Last night candidates for open Portland City Council and Multnomah County Commission appeared before a very sparse â€ścrowdâ€ť at Portland Center Stage to participate in a Forum for the Arts. In general, it went better than the one two years ago. None of the candidates suggested that government funding for the arts was crazy, for example. And none of them tried to clown his way through the evening. Both happened last time, and one of those candidates actually won his race.
But we are still in the early days of learning how to have a fruitful conversation about the role of the arts in local culture and how we can address the issues that arise around them. In truth I could substitute â€śtransportationâ€ť or â€śeducationâ€ť or â€śeconomic developmentâ€ť for â€śthe artsâ€ť in that sentence and it would still be true, but maybe my standard for â€śfruitful conversationâ€ť is impossibly high.
Iâ€™m going to get to what the candidates actually said in a moment, but first, a hypothetical question. Letâ€™s say you are persuaded that the arts are importantâ€”in education, for individuals, for the economy, even for the transmission of central ideas about what it means to be human. Maybe that became apparent to you from your own experience walking through the world or maybe you read one of the many studies that have suggested the same. Hereâ€™s the question: How would you go about developing policies that would integrate them more deeply into the larger culture?
Maybe youâ€™d talk to some artists about what they do, what they need, what they have to give. Maybe youâ€™d talk to some kids in arts classes about the same things. And to their parents about their own access to art-making and the art achievements of others. And to â€śordinaryâ€ť people about what they need and want and are willing to pay for. Ordinary is in quotes, because one of the great and paradoxical lessons of the arts is that none of us is â€śordinaryâ€ť and still we can find deep understanding, commonality, with our fellows.
Evidence of THAT sort of fruitful conversation was missing from the Forum on the Arts Monday night. The discussion was general, and though the expressions of support for the value proposition of the arts sounded heartfelt, they werenâ€™t backed up by the ideas that fruitful conversation, even one of them, would have generated. So, one candidate mentioned live-work space for artistsâ€”which sounds plausibleâ€”but didnâ€™t offer details: Where should that space be, how can we surmount the massive obstacle of current zoning restrictions and the bureaucracy that enforces them, are they rent-subsidized spaces and if they are, what should we expect back from the artists in return? The list is a long one, and for many of them, the artists themselves have at least part of the best answers.
Now, I donâ€™t think we can expect that situating the arts at the center of the culture (or at the top, as philosopher John Dewey insisted were their rightful place) will be the first priority of any particular candidate. Even an artist running for office (and I think artists would make great candidates: practical, used to making a lot out of very little, communicators, process oriented, etc.) might not do that. And the candidates made it clear that they had other priorities, right from the start.
City Council candidates
Nicholas Caleb, running for City Council against incumbent Dan Saltzman, started his pitch to the arts folk in attendance by talking about some of the disastrous effects of global capitalism, specifically around the destruction of Portland neighborhoods and the displacement of their residents. This process exiled the people who had created the culture in the first place, he pointed out. He had some smart things to say about how the culture we create doesnâ€™t have to be commodified, which came from his interest in the creative commons (things we can share without worrying about copyrights), too, but he didnâ€™t quite make some obvious links to policy possibilities: The arts, rightly, should be considered a â€ścommon,â€ť something all of us should be able to use and contribute to, and addressing ways to make them truly open and accessible is critical in the same way that making internet access should be (but isnâ€™t).
If the forum had involved questions and answers, I would have asked Saltzman why he put Portland Playhouse, a neighborhood theater company on NE Prescott St., through a disruptive and almost disastrously expensive 6-month relocation instead of overruling the bureaucratic decision that evicted them (temporarily, thank goodness) from their home. Thatâ€™s exactly the kind of ground level help the arts and arts organizations need: Why didnâ€™t he help? Instead, at the forum, he claimed some credit for supporting the Arts Tax, which funds both art classes for Portland elementary school children and greater accessibility to arts events from Portlanders, though I donâ€™t remember him campaigning for it in 2012. Victory has many fathers, we know. He mentioned his continuing support of the Regional Arts and Culture Council budget, and heâ€™s the candidate who brought up live-work space, but then dropped it almost immediately.
Sharon Maxwell, running against Nick Fish, made arguments similar to Calebâ€™s: The city should be doing more to preserve the culture it has, meaning develop policies to combat the effects of rapid, capital-intensive development, otherwise known as gentrification, though that particular word rarely came up. Her catchphrase involved the invocation of Portlandâ€™s 95 neighborhood neighborhoods, an important reminder that the arts arenâ€™t distributed evenly across the city, and she observed that Oregonâ€™s poor history of funding for education needed to be corrected so that arts, among other things, could be an integral part of the curriculum.
Fish, who is the city commissioner in charge of the arts, had the best grasp of the immediate arts situation on the ground and how important it is to collaborate with other agencies to achieve results. He brought up the Portland Development Commissionâ€™s role in helping finance the renovation of the 511 Broadway Building by Pacific Northwest College of Art, for example. Like Saltzman he brought up his support of the Arts Tax and support for RACC through the recession, and he also gave a shout-out to former mayor Sam Adams for driving them both. Fish asked, â€śHow can we become the creative capital on the West Coast?â€ť And I was looking for more specificsâ€”more products of fruitful conversationâ€”from him to answer the question. If the Arts Tax and RACC can be seen as an identification (and partial satisfaction) of specific needs, how do we build on them, what other needs might we have, where do we go from here?
County Commission candidates
The county commission candidates were light on specifics, too, though they were good at describing the need for arts and the value of arts in their own lives. Mostly, they focused on linking the arts to county government functions, such as housing, mental health and the criminal justice system, without really addressing how to increase the linkage or shape it to be more effective.
Teressa Raiford came close to being an exception, when she talked about her personal experience as a consultant helping artists manage their businesses, for example, and observed how in her own life the arts had been a way for people of all races to come together, popular arts in the park. She struck me as a very practical person, too, so driving some policy proposals from her observations doesnâ€™t seem like a stretch. Yes, artists ARE small businesses, and developing ways for them to learn about bookkeeping, taxes, licensing, marketing, etc., might be a great idea: You just have to ask them to find out. And designating some public spaces for the creation and enjoyment of arts, especially in the underserved neighborhoods of east Multnomah County, is an interesting idea that just requires a lot of fleshing out.
Raifordâ€™s opponent in District 2 is incumbent Loretta Smith, whose story about the importance of a production of Lorraine Hansberryâ€™s A Raisin in the Sun to her when she was a student at Oregon State University was the dramatic highlight of the evening. The story led her to some thoughts about â€śculturally specificâ€ť arts, but they were not developed into a program of any sort, though I would argue that she is exactly right about their importance. Frankly, A Raisin in the Sun positively affects student brains in ways that The Importance of Being Earnest wonâ€™t, and I donâ€™t just mean those of African American students.
Jules Bailey, running in District 1, presented the clearest, most coherent argument for the importance of the arts and his own involvement in them, going back to his days at the Metropolitan Youth Symphony and then the Oregon legislature, where he supported the extension of the Oregon Cultural Trustâ€™s tax credit and arts education efforts. And he talked about watching a hip-hop artist work with kids in a detention center. Yes, hip-hop shouldnâ€™t be a crime, and in fact, it can be a solution to crime, an amazing thought.
His opponent Brian Wilson, whose sense of humor was greatly appreciated as the forum wore on, is on the board of Portland Center Stage, so this was home ground for him in many ways. I liked his sketch of possibilities for expanding and utilizing the intrinsic power of the arts, though again, as with Bailey, proposals were in short supply.
Jim Francesconi is running for County Chair, and his broad experience with the arts via the SUN Community Schools program gave him both a specific proposal and an achievement to run on. The arts arenâ€™t central to SUN as I understand it, but they are part of the thrust of the after-school programâ€™s curriculum. He also mentioned in passing another revolutionary idea: Why not include artists on the various boards, panels and advisory panels that report to the County Commission? Why not, indeed! I might have added, â€śand hire a resident artist at the county to help us figure out ways to incorporate art and include artists in our projects and decisions in low-cost ways.â€ť
Deborah Kafoury, Francesconiâ€™s opponent, had a hard time linking her primary issue, homelessness, to the arts, though she agreed with Francesconi on funding for SUN schools, expanding the Right Brain Initiative (an artist-in-the-schools instructional program) to East County, continuing to fund the Regional Arts and Culture Council, and the importance of partnerships.
Wrapping it up
Again, I donâ€™t expect the candidates to come up with fully fledged programs on their own, necessarily. But I do hope that they will talk to actual artists (a large, diverse group, operating in many media, from comic books to symphony orchestras, and the full spectrum of skill levels and experience) about their world and how to encourage their activity, just as I would hope theyâ€™d talk to teachers and students about education, nurses, doctors and patients about health care, and business owners about economic development.
Not intending to damn with faint praise: I did enjoy hearing the candidates talk about the arts, and I thought as a group they were personable and interesting. I wish more people in the arts community had been there to meet them, both as a show of strength (Mayor Sam Adams proved the importance of that) and just for the chance to encounter the people who are going to be entrusted with leadership in the arts in Portland and Multnomah County going forward.
Nick Fish from his vantage point administering the arts on City Council observed that this might be a watershed time for the arts in Portland and for the culture as a whole, whether our current blossoming is going to continue or not. I agree with many of the candidates that the answer to this depends on how economic forces and our cultural values play out. But I also think that it works the other way, too, that the arts will help determine those values and the extent and shape of those economic forces. And for me, thatâ€™s where the good conversation actually begins.