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$50 million? It’s a beginning

ArtsWatch Weekly: An emergency lifeline to Oregon's cultural sector staves off disaster. But the problem's still urgent.


FIFTY MILLION DOLLARS SOUNDS LIKE A LOT. AND IT IS. But spread it across the entire state of Oregon to aid a cultural infrastructure devastated economically by pandemic shutdowns and the cash runs out pretty quickly. The Legislature’s Joint Emergency Board approved the bailout on Tuesday, as part of a $200 million general economic package distributed by the state through the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund. The significant cultural part of the package came after a spirited lobbying push by groups and individuals, and notably recognized an economic truth that is often overlooked: Cultural workers are workers, and when they lose work they undergo the same stresses as anyone else thrown out of a job. “People who work in cultural organizations have families, have to pay the mortgage or the rent, have children to feed,” Brian Rogers, executive director of the Oregon Cultural Trust and the Oregon Arts Commission, said in a telephone conversation on Wednesday. “Without these funds coming in, these organizations are having a difficult time.”

The Emergency Board, and the state itself, can’t solve all the problems of the reeling cultural sector by themselves. The $50 million E Board allocation is exactly what it says it is – an emergency measure, meant to lend a significant hand during a disaster and help stave off collapse. It can’t magically make up the lost income of an entire industry that’s been hit exceptionally hard by the pandemic. A statewide Cultural Trust survey in May projected a $40 million loss by June 30 for the 330 cultural groups (out of more than 1,400 that the Trust tracks) that responded. It’s now mid-July, with no clear end in sight, and the losses keep piling up. For perspective, the $4.71 million that the E Board is delivering to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which got the biggest allocation granted, covers a little more than 10 percent of the festival’s annual budget.

Everything’s coming up virtual. The 70-year-old Salem Art Association Art Fair and Festival, pictured in a previous year, becomes a virtual event this year, celebrated long-distance on Saturday and Sunday, July 18-19. Photo courtesy Oregon Cultural Trust 

As befits an emergency situation, the E Board’s allocation is a swiftly moving train. Of the $50 million, about $26 million hasn’t yet been allocated – it’ll move through county and tribal boards, with input from the statewide Cultural Trust. All of that money is expected to go to nonprofit organizations and venues. Final decisions will be reviewed at a Cultural Trust board meeting a week from now, on July 23, and according to federal guidelines all of the money must be distributed by Sept. 15. While the Cultural Trust hasn’t had a direct role so far in deciding who gets what, the Trust has two priorities, Rogers said. The first is equity – distributing money in geographic and population-density ways that consider access for all of the state’s citizens. “The other is to be accountable. Because it is federal money. And we have to be sure we meet the requirements of the Treasury.”

Inevitably, there will be arguments about the priorities set. So far, the money is flowing mostly to performance groups and venues, not to cultural centers or museums. That could change in the considerable jockeying for the final $26 million. Decisions on who gets how much are being made in a variety of ways. The nine large organizations that received more than $14 million among them worked directly with the Legislature, the Cultural Trust said Thursday morning. The 78 groups and performance venues that will split a little less than $10 million were chosen and coordinated with the Legislature by an Independent Venue Coalition. 

Notably left out so far have been the state’s art and cultural museums. The High Desert Museum in Bend is the only such institution so far guaranteed money – $700,000, its full request, which is expected to cover half of its personnel costs for seven months. The High Desert’s executive director, Dana Whitelaw, and Brian Ferriso, executive director of the Portland Art Museum, had sent a joint letter to the Legislature asking for aid – in the Portland museum’s case, $1.3 million, which would have covered 30 percent of personnel costs for seven months. PAM, the state’s largest art museum, was passed over, and no money has been allotted so far to Salem’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, the Coos Art Museum in Coos Bay, the Warm Springs Museum, the Favell Museum in Klamath Falls, the Grants Pass Museum of Art, Ashland’s Schneider Museum of Art, or any others. Also underrepresented so far are the state’s many local and regional cultural centers, most of which offer performance, visual art, and education programs.

Museums, which can more easily handle social distancing, are reopening more quickly than theaters and music halls, which no doubt will have very long waits before they can invite audiences inside their doors again, especially considering the recent spikes in deaths and infections across Oregon and in many other parts of the United States. That might have something to do with the skew in emergency funding toward performance. But, as Portland Art Museum spokesman Ian Gillingham noted during a telephone interview on Wednesday, reopening is a mixed blessing economically. “Just because we’re reopening doesn’t mean we’re making money,” he said. “When we reopen we’re running a deficit of $400,000 a month to continue our mission and welcome the public back into the galleries.” The museum’s monthly payroll before the shutdown in March was $800,000; as at so many other cultural institutions, there have been many furloughs and then layoffs since. Part of the shortfall comes from the necessity for timed entry with strict caps on the number of people allowed in the space at any one time. In PAM’s case, that means 250 people at the most in the buildings at any one time, about 50 of whom are employees.

The Portland Art Museum reopens to visitors today, and along with it the exhibition “Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art.” Above: Henk Pander, “Eruption of Saint Helens from Cable Street,” 1981. Oil on linen. City of Portland Public Art Collection, courtesy of the Regional Arts and Culture Council, L2019.45.1

Still, the Portland museum is reopening today, with free admission for the next four days. It will cut costs by keeping many of its galleries closed, offering access to its its big featured temporary exhibits – a Robert Colescott retrospective and the large Volcano! exhibition centering on art about Mount St. Helens, and contemporary collections in the Mark Building.

Other small rays of sunlight can be seen peeking through the gloom. The Cultural Trust, which raises its money through donations that taxpayers can then have deducted from their state income tax bills, is doing relatively well. “We’re up a little bit,” Rogers said. “People seem to understand the worth of what we do, and they’ve been generous.” On the other hand, the Trust is working off of what it raised during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2020 – a year whose first eight months came before the pandemic crunch. Whether donations will stay high in the current fiscal year, in which Covid-19’s economic effects presumably will be much deeper, isn’t known yet.

In the meantime, and in spite of that big fat $50 million lifeline, don’t be expecting any waving of magical wands. “It’s all about rebuiding,” Rogers said. “It took years after the (2007-09) recession for cultural institutions to build back to where they’d been before.”


Veteran pianist Michael Allen Harrison and his frequent collaborator, vocalist Julianne Johnson. Harrison and his Snowman Foundation have been supporting music education in Oregon for twenty years. Now, with schools shut down, they’re Zooming into the music-education future.  

WHILE THE PANDEMIC HAS BEEN PLAYING HAVOC with the economics and availability of arts and culture across Oregon and the world, arts education – the future of the arts, and an integral tool for learning in all sorts of fields – has been suffering for decades from lack of funding and school system neglect. In two new chapters from ArtsWatch’s occasional series “The Art of Learning,” Brett Campbell takes a deep look at a pair of programs that are doing things right: 

  • In Play it forward: restoring music education, Campbell talks with Michael Allen Harrison, the veteran Oregon pianist and composer, who’s spent more than twenty years raising money for music education and creating practical, imaginative solutions through his Snowman Foundation, Ten Grands annual fundraising event, and now his Play It Forward program. Campbell writes:  “(A)s his own star rose, Harrison watched with disappointment and then alarm as his home state systematically dismantled the public school arts education system that had so enriched his life and helped him create the music that delighted so many listeners. Harrison decided to do something about it. He resolved to help restore access to music education to Oregonians who couldn’t afford it.” 
  • And in Passing the Torch, Campbell looks at a program that’s successfully doing just that – Cascadia Composers’ innovative “In Good Hands” program, which matches contemporary composers with young aspiring pianists. The kids learn from the composers, and the composers learn from the kids. Campbell writes: “Irene Huang said students like ‘melody, melody, melody.’ If it doesn’t have a melody, kids don’t want to play it. They also like consistent and driving rhythm. It has to have one of those two, and it’s best if it has both.”
Cascadia Composers’ “In Good Hands” program connects young students with contemporary composers, a partnership that pulls the old-fashioned student piano recital into a bold new age. Pictured: The 2018 “In Good Hands” cohort.


Matt Sheehy, in a screen shot from the promo video for “Aberdeen.”

“PART CONCERT, PART CONFESSIONAL AND PART WOOZY FANTASY,” Bennett Campbell Ferguson writes about the Portland indie rock band Lost Lander’s livestream version of co-leader Matt Sheehy’s musical journey Aberdeen, “this rendition …may seem like old news to people familiar with Sheehy’s nakedly emotional, gently yearning songs. Those who aren’t acquainted with his work are about to discover a brilliant and bizarre plunge into the mind of a singular artist.”


MYS Oregon to Iberia


Catherine Rickbone, on retiring as executive director of the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts: a tenure “made up of billions of moments, millions of interactions, thousands of programs, hundreds of decisions, and uncountable challenges and joys.” Photo: Oregon Coast Council for the Arts

CATHERINE RICKBONE, A DYNAMIC FORCE BEHIND THE ARTS ON THE OREGON COAST, has retired as executive director of the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts. In Arts advocate steps down, Lori Tobias talks with Rickbone and others about the big change. Newport and Rickbone seemed made for each other, as Tobias writes: “Driving to the coastal town for her first interview, she recalls seeing the Performing Arts Center on her left and the glittering ocean before her. ‘That did it. I could vision again, breathe again, check the weather, and see it coming.’”


Worth following: Laura Weiler, Yellow (2020), collage. Image courtesy of the artist. Instagram account: @cutandplaced 

ACCOUNTS TO FOLLOW: IMAGINING THE POSSIBLE. Speaking of virtual reality (if we weren’t, it’s about time now, don’t you think?) Shannon M. Lieberman continues her quest to find artistic gold among the virtual caves and quarries of Instagram. In her fourth installment in a series, she discovers a trio of excellent Oregon-based artists – Laura Weiler, Shanalee Hampton, Laura Camila Medina – who are regularly posting imaginative work that offers “hope for a better world.” What are you waiting for? It’s all just a click away.

A PROGRAM FINDS ITS RESOLUTION. The five members of Oregon College of Art and Craft’s final MFA in Craft class carried on after the school shut down. They finished their studies, prepared their thesis projects, had an exhibition lined up – and then Covid-19 hit, and the gallery itself closed down. Finally they had their day, briefly. Briana Miller tells a tale of persistence.

At last, a wrap on OCAC: From the final class’s virtual MFA exhibit, Sol Lee’s “20.5 grams” (2020). Photo: Jason Horvath; image courtesy of the artist.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."


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