Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol Portland Oregon

Arts funding bottoms out in Legislature

As Oregon lawmakers stumble through a long Senate walkout and then rush to finish business, a cultural sector still hurting from Covid shutdowns loses on several fronts.

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The Northwest Community Gospel Chorus performing with the Oregon Symphony in a “Gospel Christmas with the Oregon Symphony” program. The symphony orchestra was one of seven major cultural institutions in the state that were denied funding by the state Legislature. Photo courtesy Oregon Symphony.

A 2023 Oregon Legislature session that began hopefully for the state’s arts and cultural industries has ended in deep disappointment, with many requests rejected outright or funded far below their target figures. The poor showing is especially disappointing in light of the huge negative impact of Covid shutdowns on cultural venues and organizations, with state money drying up just as the sector is struggling to rebound from deep financial losses.

Things looked much more promising in February, when, for the first time, a group of state legislators 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 caucus eventually grew to more than 25 members of the state Senate and House, from both major parties.

But in the chaos of the legislative session’s final days, after a record-long and highly disruptive six-week walkout by most Republican members of the Senate finally ended, cultural funding took it in the shorts.

The Legislature’s tightening of the wallet comes at a time when the state’s cultural sector is particularly fragile, Jim Brunberg, founder and co-owner of Mississippi Studios and Revolution Hall, said in a June 23 interview on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud.” “In Oregon in particular, spending on the arts is as low as it’s ever been,” he told host Jenn Chávez. “We’re still spending on the arts, the government here is still spending, what it spent in 2006. So the Oregon Cultural Trust, the Oregon Arts Commission, are still using 2006 dollars to try to run, basically, an economy of nonprofits and businesses that are trying to operate and bring arts to Oregon, and it’s really hard. … It’s just a long recovery.”

Particularly of note in the legislative session was the rejection of funding for seven major cultural institutions that in addition to their artistic achievements are key economic players in their regions: the High Desert Museum in Bend, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, and Portland’s Oregon Ballet Theatre, Oregon Symphony, Portland Art Museum, Portland Opera, and Portland Center Stage. Requests totaled $11,837,497, ranging from $683,550 for Oregon Ballet Theatre to $5,110,350 for the financially imperiled Shakespeare Festival, which for more than 85 years has been a major contributor to the economy of Southern Oregon. Total amount allocated to these seven groups by the Legislature: Zero.

In each of those cases, the lack of state funding puts further pressure on the groups’ already stressed budgets. The Legislature’s refusal to fund the state’s “anchor” cultural groups, Oregon Arts Commissioner Subashini Ganesan said, is frustrating because “this year, the State has had a handsome revenue forecast.”

The support group Cultural Advocacy Coalition of Oregon, in an open letter titled Deep Disappointment with the 2023 Oregon Legislature Session, registered its dismay, declaring that its members were “left scratching our heads at the outcomes for arts and culture.” The statement continued, in part: “Unfortunately, while some state dollars were directed to our sector this session, they are not nearly enough to meet the needs of our fragile ecosystem. We know that lack of state funding will result in organizational deficits, staff layoffs, and decreased access to arts and culture.”

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The Ross Ragland Theatre, a cultural hub in Klamath Falls, asked for $261,746 and received $130,873. Photo: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives / Wikimedia Commons

Among other results:

  • Seventy-eight cultural venues across the state, ranging from the Elsinore Theatre in Salem to the Hult Center fo the Performing Arts in Eugene, Craterian Performances Company in Medford, Lincoln City Cultural Center, Ross Ragland Theatre in Klamath Falls, the Elgin Opera House in Eastern Oregon, and Portland spaces such as Doug Fir, Holocene, Imago Theatre, Milagro Theatre, and Northwest Children’s Theatre, asked collectively for $11,232,356. Each received half of its target figure.

  • A request for $200 million in Oregon Lottery bonds to help fund the Oregon Cultural Trust was turned down. The request is linked to a state promise in 2001, when the Cultural Trust was founded, to underwrite it with the sale of $200 million in excess state property. The money was never paid, and remains, more than two decades later, an unmet promise.

  • A request for a $10 million increase from general funds to the Oregon Arts Commission for grant-funding was denied. The commission’s grants budget hasn’t increased in 17 years, during which time the value of a dollar has shrunk to a little less than 70 cents.

  • A lottery bond request for $11.8 million to help fund 16 capital projects across the state was instead granted just $4 million for two projects in Portland: $3 million for the Native Arts and Culture Foundation and $1 million for Literary Arts. Most of the rest of the projects were in less populated parts of the state. Until this year, the full slate of capital projects had been funded each legislative session since 2013.

  • A bill authorizing the Oregon Cultural Trust to modernize its administrative cost calculations passed. It required no funding.

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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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