By DAVID MACLAINE
The system finally caught up with us, right when we were getting comfortable. “Sorry, no seats in that section,” the helpful fellow at Portland’s Newmark Theatre box office told me. The moment we had finally gotten over our anxiety over the uncertainties built into securing affordable tickets in the disabled seating area, we had just wasted a trip.
We had taken the long journey into town on bus and MAX, and had arrived an hour early. That schedule had worked nicely just the week before when we had shown up seeking opera tickets on a Saturday night. Lulled by our earlier success, I had neglected the precaution of calling Portland Opera just to make sure that seats were still available for this performance. They were available for a popular Rossini opera on Saturday: how on earth could they be sold out for a comparative rarity (Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice) on a Thursday?
But there it was: no seats to be had in the wheelchair section, not for ready money. No Gluck for you!
During the last seven years, my partner Konnie and I had been slowly getting used to the ins and outs of the wonderful Arts for All program that allows those of us with an Oregon Trail Card, that handy replacement for the old awkward food stamps, to flash said card and purchase tickets to fine arts events for the very good price of $5 a ticket. But of course, as ads for almost anything tend to point out in the fine print, “Some rules and restrictions may apply.” And when you complicate the task of working past the restrictions each arts organization imposes on poor folks who want an affordable crack at what they offer, and then add the equally daunting challenges of wheelchair seating, your degree of difficulty certainly rises.
But we had learned not to be discouraged by the hurdles, and had been slowly adding one more organization or one more venue to the list of those we had successfully tackled. The process had its ups and downs, but never before with a letdown quite so sharp. As we’ll see, it’s since been fixed, but I’m sharing the story, and this new ArtsWatch series on accessible arts, in hopes that knowing some of the pitfalls will let others steer a somewhat smoother path, and that these issues are solvable.
Over the next few weeks here on Oregon ArtsWatch, I’ll provide a guide to making the arts accessible in an increasingly unaffordable city. This series covers three issues: this one on the Arts for All program, then a more detailed look at the specific challenges faced by those seeking seats reserved for people with disabilities. The third and final installment considers the siren song of a torrent of free music, available free in the home from our public library, a serious temptation when the process of taking in a live show starts to feel like its too much trouble, and a wonderful supplement when you want to prepare for an upcoming event. As our culture erodes around us in visible and disheartening ways, few battles are as well worth fighting as that to make great art truly accessible to all.
I have lived in Portland since 1977. During the early decades when I was scratching out a subsistence living as a freelance writer, the city offered low rents and a good transit system that could get me to the concerts I was being paid a pittance to write about. I rode my bike too, sometimes, but as the concert season largely coincides with our rainiest months, a reliable Plan B was essential. I was a little slow to figure out that food stamps were more a practical supplement than a mark of shame, but I overcame my reluctance after a self-identified Republican confided off-handedly that she used them.
After a while my household was subsisting on a combination of disability payments, food stamps and Section Eight housing assistance. Gentrification bumped us sixty blocks east, so when we could scrounge the money for a special event, getting there and back was more of a chore. At intervals assorted medical crises would knock us out of action, which made the arrival of the Arts for All program in 2011 a particularly heartening development.
By the time our medical problems somewhat abated, we were facing up to the fact that if we wanted to share an evening out devoted to fine music, wheelchair seating was now our only option. But as the emergencies receded, we discovered that when you are getting the right combination of aid, life below the poverty line in high-rent Portland can be more rewarding than people who love to punish the poor (cough, Paul Ryan) might prefer. What I hope to do in this and the following installments of this series is to share some of the fruits of my experience getting past obstacles that might discourage the unwary.
Arts for All
The first thing you notice when you link to the web site of the Regional Arts and Culture Council is an enticingly long list of organizations that participate in the program. Dance, theater, symphony, chamber music, piano recitals, choral music, the Portland Art Museum, Indian music, Taiko drumming, the Chinese Garden: the list goes on and on and on. The stretch of 22 consecutive organizations with “Portland” in their names takes up just a little more than a third of the whole list. Everybody and his uncle seems to have signed up to offer these cheap tickets to those of us who are down, but not quite out.
Unfortunately, the next thing you notice is that everybody has a different set of rules for securing these tickets, and you have to check with each individual organization to figure out what you need to do to get them. Yes, we know that at some point we will have to show our Oregon Trail Card, and that it will entitle us to two tickets at $5 apiece, but exactly which tickets are on offer, where do we have to go to get them, and how far in advance can we secure our seats?
For this information, the next logical step is to hit the links the RACC site so helpfully provides. At which point you will discover that you still have a bit of work to do, because not only does everyone have a different set of rules for who gets the tickets, when and how, but everyone also has different approaches to Web design. This is not a problem when the links take you directly to the place on the organization’s site that spells out what they require, and I am grateful that more and more of them have taken the time to ensure this quick answer to my questions. Oregon Ballet Theater, the Oregon Symphony, Portland Baroque Orchestra, and Cappella Romana are among those whose Arts for All rules pop up directly from the RACC links. (Here’s the last, for a good clean–and helpful– example.)
Sometimes, though, the information that link provides is insufficient. There is indeed a section on Arts for All on the page about ticket information for Chamber Music Northwest site, but my delight at finding that information after a short scroll down faded quickly when I discovered that they wanted me to call their box office for “information on availability.” The fact that I was searching for information online might just be a clue that my preferred means of tracking down information does not involve make any phone calls. Still, I did get a twinge of amusement at discovering that one link they do provide (“click here”) sends you right back the RACC site I had come from. I can imagine someone riding that link loop around and around in circles until someone tells Captain Picard (or CMNW Executive Director Peter Bilotta) what he needs to do differently.
But many organizations still do what almost all of them did seven years ago, which is send you to their homepage, where you can embark on a thrilling quest to discover where on the site they have hidden the information you seek. The site for events at The Old Church provided no link I could find telling how they handle the Arts for All tickets. Okay, that makes sense of a sort; they’re a venue hosting assorted organizations so the policies probably vary. So I tested that theory and clicked on an event that looked promising. Indian music: yes! It has been far too long since the days I got comps from Kalakendra, so I began to poke around to see where they hid their Arts for All info. Failing to find any link with that name, I finally tried Buy Tickets, and just when I was about to click away at the sight of a typical ticket-ordering format I saw a distinctly atypical line on the form for Arts for All participants. My delight at this happy innovation outweighed my frustration at the time and effort it took to get there.
But sometimes it seems that there is no there there. Perhaps someone else can do better than I can in figuring out where OMSI hides its Arts for All rules.
When I took my first spin through these links back in 2011, I tended to take these elaborate search processes personally. It felt at the time as though some organizations were happier about getting the publicity for taking part in a worthwhile program than they were in actually making their events accessible and handing out the tickets. When I finally tracked down the information and found an offer with tight time restraints or limited seating sections, it felt like they were sending me a message that said “Don’t bother!”
At this remove I’m not entirely sure that impression was correct: I have come to realize that the difficulties I then faced trying to find the information may well have stemmed as much from inept Web design as from intentional exclusion. Yet even in these supposedly more advanced times, the Oregon Symphony’s website makes me yearn for the good old days when a season schedule came on a glossy piece of paper that you unfolded, perused in two minutes, and got a decent idea about which concerts you wanted to see, as opposed to scattering those productive minutes over another ten wasted in starts and stops reminiscent of waiting for rush hour traffic to get moving again. But the variety of rules on when, where and how you can get the tickets certainly helped us decide which organizations secured my patronage earlier in the process. Those that made you wait until the day of the event, risking a fiasco like our Orfeo bobble, were not as attractive as those that gave us a chance to secure our seats earlier.
That’s why our earliest experiments with the program were with the Portland Baroque Orchestra. They offered tickets at their box office during the week before the concert, and my schedule tends to take me downtown once a week, so it all worked out nicely. At first I was awkward about explaining what I was trying to do, sure there would be some obstacle, or at least a little chilliness about taking advantage. But I soon realized that they knew all about it and were happy to oblige, although it helped a bit if you told them before they entered too much information into the ticket-printing program.
We hesitated unduly before discovering that the rules for picking up Cappella Romana tickets were even more flexible than those for PBO, although their tendency to offer open seating in a cathedral meant that we tended to arrive early enough (so as to get the best spots) that it probably made sense just to buy them at the door.
The next step was to figure out how to accommodate Portland Opera’s insistence on same-day purchase. For a while this meant me taking an extra trip earlier in the day to pick up tickets at Opera headquarters. But this year we switched over to checking for availability that day, then showing up when the box office opened, sometimes grabbing a bite to eat during the extra wait time. Then came a Saturday show when their box office was closed, and we took the chance, showed up a mere hour later, and it all worked out. Five days later our luck ran out.
Our consolation prize was that the helpful guy at the box office was willing to sell us a ticket for the next, final, show. That meant we could come back in two days without needing to get there so early, and free of anxiety about another wasted trip. We came, saw Orpheus descend to the underworld and return again, losing his love and then gaining a happy reunion even more improbable than the mundane drama that sent us into town twice to catch that lovely show.
Never mind the irony that I discovered during the course of researching this article that all our troubles stemmed from following rules that had been updated since we had learned them. It turns out that now when you click the link on ticket information, the old “same day” rule we had been following for the last couple of years has been replaced with the ability to order these ticket by phone beginning two weeks in advance. The lesson is that even when you think you know the rules, check back at regular intervals, because policies change, and right now they seem to be changing for the better.
Despite the hiccup of taking two trips to see one opera once, the performance of Orfeo ed Euridice marked the happy conclusion of fourteen months during which our use of the Arts for All discount steadily increased. Last summer we got to one opera: this year I saw three (Rigoletto, Cenerentola and Orfeo) and Konnie made it to four, taking a pal from her water exercise class to Faust. We got in our usual smattering of regular PBO concerts, plus three different collaborations with the choir at Trinity Cathedral on major works by Mozart, Monteverdi and Bach (the Requiem, Orfeo and the Mass in b-minor). The only disappointment was the one we missed: a Vivaldi choral program that played for only one night and sold out before we were eligible for tickets. But PBO has since upped their game even further on providing for our needs: their new policy lets you buy Arts for All tickets three months in advance. With due diligence, we won’t miss out next time.
In between these big events from familiar providers, we also explored several new venues. Last summer we enjoyed hours of entertainment at the Montavilla Jazz Festival; Arts for All users can get day passes at the box office and then compete for seats with all the other general admission fans. In the case of the Japanese Garden, the Arts for All price could be combined with another discount, and the sharply reduced cost helped compensate for the fact that only half the Garden is accessible to Konnie’s wheelchair.
We even got around to the Oregon Symphony, right at the end of the season. Its rules are a little confusing. Does the Monday before the concert include that Monday night’s event? And next Sunday? What’s this fuzziness about the tickets being “typically available for the same concerts that are available for student discounts”? Anyway, I navigated the system and purchased tickets, only to realize as we were getting ready to go that I had misremembered the schedule and had secured seats to a Pops Concert with Audra McDonald instead of catching what might be my last chance at a live performance of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. Audra is a lovely performer, so it wasn’t a complete disaster, but these little miscues are a lot easier to bear when your evening out costs about the same amount as a quick meal from a taco cart. Without the discount we might have saved up our scraps of spare income to get out only one or two times in that period. Arts for All meant that schedules generally dominated by medical appointments and rehab exercise were immeasurably enriched by a regular diet of great art.
Next season I expect us to widen our net a bit more. Naturally this means a few puzzles to solve. How likely to sell out is Area 3, the section to which Arts for All patrons at Portland Center Stage are restricted, and particularly the small number in that section available for wheelchairs? What about the rule limiting users at Oregon Ballet Theater to box seating areas not normally available to people in wheelchairs? And will we really have time and energy to explore these doubtful new possibilities when we have already resolved on a massively expanded roster of concerts on the Friends of Chamber Music Series, assuming that we can figure out how to thread the needle on that “limited number” of seats available and can remember how to solve the elevator maze that (eventually) leads to the very nice wheelchair area in Lincoln Hall? (Clicking “More Information” just leads to back to the RACC again).
One way or another we’ll work it out. The allure of great music is ample inducement for those of us whose love for art far exceeds our bank account. Our particular task of overcoming wheelchair limitations along with Arts for All restrictions can be particularly problematic, but the rewards make it all worthwhile. All in all, Portland is pretty good town for people whose finances are squeezed, but whose passion for the arts is still as strong as ever.
Readers and presenters, please let us know about your experiences with accessibility and Oregon arts in the comments section below this and the other stories in this series.
David Maclaine is a Portland writer.