The Candidates Forum on Arts and Culture at the Armory Building in the Pearl District on Tuesday afternoon was a tame affair.
On one hand, the five candidates there to persuade the arts community to vote for them (Stuart Emmons, Steve Novick, Amanda Fritz, Jules Bailey and Ted Wheeler) all expressed at least conditional support for the arts policy status quo. That means they said nice things about the Regional Arts & Culture Council, which administers the $5 million or so the City of Portland gives to the arts every year, and they didn’t want to trim that back if at all possible. And they all supported the Arts Tax, though they wanted to increase compliance so that the arts groups and school kids who benefited from it could receive the full amount due them.
On the the other hand, no one had exciting new programs to propose or striking new formulations about how the arts and the culture in which they are embedded serve each other now and might serve each other better in the future.
So, yes, the late afternoon forum (on the very afternoon federal and state authorities apprehended Ammon Bundy in eastern Oregon, killing onein the process) was pretty sleepy, despite the best efforts of Oregon Public Broadcasting moderator April Baer to stir things up.
That’s not to say that broad agreement about RACC and the Arts Tax isn’t welcome in the arts community. It is. But it isn’t something to celebrate wildly. Neither the $5 million nor the Arts Tax is transformative, really. They just save the city from embarrassment. I pointed out a similar consensus among a different set of candidates in both 2014 and 2012.
That consensus might not have included Steve Novick in 2012. Then he was a candidate for City Council, and he joked and blustered his way through the proceedings. When I left that candidates forum, I was under the impression that he opposed all government funding of the arts because who needs Picasso or Beethoven or Shakespeare when you have The Simpsons! Yes, he spent a lot of time extolling that splendid animated product of Portlander Matt Groening, and laughed off just about everything else.
Then during the campaign for the Arts Tax, Novick was a leading opponent of the measure, specifically of its regressive nature—everyone, rich or just above the poverty line, pays the same $35. There were good reasons for this structure, but those never seemed to penetrate. And neither did the benefits of the tax—the beginnings at least of an arts education for every school kid in the city and support of the outreach efforts of the city’s largest arts organizations. Whenever Willamette Week or The Oregonian published another anti-Arts Tax editorial (and it has been a particular obsession of my former newspaper), they quoted Novick on the arts tax: “beyond regressive” was the shortest of sound bites, after all, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Of course, The Oregonian went bonkers (a technical term) after Novick proposed a solution to the regressivity problem, one that would have levied an income tax on Portland residents and would have meant someone earning $1 million a year would have had to pay $1,500 to the arts tax. “Is there any limit to the taxes Novick would impose on those who are financially successful?” asked The Oregonian, plaintively, playing the role of guard dog for the one percent, perhaps.
On Tuesday, Novick was reasonable, on topic, and respectful. He had important observations to make about the effect of the city’s rapidly rising rental environment, both residential and commercial, on both arts groups and artists. He had pertinent examples, such as the closing of the Theater! Theatre! building. And when the question turned to the Arts Tax, he pointed out that compliance (the number of people paying the tax) was improving, and that the tax is making “a huge difference in the schools.” Now, he has a new sound bite!
I can see one problem looming for him, though: He wants to change Measure 50, which caps the rise of property taxes on a house in any given year at 3 percent, no matter what the house would now bring on the open market. Paying property tax based on the market rate would mean thousands of mostly fixed-income people, who have lived in the same house in the same neighborhood for decades, would be displaced instantly, because they can’t afford their property tax. Which is exactly why Measure 50 passed in the first place. The gentrification of Portland would finally be complete.
I only bring this up, really, to show that the discussion wandered far afield of a conversation about the arts and how they fit into Portland’s culture through the prism of arts policy. More time was spent on the housing crisis, which does indeed affect artists of all kinds, than on the arts. The reasoning went like this: Artists tend to be poor; rents are rising; elect me and I’ll help mitigate that; and that’s my arts policy. The arts and housing are not synonymous, though, and actually, that’s not really an arts policy.
Maybe you could start to piece one together by taking comments from all the candidates and mushing them together. So, Amanda Fritz had interesting things to say about preserving “maker spaces” in the inner East Side. You could extrapolate from that a policy that sought to seed all Portland neighborhoods with maker spaces, and then consider various mechanisms to do that. It’s even a creative way to approach the homeless problem.
Jules Bailey, running for mayor, suggested he’d bring back the arts liaison position to the mayor’s office (Mayor Charlie Hales dropped the position from his staff). That’s fine, but how about hiring some artists-in-residence for the city government, as Minneapolis has done, people who can work creatively on both the city’s aesthetic and its creative problem-solving. A lot of progressive city planning these days is concerned with place-making, and artists are the very best citizens to help with that task.
Bailey’s opponent, State Treasurer Ted Wheeler, had predictably interesting things to say about various funding mechanisms that might be applied to the arts, and he pointed out the job of City Council is to put the arts in front of the community. Maybe that points to neighborhood arts centers, the kind Portland had when it was far smaller and far less dependent on the creative economy for its fiscal health. And his suggestion for more gatherings of the arts community, like the forum, could be useful. I’d simply add that the “arts community” is actually many arts communities; convening them singly and together is an excellent idea, not just for the arts but for the city as a whole. Maybe the coincidence of our increasing financial health and our increasing arts scene, is more than a coincidence, and more than a correlation.
Architect and planner Stuart Emmons, running against Novick, was the only candidate on the stage without prior political experience, and his “performance” wasn’t as practiced and dynamic as everyone else’s. That’s too bad, because he has a lot of insight into the arts and the way they help a culture survive and thrive, beyond their economic and educational benefit, which everyone else acknowledged.
Among other things, we want a culture that is inclusive and fair, that allows for a wide variety of expression, that makes the value of working and playing together apparent, that can respond to shocks of all kinds, that looks forward as it preserves important lessons and values from the past, and one that preserves and refines democratic give-and-take. The arts play a direct role in all of those. Sometimes a central role. Government policy should be built around helping them do it. I know that Emmons could articulate something like this in his own way, in his own terms, and I hope he can figure out a way to do it in his campaign.
I didn’t pull that list out of thin air: I see the Malheur situation as a culture clash, and I believe that our culture is in constant need of renovation to make it more useful for more people, including Bundy and his group. Not that I blame our culture here in Portland for his decision to take over a wildlife refuge with a well-armed “militia,” an action that somehow makes sense in Bundy’s culture. But it reminded me that our culture is far from perfect, either.
For that matter, neither are our arts groups. The most generally embarrassing moment of the afternoon came when Baer asked how the candidates would help make hip-hop artists feel part of things here, too. I was impressed that Bailey instantly mentioned Portland hip-hop patriarch Cool Nutz, and somewhere in there is an arts policy that goes beyond demanding diversity of our arts groups, which we do, and serves the creative lives of people who don’t belong to our mostly downtown-based arts scene. Especially the people who have been displaced from our gentrifying/gentrified inner east side neighborhoods. Their migration would be made far easier if their artists were included in a larger plan to build new neighborhood cultures around them now.
Traditionally, the arts have been a resource accessed almost exclusively by our best-educated, wealthiest citizens. They aren’t a pastime: they are a library, a how-to book, a source of inspiration, a connection to the past, a path to further education and innovation, a solace. Among other things. These benefits should be offered to everyone, and they should be easily accessible to everyone. And that resource works best when it is more inclusive, too. Our hip-hop art belongs there; so does the art of various immigrant communities. We need it.
I guess ultimately, I was hoping the candidates would say something like that. It’s never too late.