Barry Johnson

 

Starting Over: The value of crisis

Societies change and the arts are at the center of how we understand both the societies and the change

Nearly every day during my particular version of shelter-in-place, I sift through articles and essays (not to mention tweets) from likely sources, hoping to find out what in the blazes is going on out there. Or in here. Surely, I think, somebody has figured this stuff out, and so I search. 

I’ve been productively edified and instructed, pleasantly amused and delighted, annoyingly frustrated and aggravated, and alternatingly filled with dread and anxiety. You have to love the cycle that starts with anxiety, leads to dread, and then ends up back at anxiety. We’re all Kierkegaardians now!

Last week I ran into science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson’s essay, “The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations” in the New Yorker’s excellent feed. Robinson opened his argument with a reference from the late culture critic Raymond Williams, who argued in “The Long Revolution” that each historical period has its own, distinct “structure of feeling.” Robinson neatly paraphrases Williams’ observation about cultural difference as “a distinct way of organizing basic human emotions into an overarching cultural system. Each had its own way of experiencing being alive.”

Robinson then goes on to argue that we are (or maybe it’s “we should be”) entering a new cultural system through the door of the pandemic. That’s good: We need to turn the page on our current system if we are going to mitigate the disaster of climate change in a meaningful way.

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Oregon arts news: Covid-19 updates

Literary Arts has an emergency fund for writers, BodyVox is drawing blood, Shakespeare festival goes digital, more!

All arts news these days is Covid-19 news, at least in part. But then I suppose that extends to every central sector of the society. Arts organizations in Oregon are trying to raise enough money to keep enough staff on board to keep planning for their eventual return. Oh, and enough money to stage or hang the art they’re involved with when audiences can finally gather safely.

As George Thorn says, “We can’t wait to be in a room together with artists.”

There are two themes for this edition of News and Notes, and all subsequent ones, I expect. The first is the happier one: creative initiatives that artists and arts groups are coming up with to keep their connections with us possible, even though we’re isolated from each other.

Give blood then go to BloodyVox/Photo by Blaine Covert

The second includes funds that have been established to help artists in need and pleas for immediate help from groups in trouble. Two Portland venues, The Old Church and the Alberta Rose Theatre, are in that latter category. You know them, you love them, and if you can, this is a great time to support them.

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Writers need to eat, too, not to mention pay the rent, and they are rarely tethered to corporate support systems. To help them out, Literary Arts has designated money from its Brian Booth Writers’ Fund to create the Booth Emergency Fund for Writers, designed to provide meaningful financial relief to Oregon’s writers, including cartoonists, spoken word poets, and playwrights. Grants of $1,000 each will go to 100 eligible writers, and if more money shows up, a second round of applications will open in June.

The deadline to apply for Round One is May 13. Literary Arts is prioritizing money for writers identifying as Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color. 

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has launched O!, a digital content platform the company has had in the works since Nataki Garrett became artistic director. With the theater closed, O! becomes a primary outlet until its stages are filled again, but the company intends to keep working on the site, even when we’re back in the theater again.

Right now, you can hear audio from a 1951 version of Twelfth Night, with founder Angus Bowmer himself as Sir Toby Belch. Or download an audiobook version of 2015’s Pericles, with recordings of King Lear (2013, directed by Bill Rauch), Romeo and Juliet (2012, dir. Laird Williamson), and Julius Caesar (2017, dir. Shana Cooper) soon to come. And there are documentaries and classes to sift through, too. For now, it’s all free. Click here to get started.

Profile Theatre’s eNewsletter this week brought two excellent pieces of news, and believe me, excellent news has been hard to come by lately. They are so excellent that I don’t know which to feature first. 

We’ll start with the money. The company’s Be a Light fundraiser brought in $100,193, exceeding the $75,000 Profile needed to keep operations going, move community engagement programming online, and prepare for a return to the stage when the pandemic has subsided enough for audiences to return. The key word: EXCEEDING. Cash contributions reached $82,861 by the April 24 deadline, and donations of previously purchased tickets totaled $17,332. (If you have tickets for performances of any sort, please consider donating them to the issuing organization, if at all possible.)

Profile artistic director Josh Hecht and Paula Vogel/Courtesy Profile Theatre

And now to the art! Profile’s featured writer this year, Paula Vogel, has been teaching playwriting for 30 years, using her“playwriting bake-off’ idea—a method for creating new work quickly with a recipe of “ingredients,” including characters, settings, props, and source material. Earlier this month she established a “Covid Bake-Off,” using the structure of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde, with its 10 pairs of lovers, and characters from around the globe from Wuhan to Milan and beyond. 

Profile has enlisted playwrights Hilary Betis, Philip Dawkins, Hansol Jung, EM Lewis, Dan Kitrosser, Harrison Rivers, EM Lewis, Christopher Oscar Peña and Anna Ziegler to collaborate with Vogel in this special Bake-Off. Their creation will be recorded as an audio-play and released as a podcast. We’ll keep you apprised here at ArtsWatch.

The Alberta Rose Theatre is seeking support now that Covid-19 has wiped out its concerts and events. Portland doesn’t have nearly enough arts facilities as it is, so if you’re able and inclined, you can help keep this Alberta street institution going.

The theater’s online streaming fundraiser has already begun, but you can still hook-up to hear a long roster of Portland musicians perform. Tonight, for example, singer-songwriter Colin Hogan performs. You can buy a single ticket, a 10-concert flex package, or a full-access package. Well, they aren’t actually “tickets,” but the more you buy, the cheaper they are. The 20-concerts-for-$100 is still the best deal overall, even though a few have already taken place. You can get sorted out at the website.

Speaking of crucial performance venues, one of the city’s very best, The Old Church, is under pressure, too. “We are working around the clock to find funding to stay afloat for what is feeling like it will be an extended closure,” the organization announced. “Without funding we will be out of cash by mid-July.”

The nonprofit has been working on a campaign to ensure that some of the federal money that has gone to states will trickle down to the arts, including venues like The Old Church. They are hoping you will write the Oregon legislators from their district and advocate for arts funding and The Old Church: Rep.AkashaLawrenceSpence@oregonlegislature.gov and  Sen.GinnyBurdick@oregonlegislature.gov

The Old Church has also started a Better Together campaign, which features online benefit performances to support the work they do and the building they have renovated so well. 

If Portland reopens without The Old Church, we’ll always regret it.

One of the many things that BodyVox is known for (along with its great dance films, comic stylings, fine dancing, etc.) is its Halloween send-up BloodyVox. So, it makes sense (at least to me) that the dance company would host a community blood drive with the American Red Cross. The drive runs from 9 am to 2:30 pm on May 7 at the BodyVox Dance Center, 1201 NW 17th Ave., in  Portland.

Speaking of BloodyVox, it kicks off the company’s 2020-21 season. Full details are available on the website.

BodyVox’s penchant for film and video is evident in its fifth annual Contact Dance Film Festival, available to stream starting April 30. The four-day festival features three different programs, showcasing award-winning collaborations between filmmakers, dancers, and choreographers from around the world. Maybe watch some dance and then give some blood?

Starting Over: Masks and democracy

While Seoul opens its high-end art galleries, we're still wondering when the testing, tracing, isolation regime will begin

In Seoul, Korea, a metropolis of 10 million, “a steady stream of Mercedes sedans pulled up to the valet, disgorging their fashion-forward passengers,” in front of the Seoul outpost of a fashionable New York-based gallery, the New York Times reported yesterday. Seoul now has its share of high-end contemporary art galleries and collectors, and after months of lockdown, everyone was ready to see some art.

The art they were seeing was by Billy Childish, a long-time art world rebel and working-class leftist, not to mention garage band rock’n’roller.  His work is now fetching prices cresting beyond $25,000, which he himself considers a matter of luck—after 40 years, the curators and dealers who championed him had finally seized the reins at major institutions, he told the Times.

After experiencing the little tingle that comes when I see the prices politically progressive artists are commanding in the rarefied art marketplace, I marveled at another statistic in the story. Seoul, with more than double the population of Oregon, has recorded only two deaths due to Covid-19.

Billy Childish, birches with green shadows, 2016
© Billy Childish, courtesy of Carl Freedman Gallery, photo: Andy Keate

Two. Deaths.

South Korea jumped immediately into the appropriate pandemic response. The country locked down early, it embraced social distancing, it distributed N-95 quality masks to all of its people, it tested widely, and when people tested positive for Covid-19, it traced and isolated those who came into contact with them. The public took this regime seriously.

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A group of major Oregon foundations has pooled its money to create a new arts relief fund. So far, the Oregon Arts and Culture Recovery Program has $1.3 million to distribute to nonprofit arts and culture organizations throughout Oregon with grants for emergency operating support and recovery activities.

Organized and administered by the Oregon Community Foundation, the fund will give preference to arts nonprofits led by and serving communities disproportionately impacted by the social and economic consequences of the outbreak of Covid-19. The application process doesn’t look too onerous, either.

Carl Morris (American, 1911-1993), Audition, 1946; reworked 1951, oil on paper board, Gift of Frederic Rothchild, © 1946 Carl and Hilda Morris Foundation, 76.39/Portland Art Museum

The emergency funds are intended to meet “immediate operating needs and losses related to the cancellation of performances, gallery exhibitions, fundraising events and more,”  according to the RACC press release announcing the start of the program. The group of funders will also look for “proposals with strategies that allow art organizations and cultural institutions to innovate and adapt to the challenges of Covid-19. Organizations serving as a hub or facilitator for the arts and artists in their local, state and regional communities will also be prioritized for funding.”

Most of the money will be distributed in smaller grants, $5,000 and below, though larger grants (up to and even exceeding $25,000 in rare cases) will also be available. 

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Starting Over: Point to point

Portland Center Stage's Cynthia Fuhrman shows that when the navigating gets hard, the pragmatic go point-to-point

Like many of those who still have a job but are working from home, Cynthia Fuhrman, the managing director of Portland Center Stage, has taken to Zoom, “seeing the faces and talking to more people than ever.”

“I talk to people all day,” she said as we talked by telephone (not Zoom).

All those meetings are exhausting. Generally, she says, she suffers from really bad insomnia. But now? “I am sleeping better than ever, I am sleeping like a champ!” 

One of those early Covid-19 virtual group meetings had a big effect on how Fuhrman has managed Center Stage’s response to the pandemic. She managed to sneak into a short lecture by Nancy Koehn, a business historian at Harvard Business School, who was addressing the problem of crisis management to an audience of (mostly) art museum leaders.

Cynthia Fuhrman, Portland Center Stage’s
managing director/Photo Gary Norman

The primary takeaway for Fuhrman? That we are operating in a  point-to-point navigation situation. 

“We don’t have a playbook here,” Koehn says in the video. “We all have to ask ourselves, can I get comfortable with ambiguity and confusion and uncertainty and much less than perfect information…in order to navigate from point to point? …We’re going to make a lot of mistakes, but we’re going to quickly pivot, respond, do something different, learn—and keep heading for the next point. And help our people do that.”

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Friday coronavirus arts news roundup

A news update about the relief efforts for artists and arts organizations in Oregon

The country’s chief executive revels in the ratings for his crazy coronavirus briefings in D.C. Meanwhile, the rest of us deal with the pandemic itself, trying to protect our health and scrape together enough money for the culture to keep from falling into a deep state of dormancy. Sorry, but that’s about as jolly as this roundup of arts news in Oregon is likely to get. Well, maybe there ARE some glimmers.

In case you missed it, yesterday I talked to Brian Rogers, the director of the Oregon Cultural Trust and the Oregon Arts Commission, about what he was seeing out there and the status of the emergency fund the Cultural Trust is assembling. Not to mention how much of that woefully inadequate $75 million the Congress allocated for the National Endowment for the Arts is coming to Oregon. The short answers: “pretty grim,” waiting for approval from the next session of the Oregon legislature, and not much.

Subashini Ganesan and Kim Stafford, the city’s Creative Laureate and the state’s Poet Laureate, started a relief fund for artists, as you probably already know. In the early days of the lockdown they raised $95,000, which they have distributed to 245 artists in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties, mostly in $400-$500 increments. Ganesan reports that MRG Foundation and a few other independent donors have donated an additional $40,000. “Kim and I are reading through a little over 250 applications (that were received through March 29th) to pull together the next round of recipients,” she wrote.

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State of the arts: “Everyone is experiencing the worst”

Brian Rogers, the director of the State's arts service arms, talks about the condition of arts organization and grant opportunities on the way

Brian Rogers is the director of the Oregon Arts Commission and the Oregon Cultural Trust, and during the first two weeks of the coronavirus lockdown he called dozens of arts organizations of all sizes to check in.

And?

“It’s pretty grim,” Rogers said. Rogers is not a histrionic kind of guy, so he said it matter-of-factly. He also provided some historic context for the effect the pandemic is having on the arts. During the last recession in 2008, he said, most of the larger arts organizations were able to adjust with some pain, but made it through OK. So did the smallest groups. “The mid-sized organizations experienced the worst.”

All the state’s arts organizations, even the largest arts ones (such as the Oregon Symphony), are facing difficult times.

And now?

“During this time, everyone is experiencing the worst,” he said. “I do think it’s becoming more and more likely that a couple of big organizations will be forced to shut down.”

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