Chamber Music Northwest Imani Winds and BodyVox Beautiful Everything The Reser Beaverton Oregon

A legislative caucus for the arts

As several cultural measures seek passage, for the first time Oregon's Legislature has a caucus to push for cultural funding in the state budget. Also, for nonprofits: statewide conversations with funders.

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The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland is one of many groups that could get state financial support under a proposed bill in the Oregon Legislature. A legislative caucus has formed to boost boost arts and cultural funding at the state level. Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Art and politics don’t mix—except, of course, when they do. And when it comes to money, the mixing can come with high stakes. Who should get money from the state? How much? Why? Should government even be in the business of supporting arts and culture financially?

The questions often come up in Oregon, a state that traditionally lags behind the average in legislative support of arts and culture. And for the first time, a group of state legislators has banded together to form an Oregon Arts and Culture Caucus to push the interests of the cultural sector in the state budgeting process and elsewhere.

The nine-member caucus of seven Democrats and two Republicans will be at the Elsinore Theatre, 170 High St. S.E in Salem, for a public launching event 5:30-7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 27. The gathering is open to all, and the caucus members will lay out their plans and listen to comments. Pianists Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini and Hunter Noack of In a Landscape will perform, and light refreshments will be served. Attendance is free, but you should RSVP here.

“Arts and culture are so important to Oregon,” Rep. Rob Nosse (D-Portland), who coordinated the new caucus, said in a media statement. “… We must support the cultural and community hubs in our neighborhoods, and I hope this caucus will continue to ensure arts and culture thrive in this state.”

Members of the caucus are Nosse, Sen. Dick Anderson (R-Lincoln City), Rep. Janelle Bynum (D-Clackamas), Rep. Maxine Dexter (D-Portland), Rep. David Gomberg (D-Otis), Sen. Bill Hansell (R-Athena), Rep. John Lively (D-Springfield), Rep. Pam Marsh (D-Ashland), and Sen. Deb Patterson (D-Salem).

Left: Sen. Dick Anderson (R-Lincoln City). Right: Red. Rob Nosse (D-Portland).

The caucus has formed at a time when arts and cultural organizations in Oregon and nationwide have been hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic and its lingering effects. Budgets have been slashed, jobs have been lost, and even as theaters, museums, and other venues reopened following the shutdowns of 2020 and 2021, audiences have been reluctant to return at anything approaching the levels of pre-pandemic normal. A survey conducted by Business Oregon, Travel Oregon, and the Oregon Small Business Development Center Network indicates that only the accommodations industry—motels, hotels, and related travel businesses—suffered deeper Covid losses than the arts, entertainment, and recreation sector, with restaurants and bars a close third.

Cultural organizations, most of which are nonprofit, generally rely on a three-pronged financial base: donations from individuals; grants from foundations and governmental agencies; and ticketing and other revenues from people who go to the museums or attend shows. (Oregon ArtsWatch, which is a nonprofit organization, has received funding from the Oregon Arts Commission, Oregon Cultural Trust, National Endowment for the Arts, and various local and county government funders.) Ticketing covers only a fraction of most groups’ costs, often half or less. All three funding sources have tightened up, and according to a statement from the state-run Oregon Arts Commission, larger cultural groups “continue to feel the impact, with many reporting that ticket sales remain only about 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels.”

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Federal emergency money came to many cultural groups during the pandemic—the Arts Commission says that Rep. Nosse and other caucus members “were instrumental in designating more than $100 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds and American Rescue Plan funds” to arts, heritage, and humanities organizations in the state—but that spigot is running dry, too.

Work related to the caucus is already under way. HB2498, sponsored by Rep. Nosse, is the big one: It would provide $200 million for long-term stability of the Cultural Trust. The Cultural Advocacy Coalition of Oregon characterizes it as the fulfillment of a commitment the Legislature made years ago: “We are asking lawmakers to fulfill the original $200 mil. promise to fund the Oregon Cultural Trust through the sale of surplus state property, which has not occurred.” The Trust has been supported through citizens’ voluntary use of the Cultural Trust tax credit, but “now is the time to fulfill that promise by selling $200 mil. of lottery bonds and allowing the Oregon Cultural Trust to use the income and earnings from investing those funds for operations grants to the 1,600 nonprofits eligible for OCT/OAC grants.”

The bill had a public hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 14, before the House Committee on Emergency Management, General Government, and Veterans.

The Cultural Advocacy Coalition outlined several other cultural bills and asks in the 2023 session:

  • Nosse has sponsored House Bill 2459, a new version of a bill that wasn’t passed in the Legislature’s 2022 short session. It calls for the state budget to include $50.15 million for arts and cultural groups to help defray Covid-caused losses, in a grant program to be administered by the state agency Business Oregon. A tenth of that, $5.1 million, would go to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, one of the state’s largest tourism draws, which has suffered deep losses not only from Covid closures and cancellations but also from smoke and fire during southern Oregon’s extended wildfire seasons. HB 2911, which calls for a transfer of $20 million from the Administrative Services Economic Development Fund to Business Oregon’s Industry Competitions Fund for the arts and culture sector, is likely to be merged into HB 2459.
  • Investment in Cultural Capital projects: The Cultural Advocacy Coalition has identified seventeen projects across the state that it says would benefit the state’s economy and livability, representing a cost of $11.9 million for “a robust mix of arts, culture, historic preservation, and heritage sites.” No bill has yet been introduced to seek such funding.
  • The Legislative Counsel is being asked to replace the $400,000 cap on administrative costs of the Arts Commission and Cultural Trust with the ability to apply up to 5 percent of the Trust’s permanent funding to administration and staffing. This is necessary, the Cultural Advocacy Coalition says, to meet rising demands for support from nonprofit organizations.
  • A request for a $10 million increase in the Arts Commission’s grants budget, which has been largely flat for about fifteen years, did not make it into the governor’s budget.

Dave Miller recently interviewed Rep. Nosse and Sen. Anderson on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud radio program about the new arts and cultural caucus in the Legislature. Both emphasized the importance of cultural offerings as economic drivers in the state, and made the case that more help from the state would pay off with a healthier economy.

Nosse stressed that, while federal pandemic-relief funding helped keep companies alive, people still “aren’t filling the seats.” Asked by Miller whether the caucus was seeking remedial help for arts groups or more ongoing aid, he underlined Anderson’s comment that Oregon’s cultural funding from the state ranks fairly low—36th among the states—and declared that, over time, the caucus would seek to boost that.

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Anderson, who spent six years as mayor of Lincoln City, said that tourists want more than just the beaches and hiking trails when they visit the Oregon Coast. “Certainly arts and culture venues big and small are a huge part” of the coast’s economy, he said, and added that such attractions are still struggling: “It was building and building an audience … and then in the past two years really dropped off to almost nonexistence. … It’s hard to recover once you’ve lost a revenue stream, and try to slowly build it back up.”

How will the Legislature respond? Increased funding is far from a slam dunk. Arts and cultural support are in competition with a lot of other needs and causes, interviewer Miller noted: “this is not a flush fiscal year” for legislative funding, and the state is facing a half-billion-dollar shortfall “between available funds and current operating levels.” Anderson agreed that there is a heightened need for accountability in general funding, argued that wasteful spending can be eliminated, and then said, “I think there’s enough money there.” One of the caucus’s primary goals, according to a statement from the state Arts Commission, is to “set an agenda on priorities for arts and culture legislation, including a sustainable and robust funding mechanism for arts and cultural initiatives.”

As Nosse and Anderson noted, Oregon is starting from a comparatively low spot in cultural funding. And figures gathered by the national lobbying and support organization Americans for the Arts indicate that as of March 2022 Oregon’s cultural economic impact is lower than average, too, representing 3.3 percent of the state’s gross domestic product, compared to a national 4.2 percent. That still represents a healthy $8 billion impact on the state’s economy, which makes the arts and culture sector a legitimate player in funding decisions, and it accounts for 60,994 jobs, with a total compensation of $4.8 billion. Those figures, however, represent a sharp dropoff from 2019 to 2020, the first year of the pandemic: a 7 percent plunge in share of the state GDP, and a 12 percent drop in jobs: 8,377 lost from 2019’s 69,371.

The economic argument is compelling, and one that legislators likely will take seriously, no matter how they end up voting. The arts have been a handy target in the nation’s volatile culture wars since the 1990s, ranging from outrage over feminist performance art to current attacks on school and other libraries. The skirmishes have resulted in slashed budgets for the national endowments for the arts and the humanities that only now are beginning to be built up again. But jobs are jobs, and more jobs create a healthier economy. In committees and conversations and proposals, the members of Oregon’s legislative cultural caucus will be making that point.

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A group discussion at 2020’s “Conversations with Funders” at the Eugene Library. Photo courtesy Oregon Cultural Trust.

MEANWHILE, MONEY IS AVAILABLE to arts and cultural groups—more than $5 million—from a variety of foundations and other funders, and you can find out how your organization can get a cut of it in a series of “Conversations with Funders” set up by the Oregon Cultural Trust. The grants are for fiscal year 2024, and the meetings—seven at locations around the state, one virtual—will be between Feb. 28 and March 16.

“There are more than 1,500 cultural nonprofits serving Oregonians,” Aili Schreiner, Cultural Trust manager, said in a prepared statement. “We want to make sure they know about the significant funding and programming resources that are here to support them.”

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The schedule and venues:

  • Portland2:30-5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28, Cheatham Hall, World Forestry Center, 4033 S.W. Canyon Road, Portland.
  • Virtual: 2:30-5:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 1, Zoom. 
  • Astoria: 2:30-5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 2, The Loft at the Red Building, 20 Basin St., Astoria. 
  • Eugene: 2:30-5:30 p.m. Monday, March 6, WOW Hall, 291 West 8Th Ave., Eugene.
  • Coos Bay: 2:30-5:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 8, Myrtlewood Room, Coos Bay Library, 525 Anderson Ave., Coos Bay.
  • Medford: 9 a.m.-12 p.m. Friday, March 10, Large Conference Room, Medford Public Library, 205 S. Central Ave., Medford.
  • Pendleton: 2:30-5:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 14, Pendleton Center for the Arts, 214 N. Main St., Pendleton.
  • Redmond: 2:30-5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 16, High Desert Music Hall, 818 S.W. Forest Ave, Redmond.

The informal conversations are designed to help potential grantees learn what’s available and how they can apply. Registration is required for the virtual meeting on March 1, and encouraged for the others (click on the Eventbrite links for each site above).

Participating with the Cultural Trust in the conversations, according to a media statement: “four Statewide Partners – the Oregon Arts Commission, Oregon Heritage, Oregon Humanities and the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office – as well as counterparts from the Oregon Community Foundation, the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation, The Collins Foundation, The Autzen Foundation, Spirit Mountain Community Fund, The Roundhouse Foundation, Lane Arts, the Wildhorse Foundation, the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, the Bend Cultural Tourism Fund and Portland’s Regional Arts and Culture Council (Portland only); among others. … Representatives from the Cultural Trust’s County Cultural Coalitions, who receive Trust funding for local grant programs, also will participate.

“Organizations encouraged to attend ‘Conversations with Funders’ include community development organizations, libraries, arts organizations, museums, cultural centers, parks and trails groups, historical societies, arts alliances, literary groups and heritage organizations. All cultural nonprofit organizations are welcome.” 

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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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