiday season, including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. They depend on it, and small gifts are welcome. Oregon ArtsWatch itself is a nonprofit organization, and we know how important small gifts are: The entire ethos and economy of both Oregon arts groups and nonprofit arts journalism sites involves doing a lot with a little—and doing TONS with more.

But don’t stop there!

Although the state government of Oregon has always (and I mean always) had a middling-to-awful record for supporting the arts—when it hasn’t been downright abysmal—there IS a unique provision in our tax code that gives us a chance to make up for the state legislature’s reluctance to fund the arts sufficiently. It essentially allows us to double up the gift we made, figuratively, in the previous paragraph, without donating a penny more.

Although it’s been around for awhile now, many of us don’t take advantage of it. Many do: Oregonians invested more than $4.9 million in the Oregon Cultural Trust in 2017, after all. For good reason. The Trust distributes money to every corner of the state, and funds tribal and historical organizations as well. So, if you’re taking advantage already, this is just a refresher.

The process isn’t hard, but it does involve a few steps. And the subject of incomes taxes instantly triggers my flight reflex. Get me out of here! But relax: We can do this!

  • It starts with a gift to one or more of the 1,500 or so arts and cultural groups in the state. You can find the list of qualifying groups on the Trust’s website (https://culturaltrust.org/), though nearly any group you can think of qualifies.
  • Match the gift with a donation to the Cultural Trust. You can do it online. You will be provided with a confirmation screen you can print for your records to claim your tax credit. Or you can donate by telephone (503-986-0088).
  • Claim your entire contribution to the Trust as a tax credit on your Oregon income tax—up to $500 for an individual, $1,000 for couples filing jointly, and $2,500 for corporations.
  • Much of that money will be distributed to Oregon cultural groups directly, and some will go to the Trust’s permanent fund.

Let’s boil that down: We gift our favorite arts group(s), we give to the Cultural Trust, we take a tax credit for the gift to the Trust (and to the arts groups), we enjoy great art the rest of the year. That means we give the Shakespeare festival the breathing room to figure out the smoke problem for the future, and we add to the resilience of other cultural groups around the state.

That’s my idea of Happy Holidays (along with a gooey fruit cake), good tax policy, and cultural repair.

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