Bob Hicks


Once more into the coronabreach

ArtsWatch Weekly: As the pandemic crisis grows, Oregon artists and arts groups feel the financial squeeze. Plus, streaming a few good vibes

THE WORLD’S MOVING SWIFTLY AS WE’RE INCHING ALONG IN OUR OWN ISOLATIONS. Radical announcements are arriving daily that we wouldn’t have anticipated a couple of months ago. The world’s in crisis, economically but more importantly medically, and different leaders are taking drastically different approaches to dealing with a phenomenon that, in a deeply connected world, knows no national borders. Some argue, with what seems extreme cynicism, that a thinning-out of grandparents and people with weaker immune systems is a small price to pay for restoring a booming economy and propping up the stock markets. Others, including most medical experts, argue that maintaining strict isolation is crucial to taming the beast and buying time to develop and distribute effective vaccines. 

Seven groups of Oregon Symphony musicians, just after being laid off for the rest of the season, put on micro-concerts in their own neighborhoods so small audiences could remain at a distance and yet still hear music performed live. Photo: Joe Cantrell

The fallout in the cultural world has been heavy. In Oregon, museums, galleries, theaters, concert halls, libraries, movie theaters, cultural centers, cafes and clubs have been shut down from Ashland to Astoria to Portland to Bend to Baker City and beyond. Schools are closed or operating online only. Cultural organizations, which always operate on tight budgets, are in crisis, and many are looking at bleak futures. The Oregon Symphony has canceled the rest of its season and laid off all of its musicians, and is looking at a $5 million shortfall. This year’s Waterfront Blues Festival has been canceled: The internationally recognized celebration, which ordinarily draws thousands of music lovers to Portland’s downtown riverfront for the four-day July Fourth holiday weekend, plans to return in 2021. White Bird Dance, which for 22 years has brought top-flight international companies to Portland audiences, finds itself in a life-threatening $350,000 hole because of cancellations, and is asking for help. Oregon Children’s Theatre, which relies partly on school-trip audiences that have disappeared because schools are no longer in session, needs $200,000 by the end of May. At this point Chamber Music Northwest, the celebrated mostly-summer festival, is going ahead with plans to produce its fiftieth anniversary season June 22-July 26.


Paying the piper and the painter

ArtsWatch Weekly: a rescue fund for artists thrown out of work, arts move online, Oregon's animation magic, a week of good reading

AMONG MANY OTHER SUDDEN SHIFTS IN THE SOCIAL LANDSCAPE as we learn to deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the very real and urgent question rises: How will our artists eat and pay the rent when there’s no work to do? Like the arts organizations that normally employ them, many artists survive on a thin margin, counting on the next sale or the next show and the show after that to keep paddling abovewater financially. Most artists are freelance workers, moving from gig to gig, relying on a steady stream of work to keep them going. And when the museums and galleries and theaters and concert halls shut their doors, the jobs dry up – and so do the paychecks.

The artists’ dilemma: all dressed up with nowhere to go – and how to pay the bills? Frans Hals, Jester Playing a Lute, ca. 1623-1624, oil on canvas, 27.5 x 24.4 inches, Louvre Museum, Paris.

Two of Oregon’s leading cultural players, Portland Creative Laureate Subashini Ganesan and Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford, have helped launch PDXARTISTRELIEF.COM, the Portland Area Artist Emergency Relief Fund, to help provide just that – emergency relief to artists in Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties facing financial crises because of coronavirus shutdowns. If this is you, click on the link above for information on how to qualify and how to apply. If this isn’t you, but you’d like to contribute to the fund, click the link, too. As of Wednesday evening the fund, seeded by a lead gift from arts philanthropist Ronni Lacroute (who is also a major contributor to Oregon ArtsWatch), had raised $63,000 and was aiming for more, Ganesan said: “The need is quite significant. $150,000 would be a good start but perhaps $300,000 – $350,000 would feel better. We don’t know how long this will last. We also don’t know how this impacts small/medium/large arts organizations and what that will mean for independent or freelance artists.” Many co-sponsors, listed on the link, have signed on to help. 


Corona corona, where you been so long?

Dispatch from the social distance: The great shutdown begins. What’s next?

Well, what a week it’s been. It began ordinarily enough, although of course we all knew the coronavirus was lurking somewhere back there, not quite out of sight. Italy was looking nasty, and things were picking up steam in Seattle, a little too close to home. But here in Oregon, life was going on pretty normally.

For me, business as usual meant jumping from this to that to the other thing, trying to find connections and tie them together. A little over a week ago I went to see Blood Brothers, the revival of Willy Russell’s 1981 musical, at Triangle Productions. Marty Hughley, ArtsWatch’s theater editor, and I talked about it and decided it’d make a good pairing with the newest version in town of The Odd Couple, Neil Simon’s evergreen comedy, at Lakewood Theatre: How would this pair of nostalgic shows hold up in a time when theatrical eyes have largely moved on to other styles and concerns? I caught the Simon play last Sunday afternoon, then let the two shows simmer in my mind overnight.

Meanwhile, I was juggling a lot of other things for ArtsWatch. I edited a few stories and conferred with some writers on a few others. I created some posts for our Facebook page. I made some phone calls and exchanged a lot of emails. I tracked what was opening and closing, spent some time talking with other editors and writers (some virtually and some in person) about a long-range statewide project we’re keen to do. I okayed a couple of story pitches, and gathered information for my next ArtsWatch Weekly column. I forwarded a lot of emails and press releases to writers or editors who I thought might be interested in them. I talked a bit with Laura Grimes, our executive director, and Barry Johnson, our executive editor, about budgets.

On Tuesday afternoon I went downtown to the Portland Art Museum for my second walkthrough of the expansive and fascinating exhibition Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art, this time in the company of Dawson Carr, its curator and the museum’s curator of European art. It’s Carr’s final large show at the museum before he retires at the end of the year, and a labor of love, and we spent a long time touring it and talking about it. On my first visit, on a previous Saturday, the galleries had been packed. This time a smaller crowd was ambling loosely through the show; Carr mentioned that things had been busier that morning with a lot of school tours going through. When we greeted each other we laughed a bit about what decorum we should adopt considering the COVID-19 threat, and decided to elbow-bump rather than shake hands.

In the meantime I’d been slowly putting together my essay on Blood Brothers and The Odd Couple. Then, late Wednesday of last week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced a statewide shutdown of all public gatherings of more than 250 people. A day later, Brown also ordered all public K-12 schools shut down. No more school tours of the art museum, and no more Volcano! to see, anyway, at least for a while: The museum also decided to close its doors.


Nora el Samahy in “9 Parts of Desire,” one of many shows canceled because of the coronavirus crisis. Photo: Kate Szrom/Courtesy Portland Center Stage at The Armory

SUDDENLY EVERYTHING CHANGED. For the Oregon Symphony, Portland Opera, touring Broadway shows, all sorts of concerts in any hall of size, dance concerts and plays in moderate-to-bigger-sized halls like The Armory, Lincoln Performance Hall, and the Newmark Theatre, things came to an immediate halt. As the days swiftly ticked down more and more closures were announced, many by companies that performed in spaces smaller than 250 seats but decided the health risks were too great to go on. Art galleries called off a slew of artists’ talks and other events; some shifted to appointment-only status. Museums assessed the meaning of the state order and what “250” actually meant: If they spaced out their crowds and limited the number of people admitted at any one time, could they keep their doors open? Soon most decided “no”: In addition to the Portland Art Museum, the Oregon Historical Society, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, Salem’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Eugene’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, the Maryhill Museum of Art in the Columbia River Gorge, and the High Desert Museum in Bend all decided to close their doors. In Portland, some independent movie houses – Cinema 21 and the Hollywood Theatre – elected to close down. A little later the live-music venue Aladdin Theatre went on hiatus.


COVID-19: Art & history museums, libraries shut down

Portland, Salem, and Eugene museums and Multnomah County's library system join a cascade of closures as the coronavirus crisis escalates

Response in Oregon to the international coronavirus crisis escalated significantly Friday when both the Portland Art Museum and the Oregon Historical Society, anchors with Portland’5 Centers for the Performing Arts of downtown’s cultural district, announced they would shut their doors temporarily. Perhaps more drastically, Multnomah County Library shut down all of its locations until further notice.

UPDATE: The two biggest museums in the Willamette Valley south of Portland also have announced they’re closing. In Eugene, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon will be shut down at least through April 10. And in Salem, Willamette University’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art will remain open Saturday and Sunday and then shut down beginning Monday, March 16, at least through April 12. While both museums are connected to universities, they are also the de facto art museums for their regions, and their closures affect large populations.

UPDATE 2: Late Saturday afternoon Maryhill Museum of Art, on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, announced it will remain closed until further notice. On Friday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a ban throughout the state for the next six weeks of gatherings of more than 250 people.

Robert Colescott, “Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Upside Down Jesus aThe final four days of the fnd the Politics of Survival,” 1987, acrylic on canvas, Museum purchase: Robert Hale Ellis Jr. Fund for the Blanche Eloise Day Ellis and Robert Hale Ellis Memorial Collection, © 1987 Robert Colescott. In the Portland Art Museum’s shows “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott,” through May 17. The museum will be closed at least until April 1.

The Portland Art Museum and its Northwest Film Center will be closed until April 1, the museum announced late Friday afternoon. The final four days of the film center’s Portland International Film Festival already had been canceled. The history center announced earlier in the day that it will close its doors Saturday through March 29. Extensions of the shutdowns are, of course, possible depending on the spread or containment of the COVID-19 virus. The performing arts centers already had announced that all events in Keller Auditorium, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, and the Newmark Theatre would be shut down for the next four weeks.


On with the show? Hold on. Really.

ArtsWatch Weekly: In Oregon arts & culture, COVID-19 changes the game. Everything's shifting, and the future's uncertain.

. . . AND THEN THE DAM BURST. Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s announcement late Wednesday that large public gatherings will be banned in the state for the next four weeks while the health system tries to put a cap on the rapidly growing COVID-19 pandemic crisis changed everything. What had seemed a kind of wait-and-see, business-as-almost-usual unreality (well, goodness: It’s not like we’re Seattle or Italy, is it?) overnight became the new not-so-normal: It’s here. It’s real. It’s serious. Already universities had shifted their students to online classes. The aged and infirm were paying close attention, understanding they were in high-risk categories. Homeless advocates were worrying about potential disaster on the streets. Busy parents were juggling daycare as schools took time off, and if they were lucky, telecommunicating to the office from home. Stores were being wiped out of toilet paper, providing Internet wags a running joke. Then the NBA canceled the rest of its basketball season, and that shook people a bit. Tom Hanks announced he’d tested positive for the virus, and that shook things up a little more. But for a lot of people, until the governor literally called off the show, the seriousness of the situation – and the serious lack of planning or preparation on a national level – hadn’t quite sunk in.

The loneliness of the long-distance human: Laurits Andersen Ring, Mrs. Sigrid Ring Standing at a Stone Ballustrade, 1912, oil on canvas, 12.6 x 10.6 inches; private collection.

In the circumstances, whether a play or concert is canceled falls pretty far down on the list of international priorities. But for the arts and culture world, the shutdown is a true crisis. All day today, a flood of cancellations and postponements has been pouring in. (And it’s not just here. In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is shutting down all three of its campuses for rigorous basement-to-ceiling cleanings. In the nation’s capital, tours and events at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery are canceled through May 3.) The Oregon Symphony has canceled several concert series, including some high-profile ones. The Oregon Historical Society has canceled all programs through April 12, and Portland Opera has canceled its run of Vivaldi’s rarely performed Bajazet. School tours to museums and performances have stopped in their tracks. PassinArt has postponed its opening of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars for a week, and the city’s biggest theater company, Portland Center Stage, has called off or rescheduled performances of both of its current shows, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and 9 Parts of Desire, through April 8. March Music Moderne, Fear No Music, Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra have canceled concerts. Music Editor Matthew Neil Andrews gives details in his column MusicWatch Weekly: Stay home!, and fresh news of postponements or cancellations keeps pouring in.


Sketching ‘Volcano!’ at the museum

ArtsWatch Weekly: Big crowds & small artists take in the Portland Art Museum's big boom, March's new art & dance, a fresh film fest

ON SATURDAY I DROPPED BY THE PORTLAND ART MUSEUM to spend a little quality time with Volcano!, the sprawling exhibit designed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. (The mountaintop blasted sky-high on May 18, 1980; the museum’s show closes on May 17, a day before the anniversary.) On a rainy afternoon the place was packed with curious or nostalgic visitors. Some came to revisit their experiences of one of the most memorable days in modern Pacific Northwest history. Some came eager to learn a little more about a cataclysmic event they didn’t live through themselves but knew was a Really Big Deal. And most seemed engaged: The crowd wasn’t just walking through quickly with a glance here and a glance there – people were studying the paintings and photographs, sometimes doubling back to take a closer look at something they’d already seen. One way or another, this show seemed a part of their lives.

Lucinda Parker, “The Seething Saint,” 2019, acrylic on canvas, in the exhibition “Volcano!” at the Portland Art Museum. Courtesy Lucinda Parker and Russo Lee Gallery


ArtsWatch Weekly: Jungle of Eden

A jaunt into Mowgli's jungle and a musical Paradise puts us into a song-and-dance mood. Plus a week's worth of good reading.

IT’S BEEN A SONG AND DANCE SORT OF WEEK in my little corner of Oregon ArtsWatch, a musical and movement adventure that’s taken me from the jungles of India to the groves of Paradise. First things first: On Saturday I caught a matinee performance of The Jungle Book at Northwest Children’s Theater & School, with a rapt young audience that included a troop of Girl Scouts who took a long enough break from selling cookies to get with the groove and clap, quite happily and rhythmically, to the beat.

A grand blend of sight and sound in “The Jungle Book,” reimagined. Photo: David Kinder / Northwest Children’s Theater & School

In this Jungle Book there’s plenty of beat to get down with, provided emphatically and stylishly by Anita Menon’s choreography and Rodolfo Ortega’s music, both of which combine Western and Indian elements to help nudge Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli tales away from any hints of English imperialism and more squarely into the sights and sounds and culture of India. Combined with Mary Eggers’ vivid costumes, Paul Brown’s lighting, John Ellingson’s floor-to-ceiling tropical-vine set, and some aerial choreography by Jen Livengood of A-WOL Dance Collective for when the monkeys and the action move up into the trees, the dance and music create a vibrant theatrical atmosphere.