ARTSWATCH FOCUS

Arts advocate steps down

Catherine Rickbone, executive director of the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts, says cutbacks caused by the pandemic make this a good time for her to retire

Catherine Rickbone had grown accustomed to people asking when she was going to retire and enjoy life. Rickbone, executive director of the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts, frequently responded, “I enjoy myself now.” She planned to see to the end the final phase of the Newport Performing Arts Center’s $4.3 million capital campaign, to be completed in 2020.

Then came COVID-19. The deadline for the “Entertain the Future” campaign was pushed out to at least 2021. Rickbone, 74, knew it was time to go. She retired July 2 after 13 years at the helm of the council, where she oversaw management of the Newport Performing Arts Center and Newport Visual Arts Center. The council is also the local arts council for Lincoln County and the regional arts council for Clatsop, Tillamook, Coos, and Curry counties, as well as coastal towns in Lane and Douglas counties.

“Catherine will be really missed,” said Akia Woods, president of the council’s board of directors. “We’ll especially miss her earnestness and her love of the arts and her ready smile. Catherine was a tremendous advocate for the arts. Her advocacy hasn’t just been local, she’s been a great advocate at the state level.”

In announcing her retirement from the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts, Catherine Rickbone told the board of directors that her tenure with the council “was made up of billions of moments, millions of interactions, thousands of programs, hundreds of decisions, and uncountable challenges and joys.” Photo courtesy: Oregon Coast Council for the Arts
In announcing her retirement from the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts, Catherine Rickbone told the board of directors that her tenure with the council “was made up of billions of moments, millions of interactions, thousands of programs, hundreds of decisions, and uncountable challenges and joys.” Photo courtesy: Oregon Coast Council for the Arts

A search for a new executive director has begun, Woods said.

With a life rooted in the arts, Rickbone seemed destined for the leadership role.

She was raised by her grandmother in Emporia, Kansas, in a three-story home that also served as a rooming house. Rickbone was hooked on the arts from the day she found a book on her grandmother’s bookshelf titled Picture Studies. Dedicated to children and lovers of art, it was a study guide from 1928 with details of each piece pictured, followed by questions. The book fueled a hunger in the young girl for more.

“As I got a little older, I did chores for my grandmother,” Rickbone recalled. “Instead of money, I parlayed for magazine subscriptions, such as Saturday Review. Also, the Metropolitan Museum of Art put out 12 books. Inside were color plates of artwork. The books talked about great works of art. I cut my teeth on that when I did summer reading on the hanging swing or glider on my grandmother’s big Midwestern-style porch.”

Her grandmother’s home was half a block from what was then known as the Kansas State Teachers’ College.  “There was always summer theater — it was one of the longest running in the nation,” she said. “My grandmother and I would walk across the street and get on the campus and we’d go to plays.”

As host of the “Arts Talk” radio show, Catherine Rickbone (left) talked with Teresa Simmons, vice chair of the Siletz Tribal Arts and Heritage Society, about the group and its dream for a new building. Photo courtesy: Oregon Coast Council for the Arts
As host of the “Arts Talk” radio show, Catherine Rickbone (left) talked with Teresa Simmons, vice chair of the Siletz Tribal Arts and Heritage Society, about the group and its dream for a new building. Photo courtesy: Oregon Coast Council for the Arts

Rickbone also took advantage of the William Allen White Library across the street from her home, named for the founder of the Emporia Gazette and featuring a huge room of children’s books, where the girl would hang out for hours. Within walking distance was a Carnegie library. “I’d go to that library and read and look at things, so I had a lot of nurturing.”  

Rickbone, a poet and singer, eventually completed two bachelor’s and two master’s degrees. She married a Navy lieutenant, following him during their nearly 10-year marriage to towns along the East Coast.

She taught English, started her own mail-order business, and held positions in public relations and marketing. Eventually, the road led to Ashland, where she was an independent art consultant. The self-described “prairie woman … used to wind, wide open spaces, lightning and hail, storms and tornados,” found the town nice enough, but with mountains on both sides, a bit claustrophobic.

“There was no room to breathe, to stretch out, to vision,” she said. “Not that mountains aren’t inspiring, from a distance, just not up close and hovering.”

Searching for a new opportunity, Rickbone learned of a job opening in Newport, a town she hadn’t even known existed. Driving to the coastal town for her first interview, she recalls seeing the Performing Arts Center on her left and the glittering ocean before her. “That did it. I could vision again, breathe again, check the weather, and see it coming.”

The weather, however, did take some adjusting to — no four seasons; dreary, dark, damp, and depressing during fall, winter, and spring. She made it through to summer, coming out on the other side with the new knowledge that “drippy weather breeds creativity.”

During her time with the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts, Rickbone was instrumental in establishing the Coastal Oregon Visual Artist Showcase (COVAS) in the Visual Arts Center, which highlights midcareer Oregon visual artists while making a statement on visual arts ecology. She helped save the former Jazz at Newport festival, later renamed the Oregon Coast Jazz Party, and signed the first Metropolitan Opera Live in HD contract for the Performing Arts Center, second in popularity, she notes, only to the Jazz Party. She also helped establish a public arts policy for Newport. She remains a member of that city committee and continues to serve on the board for the Oregon Cultural Advocacy Coalition.

Lincoln County Counsel Wayne Belmont, who worked with Rickbone on numerous projects and committees, recalled the enthusiasm and energy she brought to every task.

Catherine Rickbone (left) joins sculptor Mary Lewis at her piece “Mother and Child,” which was a gift to the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts in 2014. Photo courtesy: Oregon Coast Council for the Arts
Catherine Rickbone (left) joins sculptor Mary Lewis at her piece “Mother and Child,” which was a gift to the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts in 2014. Photo courtesy: Oregon Coast Council for the Arts

“The term I’ve used is boundless energy,” he said. “Exuberance. It can be very contagious. She’s not going to be quietly sitting on the sidelines. I know she will continue to be a super volunteer.”

In announcing her retirement, Rickbone said budget retraints caused by the the COVID-19 shutdown make this an “excellent opportunity and the appropriate time” for her to step down. She added she is “contemplating my next opportunities in life, where I can use my skills of leadership to further other interests and causes important to me.” She said she believes the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts, which has laid off most of its staff because of COVID-19 budget constraints, will survive the pandemic, but it won’t be the same.

“When the time is right, I think our supporters will return,” she said. “Things may look different, but let’s face it, nothing takes the place of a live performance. The synergy and energy between stage and audience is magical. There are a lot of virtual tours and they are great… but there is nothing like an up close and personal look in real time at a work of art.

“I say the same thing about performing, you don’t get the buzz from online streaming … as you do when you are in that seat in the Alice Silverman Theatre. The stage has living people on it and something starts to happen. I’ve experienced it time and time again. I think those times will come back.”

*

This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

Dangerous Days: Being Black in America

Wondering why "Black Lives Matter" matters? The answer's baked into the nation's racial attitudes and its acceptance of police violence

These are the most dangerous days to be Black in America. 

On May 25, via social media, the world watched George Floyd be brutally murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin. Since then, America has erupted in racial and social unrest – protests, riots, statues toppled, flags changed, cops out of control. Historically, there’s nothing America hates more than being called out for its racism, and it will do anything to not have to change its ways. The response to calls for social justice have been one hundred percent on-brand. Violence, thick and pungent and unpredictable, is in the air. These are the days when, in the past, churches were bombed and children were killed, civil rights leaders were assassinated, men were lynched, civil wars were fought. At the best of times, Black people live with the knowledge that at any moment, for any reason, everything they have fought for, built, achieved, can suddenly be snatched away because of the color of their skin. We learn to live with that awareness at an early age.* But in times like these, that awareness needs to be turned up to defcon five, because white America is on the defensive.

Tributes to George Floyd outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis, where Floyd died after a police officer held a knee to his neck for nearly 8 minutes. Floyd’s death sparked a national protest movement that is still going strong. Photo: Vasanthtcs / Wikimedia Commons

Today it’s the Fourth of July. I was asked to write this a month ago. But it’s been hard. I wake up every day angry. A long time ago I had to take an anger management class. In that class they taught us that anger is never the first emotion. There’s always something underlying that drives it: fear, frustration, guilt, pain. This has never been more apparent than in the past month. I wake up some days and my hands are shaking and it feels like I’ve had three cups of coffee before I’ve touched a drop. Turning on the news or social media is like stepping into the ring with a heavyweight. Every day, every hour, every minute, there’s a new video, a new outrage, a new spasm of violence. Responding, reacting, donating, writing. It feels like you’re at the beach trying to mop up the ocean. 

Continues…

Blues minus the Waterfront

What's the Fourth of July Weekend without the Blues Festival by the river? On new platforms and minus the big crowds, the beat goes on.


PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE CANTRELL
STORY BY BOB HICKS


IN THIS MOST UPSIDE-DOWN OF YEARS, even the Fourth of July has had to change its tune. For more than three decades in Portland, the Fourth Weekend has meant heading on down to the Waterfront Blues Festival, that grand jam along the Willamette downtown in Tom McCall Waterfront Park, when several stages jostled and blared with nonstop music from around the nation and sometimes the world, and vendors sold everything from elephant ears and cold beer to floppy-brim hats, and thousands of music fans danced and marched and sang and stomped and cheered and crowded together like hundreds of oysters on dozens of po’ boy sandwiches, and at dusk on the Fourth the sky exploded with the brilliant colors of a thousand fireworks.

That’s not happening in this Year of the Corona. The Blues Fest was among the first big gatherings to peer into the future and call off the show, at least in its usual form. Yes, the lockdown’s loosening, cautiously, although maybe not nearly cautiously enough. Covid-19 cases are spiking in Oregon and nationally, people in stores and elsewhere are routinely defying orders to wear masks, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the closest thing to a national leader on pandemic response, is warning of a flareup to 100,000 new infections a day if Americans don’t follow protocols. You can get a haircut now – carefully – or distance-dine at a restaurant. But even as baseball and basketball are gearing up for shortened seasons, you can’t go out to a ballgame: the stands will be empty of fans. And you can’t go back-to-back and belly-to-belly in the sort of big crowd the Blues Fest ordinarily draws. We’re still a long way from that.

So, just say no to the waterfront. But don’t say no to the Waterfront Blues Festival – at least, not entirely. Pushed out of its comfort zone, the festival’s come up with some alternatives so the beat can go on. You can’t touch it. But you can hear it and you can feel it. Here’s what’s happening:

  • Blues Fest Band Wagon. Friday/Saturday, July 3 & 4. A series of socially distanced mini-concerts in driveways, front porches, and cul-de-sacs across the Portland metro area. Think of them as your friendly neighborhood jams.
  • Blues Fest Broadcast. 9-11 p.m. Saturday, July 4. Portland television station KOIN (6) will broadcast a two-hour special celebrating memorable performances from past festivals, and cap it off with a replay of festival fireworks over the river. Also stream online at www.koin.com.
  • Blues Fest on Air. Noon-7 p.m. Saturday/Sunday, July 4 & 5. Community radio KBOO-FM 90.7 will broadcast seven hours each day of favorite sets and behind-the-scenes tales from past festivals. Also stream online at https://kboo.fm/listen-now.

Still longing for the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd? Take a photographic journey with Joe Cantrell to the Ancient Days of 2018 and 2019, when the Blues Festival crowds roamed wild and free along the waterfront, bumping and jostling and hugging and laughing in a happy mass of humanity, and the music wrapped around them like a blanket with a beat, and the good times rolled. As they used to say in Brooklyn, wait ’til next year. Maybe they’ll roll again.


THE MUSICMAKERS


Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, 2019

Continues…

Homeward Unbound

Resetting Oregon arts policy for the post-Covid age

Oregon arts are in big trouble. The Covid crisis has, as in many parts of our society, exposed critical flaws in the ways Oregon supports its performing arts. Former Portland Opera Managing Director Christopher Mattaliano lays out some of the primary causes in his ArtsWatch story Will Portland Protect its ‘Big 5’?

Portland5’s Newmark Theatre

I think that’s the wrong question. The right question is: in the new reality shaped by declining support for big performing institutions, likely new restrictions on big crowds, and a long overdue need for greater diversity, equity and inclusion in the arts, how should Portland and Oregon support the arts? Rather than squander energy futilely trying to “protect” a doomed, dated, unsustainable set of 19th century institutions from 21st century reality, we should use this crisis as a chance to radically transform a model that, as Mattaliano noted, wasn’t working all that great before the virus struck. And we want Oregon ArtsWatch to be the place where we discuss that transformation. I’ll touch it off with a proposal that looks for salvation — or at least evolution — in an entirely different direction than what we might call the old MAGA (Make Art Great Again) model: more decentralized, more democratic, more equitable and inclusive, and, I hope, less susceptible to viral outbreaks.

Dire Diagnosis

Mattaliano and others are right that even Oregon’s — really, America’s — arts funding model was broken long before that virus jumped over to our species. 

The art costs too much. Mattaliano — and every fundraising letter from every major arts organization — notes that ticket revenues cover only a fraction (the number varies for different companies) of the costs of a production. “This financial reality – that arts organizations actually lose money every time they produce an exhibit, performance, etc – is often bewildering,” to non-insiders, Mattaliano wrote. “It must seem like such a terrible business model!” 

It is. But that just begs the real question: why are companies producing art that can’t pay for itself? Either its costs are too high or its audience appeal is too low. Apparently, Mega MAGA art isn’t worth it to the existing audience. “The subscription model, which has been the life-blood of so many arts organizations, was already faltering and on life support,” he wrote. “Consumers simply are not purchasing season subscriptions as they once did.” 

Why? Other kinds of music, like any Oregon hip hop or indie rock band, seem to survive without subscriptions just fine. That doesn’t mean that opera or orchestral music or high end paintings shouldn’t exist. It’s merely to acknowledge that, at least as currently constituted, they cost more than other art forms, and, unless ways can be found to reduce those costs (see below) or expand their audiences, then somebody has to pay that difference, either the users or somebody else. 

Eugene’s Hult Center for the Performing Arts.

The solution to this disconnect between what the old guard wants to perform and what audiences are willing to pay to hear has hitherto been to rely on deep-pocketed enablers — other funding sources to fill the gap. And as Mattaliano notes, these days, “somebody elses”  — donors, taxpayers, foundations, audiences — are no longer enough. Previously reliable funding pillars, private (foundations and wealthy donors) and public (government), Mattaliano notes, have pulled back support, or provided relatively little to begin with. Oregon’s cozy pool of generous arts donors is either tapped out (“donor fatigue”) or aging out — no realistic prospect of increased funding from there.

As for public support, we can debate whether institutions overwhelmingly devoted to recycling decade or centuries old creations from Europe merit the same public support as actual public goods like schools, universities, libraries (where much of the art of the past can be experienced virtually, through books or recordings), not to mention predatory police and our imperialistic military industrial complex. Regardless, as Mattaliano explains, it seems unlikely that significant relief will be coming from those quarters.

Size Matters

Why the lack of support? Mattaliano addresses this too. “What type of arts organization is the community willing to support?” he asks. Great question! Increasingly, he and Portland Opera found, it wasn’t what the old model offered. 

Mattaliano accurately attributes some of this lack of support to what he calls “the ‘anti-big’ sentiment that exists in Portland – from some foundations, government arts agencies, and even individuals. I’ve never quite understood it,” Mattaliano wrote. “In most mid-sized American cities, the sentiment is: ‘If we’re going to be a great city, of course we need a great museum, theater company, etc. – they’re a source of pride for the community and deserving of our support.”

One problem is that our arts palaces lock in comparably palatial costs. In this grave new world, bigness, in fact, is actually a bug, not a feature. “The immense and costly apparatus of culture — theaters, opera houses, and orchestra halls — have become a liability, ill-suited to the COVID-19 age,” writes one of America’s finest critics, New York magazine’s Justin Davidson. Producing in mega-venues like Portland5 or the Hult Center is so expensive that they discourage artistic risk as well as affordable tickets. The unviability of the centralized, large-scale approach will be exacerbated by the new virus-imposed restrictions coming down the pike if this crisis proves to be more than a one-time aberration. If we’re to rethink future performance, lowering costs (and therefore risks, and barriers to entry by local artists) has to be a big part of it, possibly including tech-like streaming. 

Still, venue and company size — what we might call the Godzilla Test — aren’t the only reasons why the community isn’t willing to support Big 5 style productions in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed. Portlanders, and Oregonians in general, aren’t necessarily against big entertainment institutions because of their size or ticket prices, as any Trail Blazers game or major rock show at venues like the Moda Center and Memorial Coliseum reveals. 

Yet in Portland arts, at least, “big” doesn’t always equal “great.” When it comes to size, in the words of the old R&B song, “It ain’t the meat, it’s the motion,” and despite changes in demographics, technology, and culture, those big old companies haven’t moved very far from the old European-tradition models of what constitutes greatness. Even in the classical music tradition, Oregon’s chamber music groups and organizations, which require far less subsidy than operas or orchestras, display far greater cultural relevance than the big companies, which are forced by their very size to fill the seats in those giant venues. So why keep feeding the white elephants?

Importing Cultural Cred

The “bigger is better” mentality wasn’t the old MAGA model’s only shortcoming. What also keeps operas and orchestra concerts from paying for themselves, or attracting donations and ticket sales sufficient to pay for them, is the outdated notion that civic “greatness” stems from 19th century European institutions like opera companies and symphony orchestras. Why should “greatness” equate to “old” and European? 

Mattaliano is right that in the 20th century, upwardly mobile metropolitan leaders pursued cultural credibility by looking to the signifiers of major European and East Coast metropoli. If London, Paris, New York all had big opera companies on the European model, so the thinking went, if we get one and imitate them, then ipso facto, we’re great too! Instant elite-certified cultural cred, without those annoying, carbon Bigfootprint flights to New York or San Francisco.

Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Suzuki and Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San in Portland Opera's 2019 production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.
Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Suzuki and Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San in Portland Opera’s 2019 production of Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly.’ Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

But even if you accept the notion that greatness comes from outside rather than being homegrown, then why is cultural cred conferred by only some (white) traditional culture? Who says that an opera company performing the racist century-old Italian tragedy Madame Butterfly for the umpteenth time is “greater” than, say, the equally long tradition of Indian music (extremely relevant to much of the population in the part of Oregon where I live) or West African or Japanese taiko or Indonesian gamelan percussion ensembles or new music by Portland composers, or by rappers or rockers, both of whom work in a musical tradition with African roots? Yet which of these traditions — none born in the USA —  absorbs a disproportionate share of subsidies and ‘cultural’ space, literally and otherwise? And if the answer is, well, more Americans come out to hear Puccini than Pak Cokro, then we’re judging by numbers, and by that standard, we should be subsidizing Springsteen and Beyonce instead. And even with, say, Verdi, how many would find that expensive art worth buying a ticket for if they weren’t subsidized? 

I’m a fan of European classical music and have spent a good portion of my career writing about it and hearing it live. (I’m listening to glorious Mozart as I type this.) But I don’t believe my personal cultural preference deserves taxpayer subsidy (whether directly to companies or indirectly through tax-deductible contributions or venue funding) more than other robust art forms. I’m all for subsidizing the arts — but which arts? Not just those considered ‘great’ by a certain class and mostly, let’s face it, race. If people like me want to see art in the classical European tradition, then we should pay for it — not other people, not unless other, homegrown, culturally diverse institutions get their appropriate share of the taxpayer pie. I’d be happy if our society would continue to dole out taxpayer money (through indirect or direct subsidy, like the venues) to orchestras and opera companies at pre-Covid rates. But only if it also gives equal weight to other arts traditions and forms.

Jettison the Middle Man

This isn’t to deny the value that (as Mattaliano rightly cites) the Big 5 add to Portland’s arts scene (or Eugene’s, or Oregon’s in general) as “anchors” for smaller spinoff organizations, educational opportunities, etc. For example, many members of ensembles like 45th Parallel have day jobs in the Oregon Symphony.

But like any anchor, by soaking up so much support, the funding that those mostly backward-looking big organizations garner from public and private sources also prevents the vessel from moving forward. And forward motion is essential in a time when evolving demographics and social distancing and other changes threaten to swamp the lovely old relic. Why should taxpayers and donors have to support a 19th century arts model like Portland Opera or Oregon Symphony in order for a fraction of those benefits to trickle down to, say, FearNoMusic? If we want to support socially responsive homegrown contemporary music like that worthy organization and others provide, why not just fund them directly, and cut out the middle man that devotes the vast bulk of its programming to old music made elsewhere? Pay those musicians a living wage through direct support, and they won’t need to treat them as side gigs. I’ve certainly seen plenty of performances of smaller-scale works by non-opera or non-symphony musicians that are better played — orchestral and chamber playing are very different skills — and more rehearsed than those moonlighting from their day jobs.

The Hult Center’s Silva Concert Hall.

It’s about at this point that some other defenders of the so-called high arts, including some who’ve never before evinced much tangible concern about people of color, suddenly notice that those audiences are often overwhelmingly white. They righteously demand ticket subsidies— not to protect their jobs and cultural preferences, of course, but for the noble cause of enlightening the poor. Mattaliano correctly notes that subsidies, whether private or public, benefit not the rich — who can afford to pay full freight — but the 99 percent, or maybe 88 percent, who can’t.

Of course, plenty of poor people and the rest of the 99% like me do want to hear operas and symphonies, just as plenty of moguls headbang to low-fi metal. But restoring the dwindling subsidies to 19th century cultural institutions is hardly the most efficient, let alone democratic way to help the poor — and in our unequal society, that disproportionately means people of color. It essentially lets the high-culture establishment — not the poor — paternalistically dictate what art gets subsidized. And that tends to be the retro, imported art that the mostly white, mostly well-off establishment deems worthy, not necessarily what the people they say they want to help actually want to hear. 

This isn’t to say that if you like Bach, you’re perforce a white supremacist or racist, of course. It’s not the music itself that’s the problem, but the funding priorities (whether in venue or organizational subsidies) that support it. By privileging support for a certain kind of art — one born in a white, European tradition and still predominantly consisting of repertoire by white composers — over other art forms, including African American originated music like jazz or hip hop, on the grounds of its cultural superiority, the MAGA funding model looks a whole lot like white cultural supremacy manifested in concert halls, even if those playing and enjoying the music would never call themselves white supremacists. As Eugene Symphony music director Francesco Lecce-Chong recently wrote, “The fact is that our collective programming across the U.S. has failed on every level to bring diversity into the concert hall – living composers, women composers, Black composers, Latinx composers, Asian composers, even American composers are all woefully underrepresented on stage.”

If we want to make sure poor people can experience art — great, then again, let’s cut out the middle man: Subsidize those Oregonians — not elite cultural institutions — directly, through a universal basic income or other taxpayer-financed payments, and let them choose what to spend their entertainment dollars on. If they choose to spend it on the symphony, how cool would that be? If they don’t, well, maybe opera companies and orchestras can start earning their support, asking them what they want to hear — and providing it. Unless of course they think they know better than the people they purport to serve. 

Look Homeward

Many institutions are pondering how to respond to this spring’s crisis. As Christopher Mattaliano put it: “I remain hopeful that the current time will be a period of deep creative thinking and possible solutions. Perhaps Portland can become a leader in reimagining how its local arts groups, large and small, can serve and lead their community – but based on what’s realistic economically and on what the community has demonstrated it is willing to support.”

Exactly. Instead of trying to protect what we had before, let’s promote what we want and need now. In Oregon arts, I think it’s time for a Deep Reset, defined by writer Cal Newport: “like Odysseus, we can allow the disruption — painful as it is — to spark the resolve needed to find our way out of the underworld, fight to get our affairs back in order, and then, when the time comes, with a mix of humility and purpose: transform our lives into something deeper …. The best response to deep disruption, in other words, is often a deep reset.”

Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall

Decisions about community support for the arts — or anything else — should be guided by community values. Here are the principles I think should guide Oregon’s art support reset.  

Homegrown. I challenge the whole idea that in a great city, greatness comes from importing ideas from outside. I think greatness — in the arts or anything else — comes from within. Oregon’s art supporters, public and private, should prioritize nurturing our own creative artists, not old art created by non-Oregonians. “Composers are better positioned to save our culture than traditional music is,” Pulitzer Prize winning composer David Lang told New York magazine, “because if you’re designing a new piece and a new experience you can try to make the situation seem as normal as possible.”

Equitable and inclusive. Like the rest of our public policy, Oregon’s art support has neglected artists of color in favor of cultural supremacist notions that art created by white Europeans deserves support more than that created by black and brown Oregon artists, many of whom are creating innovative, powerful music in non-classical traditions. Our public art should support their creativity, including supplying venues all over the state that are right-sized and right-priced to allow as broad a segment of the community as possible to create and enjoy them. 

Creative, not passive. Instead of the old, big, top-down approach that encourages Oregonians to sit back and passively consume Great Art (as defined by 19th century European criteria) created ages ago and worlds away, a reset arts policy should support the creative work of Oregon artists (and might-be artists in schools) through grants, interest-free loans and accessible performance venues. Let presenters — not just backscratching artists — in on the decisions about what art gets funded. After all, they’re the ones who have skin in the game — a market incentive to make sure the art actually appeals to an audience greater than the creators themselves.

Decentralized, Distributed, Democratic, Diverse. Let those who want to enjoy those elephantine Euro-experiences, as well as touring Broadway shows and concerts by non-Oregonians, have them — as long as they (we, because I count myself a fan too) pay for them. If they can’t, either sell off costly venues that no longer respond to the artistic needs of vast parts of our multicultural 21st century state, or refurbish/refashion them to support homegrown creativity. When it comes to support, ditch the edifice complex and instead pay existing venues — concert halls, churches, theaters, community centers — to refurbish themselves to fit the art today’s Oregonians are making. Work with local architects and designers. Ensure that affordable, flexible, right-sized venues exist throughout the state, including in underserved areas, not just big-city downtowns. Pay the venues what it takes, up to a reasonable limit, to price tickets affordably, like $10, on a sliding scale. 

Fear No Music performing Oregon music Portland’s Old Church Concert Hall. Photo: John Rudoff.

How would those principles operate in practice? Chamber ensembles and even chamber orchestras (which would allow musicians to maintain safe distance from each other) will continue to exist and perform, though maybe not in Schnitzer-sized venues. Think Portland Columbia Symphony, Oregon Mozart Players, and community orchestras. After all, Haydn did pretty well with a compact orchestra at Esterhazy, and the Louisville Orchestra earned a worldwide reputation for its mid-20th century commissions of new music by American composers from Duke Ellington to Lou Harrison. As we’re all constantly reminded these days, there are always YouTube and other online options if you want to stream Great Orchestras playing hoary classics. Personally, I’ll miss the Big 5 experience, even as I understand that it might not be sustainable in the 21st century.

“If we can’t import talent, which is what our whole industry thrives on, we lose a lot of profound experiences,” the superb new music flutist and entrepreneur Claire Chase told Davidson. “But look at what we gain. An institution that has never paid much attention to new work or local artists all of a sudden has to pay attention to them.”

Instead of funding MAGA art made elsewhere and elsewhen, let’s devote taxpayer dollars to programs and places that nurture Oregon’s own art, analogous to the way some New Deal programs paid for made-in-America art and artists we still venerate. Take the money that now goes to fly in European artists and spend it on organizations like Cascadia Composers, Creative Music Guild, Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, and other locavore institutions that encourage Oregonians to create their own music — including hip hop, electronica, rock and whatever those crazy kids these days are listening to .

Of course a few — or rather, a few thousand — details need to be worked out. I’m a journalist, Jim, not an architect or policy wonk. And clearly they’ll depend on the timing and shape of the economy’s recovery, whenever and however that happens. But the general principles — homegrown vs. import, actively creative vs. passively receptive, human-scale vs. Bigfoot or Godzilla — can guide us. A strategy like this would gain the public support that Mattaliano rightly says the old model can’t any longer, because it appeals to Oregon’s anti-big values, our taste for locally grown products from beer to food, and our Western reluctance to mindlessly follow the elitist dictates of East Coast tastemakers. 

What would that Oregon art scene look like?  It might not have its own Great Orchestra or Opera presenting the last two centuries’ classics for elite audiences to passively imbibe. Socially distant performances will become the norm, possibly even after a vaccine arrives. Audiences might number in the dozens or scores rather than thousands — better for virus transmission prevention — and in smaller venues. (It might look something like this. Or maybe this.)

But there’d be more performances, of more kinds, in more places all over towns, not just a few mega-palaces. And the new arts scene would instead have thousands of newly empowered creative artists, representing a much wider demographic swath of Oregonians, making far more diverse art that speaks to Oregonians here and now. A state that invests in the creativity of all its citizens rather than the passive experience of other times and places sounds pretty Great to me. 

How do you think Oregon arts support should look when the great restart finally happens? I hope we can use this summer of enforced introspection for a radical rethinking of what art Oregon supports, publicly and privately. ArtsWatch is the ideal venue for that discussion. We invite readers and arts leaders to reimagine where that public money would go in a new era if we don’t have to keep feeding the white elephant that’s been faltering for years now. Let’s envision ways our arts scene could be more responsive to local needs (both audiences and creative artists), more accessible and appealing to diverse Oregonians, and more compatible with how performance will work post pandemic. Leave your brief thoughts in the comments section below, and then email your more extensive ideas to us at music@orartswatch.org and we’ll consider running some of them here on ArtsWatch.

Want to read more cultural news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!

Will Portland protect its ‘Big 5’?

The city's precarious arts funding structure and "small is better" ethos imperil the major arts groups, Portland Opera's former leader says


By CHRISTOPHER MATTALIANO


It was difficult to read a recent Willamette Week article (May 21) about Portland Opera canceling its fall season. I love the company. I’m very grateful for the 16 years I served as General Director and I wish to see it thrive. The article was also difficult to read because of significant inaccuracies. To write that the company has suffered from “years of substantial deficit” is simply not true. This can be verified by examining the financial documents on the company website.

But I’m not writing today to correct faulty characterizations of what has occurred in the past. Instead, I’ve been thinking about Portland, its arts organizations, and our future together. This time of quarantine provides an opportunity to take a “big picture” look at Portland’s arts community and what may lie ahead, post-pandemic.

First, let’s look back at the economic support conditions prior to the pandemic. The subscription model, which has been the life-blood of so many arts organizations, was already faltering and on life support. Consumers simply are not purchasing season subscriptions as they once did. There are a number of reasons why this has happened. Michael Kaiser, who has led many nonprofits and is known as the Turnaround King, has written extensively on the subject. There’s general agreement that the subscription model may improve somewhat in the years ahead, but it’s not coming back anywhere near where it was 20 years ago.

Christopher Mattaliano. Photo: Portland Opera


A number of Portland foundations that previously provided dependable, annual operating support have changed their focus and funding priorities. This often happens over time, particularly with a change of foundation leadership. Arts organizations have had to adjust quickly, as foundations have either reduced their support or no longer support the city’s arts organizations at all.

Continues…

Portland Art Museum sets reopening

The museum, shut since March 14, will begin a phased reopening in July. Beset by lost income, it also announces a round of layoffs.

The Portland Art Museum, shuttered since March 14 because of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, is making plans to reopen in the second week of July. The reopening will be phased, with limits on the number of visitors allowed inside the building at any one time, and many details are still being worked out. “We’ll have more information in coming weeks, but we know museum operations and visitor numbers will need to be smaller at first due to precautions and restrictions for community health, including ongoing gathering restrictions that may prevent Northwest Film Center programs and museum event rentals from reopening for some time to come,” museum spokesperson Ian Gillingham said in an email Thursday afternoon.

Bad news arrived with the good: Effective July 1, the museum will lay off 51 full-time and 72 part-time workers. The cuts will reduce staffing costs for the cash-strapped museum by roughly one-third, and the museum hopes many of the layoffs will be temporary, Gillingham said.

“These layoffs are directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic and in no way reflect upon the dedication and talent of those who are affected,” museum Director Brian Ferriso wrote in a letter to staff that was sent Thursday. “I very much value and appreciate every member of the staff, your patience and your continued dedication to this institution.”

The museum had refrained from fully laying off staff earlier in the shutdown by using staff leaves, federal pandemic relief, and private emergency support that kept workers on the books through June. That effort has now ended.

“We can begin to rehire some of the laid-off staff as business needs allow, and as funding is available,” Ferriso continued. “We have been and will continue to be committed to advancing racial equity in our staffing and programming. I am deeply sorry to those impacted by this, and remain hopeful that we will be able to bring many people back as the crisis subsides and restrictions are lifted.”

Robert Colescott, “Knowledge of the Past is the Key to the Future: Upside Down Jesus and the Politics of Survival,” 1987, acrylic on canvas. Portland Art Museum purchase: Robert Hale Ellis Jr. Fund for the Blanche Eloise Day Ellis and Robert Hale Ellis Memorial Collection. © 1987 Robert Colescott. A Colescott retrospective will be on view when the museum reopens in July.

Continues…

Virtual and vital: Strike up the band

Caught short by the pandemic, the Metropolitan Youth Orchestra takes to technology and shows that shutdown doesn't have to mean shut up

On that dark day in March when Oregon began to shut down, Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s leaders knew they had to move fast. “As soon as we knew we were going into lockdown, we tried as quickly as possible to transition to what’s next,” recalls music director Raúl Gómez. The Portland organization had to cancel not only its four upcoming spring concerts, but also its weekly Saturday rehearsals and its classes, affecting more than 500 students in 14 orchestra, band, string and jazz ensembles, including the 90-member Symphony Orchestra, and in beginning strings and theory classes. MYS leaders knew nothing could fully replace the lost programming, but they were determined not to leave a musical void in their teenage students’ lives.

“We had to find a way to keep the students engaged,” Gómez says, “to keep making music in some way.” 

Raúl Gómez conducts MYS way back in the days when they could all play together on stage.

But how? Governor Kate Brown’s emergency announcement prohibited gatherings required to put on a concert or a group rehearsal in the band rooms at its regular Northeast Portland and Hillsboro high schools. Nevertheless, MYS found a way to rethink — if not entirely replace — its major programs, including its crown jewel season closing concert. ArtsWatch readers, and everyone else, can see the result on their own screens this Saturday.

Virtual Hangouts

The closing concert represents only the most publicly visible of MYS’s many offerings. Still, other changes were quickly adoptable. Like other educational institutions, MYS could move its educational efforts online without much change in content, including the weekly Saturday sessions and tuition-free Beginning Strings Program, says MYS executive director Diana Scoggins, albeit with all the drawbacks that come with the inability to offer hands-on instruction. 

And they immediately scrambled to switch their upcoming annual fundraising gala, just two weeks away, to an online platform. The staff worked remotely, with only Scoggins occasionally coming into the office. So far, the organization hasn’t had to lay off anyone.

“Because our year was already in place, we adapted,” Scoggins says. “The challenge was getting the tech arranged and communicating to let people know.” Unlike many other arts organizations that depend on ticket sales for funding, “we’re tuition-based, so we had the freedom to tackle the transition as best we could. We just kept going.”

MYS Executive Director Diana Scoggins

But those stopgaps still left an absence for many MYS musicians, who, Gómez knew, relied on the organization for more than just music lessons and performances. They were already missing much of the interaction and community provided by their regular schools as well as MYS.

“To not be able to make music together has made us very aware of the value of being a community that comes together once a week to do something together,” Gómez explains. “For any musician, the social aspect of it we all miss — to be there with others to do something  you love — is the biggest drawback.”

 How could MYS help keep them engaged in music? To maintain a sense of structure in students’ lives, Gómez didn’t want to let even the first canceled Saturday rehearsal period go unfilled. “Here’s this free time we suddenly have, and how do you take advantage of the time?” Gómez asked himself.


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


He decided to set up a livestreamed program for the students, featuring recordings of all the pieces intended for the now-canceled concert program, as he’d seen a few other organizations do. One problem: “I didn’t know how to do it,” he says. Being a bit of a tech geek himself, Gómez plunged into research, eventually settling on a platform normally used for multiplayer online gaming. They notified the orchestra members, he set up the recordings, and off they went.

“It was super fun,” Gómez remembers of that first, test-run stream. “The kids were asking questions and typing in lots of comments. They were really engaged and interactive, so after we got through that first session, I talked with Diana and [MYS operations director] Chris [Whittemore] and said, why didn’t we try doing a daily live stream, where I talk with some cool people and see what happens?” 

Go for it, they said. “I went to Best Buy and bought a computer powerful enough to edit and stream video, and the very next day, we had a session with Sarah Tiedemann from Third Angle,” Gómez remembers. “By Monday everything was pretty much in place.” 

Since then, MYS Virtual Hangouts has been running from Tuesday-Friday at 4 p.m. on the MYS YouTube Channel, with Gómez hosting from his home studio. Guests in the more than 40 sessions have included Oregon Symphony principal cellist Nancy Ives and fellow cellist and OSO artist-in-residence Johannes Moser, prize-winning composers Caroline Shaw and Gabriela Lena Frank, composer/ teacher/ FearNoMusic artistic director and one-time Portland Youth Philharmonic violist Kenji Bunch, answering student questions, sharing life stories, musical advice and even world premiere collaborations with local musicians. 

 “For us as an educational institution, it’s been such a gold mine,” Gómez says. “It’s been so encouraging for the kids, such a community builder, with a vast array of families involved.” Parents like it, too. “I’ve seen fantastic feedback from parents,” Scoggins reports, citing emails expressing “deep appreciation for  how we’ve been able to continue the educational process, to keep the sense of community going when kids don’t have school.”

Virtual Concert

As valuable as those efforts proved to both students and parents, something was still missing. Scrapping the closing May concert especially hurt, as it represented the culmination of a year’s worth of hard work for nearly 100 students. For the graduating seniors, it annually provided a sense of closure, their final chance to make music with their friends. What could replace it?

On May 19-21, Eugene Springfield Youth Orchestras, facing a similar challenge, streamed a kind of sequential recital, featuring its members playing solo pieces. (See all three streams here.) But Gómez wanted an actual orchestral concert. Not in person, of course. But how to create a virtual performance with 14 ensembles and 90 musicians playing separately?

Now equipped with video and audio editing skills and equipment, Gómez thought he could make it happen. The students would each record their own part for every piece at home, send it to Gómez — and then he’d painstakingly weave each audio track, supplied by as many different digital devices as there were members of the orchestra, into a completed tapestry: a complete orchestral piece. 

Or rather, pieces. Because MYS’s closing concert celebrating the end of spring term featured a work by each of the organization’s 14 ensembles, including jazz, strings, and orchestras. To make the May 30 livestream deadline, every player would need to send her or his recorded part to Gómez by May 15. First, he (remotely) met with each of the conductors to select a piece for their respective ensembles to play in the closing virtual concert. 

But how would they play together without a conductor to keep everyone in tempo? The answer: click tracks, a metronomic beat played in headphones that studio musicians often use when recording. Gómez and the conductors recorded appropriate click tracks for each part on each piece and emailed them to the students. Over the next month, the students practiced their individual parts with those beats clicking in their ears. They’d record themselves playing and send the recordings to their conductors, who coached the students online via Zoom sessions.

“For students to have to challenge themselves to record these tracks was a big learning opportunity,” Gómez said. The students needed two devices each: one to play the click track, another to record them playing their part and send it to the conductors. 

Image from an MYS Virtual Hangout

Surprisingly, access to the needed technology didn’t pose a barrier to even the most impoverished students. “Everybody has a phone and the kids often have better technology than their parents,” Gómez says. They did have to help some people with the upload process, and a helpful MYS parent made an instructional video showing students and parents how to record video of themselves playing their parts.

But technology itself wasn’t the major obstacle. Keeping their playing in sync to the click tracks proved to be “a real challenge for many of our students,” Gómez acknowledges. In effect, they’re like a metronome, and “the metronome doesn’t lie. I tell them, it’s your best friend and your worst enemy. It tells the truth — and sometimes the truth hurts. It was a challenge, especially for the younger kids.” But ultimately it pushed them to firm up their playing, possibly even more than they would have in the past, without so much time to practice alone with their click tracks. “And by the end, on the 15th we had all these videos in,” Gómez says. 

Then Gómez’s real work began: with help from Whittemore, he embarked on a two-week binge of compiling, editing (including employing noise reduction and other techniques), mixing and balancing dozens of tracks recorded from very different audio sources, and amalgamating them into cohesive band, ensemble and orchestral pieces. And then also constructing videos showing the students performing them, using panning, zooms, transitions, multiple square images….  

MYS music director Raúl Gómez. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

“I am currently a full-time audio and video editor and part time interviewer,” he laughs. “I have two large computer monitors in front of me and I’m looking at a whole bunch of video and audio tracks. Just making one of these is a challenge. But fourteen! It’s pretty labor-intensive but I’m really enjoying doing this. It was hard work for all of us, but it’s going to pay off on May 30th; we’re all going to get to enjoy the videos with kids and families and everybody else watching around the world.” 

Live from his home studio, Gómez will host the livestream on MYS’s YouTube and Facebook pages. Each MYS conductor will introduce their group’s virtual performance made from the students’ home recordings, including music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Miles Davis, Tchaikovsky and much more. 

Silver Linings

MYS has made a virtue of necessity, actively adapting to the pandemic challenge to derive surprising benefits from what could have been a disappointing end to spring term. 

• The Virtual Concert will make the students’ performances much more accessible to distant or homebound family members than they ever could be live. 

• For the students, playing to click tracks has sharpened their musical chops, and learning how to make videos will benefit many in future if they need to record audition videos, for example, for school or job applications.

• Gómez and his fellow MYS conductors have learned valuable video and audio editing and remote teaching techniques.

• The weekly rehearsals and hangouts have also helped students sustain their community of fellow young musicians. 

• The Virtual Hangouts have given students and parents a creative way to fill the enforced home-together time and helped sustain their community of music makers. And they’ve afforded Gómez much more time “to do things during normal rehearsals we don’t have time to do,” he explains. “I always wish I had more time to talk about the music we’re playing and to spend time learning about the composers or world events around a piece of music, but normally with our deadlines and concerts we don’t have that luxury. We have been doing that through blog posts and our newsletter, but using YouTube or Zoom, now we have the time to play students three different recordings of the same section of a piece, and discuss why those choices were made. It’s a chance to address our music making from different perspectives. That whole element was an enriching experience for me and each conductor. I learned a lot from them.”

• The hangouts have also inspired Gómez to think differently about teaching. “Honestly I enjoy it so much,” he says. “On a personal level that has given me a lot of inspiration and motivation to keep finding ways to connect and try and innovate and continue to keep the students engaged.”

Lasting Impact

It’s hard for MYS or any other arts organization to predict how things will change after the crisis finally subsides. They’re planning for different scenarios for the fall, and about to make a decision on whether to go forward with their Portland Summer Ensembles music camp. Some things will definitely change; for example, students who want to participate in MYS will audition by video. (See instructions on the website.) 

But Scoggins hopes to put what they’ve learned this spring to good use going forward. “On the upside, some tremendous energy is gained by moving online so we’ll want to look at how to use online events or sessions or classes to deepen the experience,” she says. “In terms of access, there’s a lot we’re learning having to do this and we’ll definitely look at incorporating that in the future, and to use the online capacity make it even more of a substantial program, to reach more kids, to spend more time on learning.”

Raúl Gómez conducts Metropolitan Youth Symphony. Photo: Richard Kolbell.

Gómez suspects the imaginative attitude the crisis has forced on MYS and other organizations will pay dividends after it abates. “We’re forced to be creative and learn a bunch of new skills. My hope is that going into next season, we can apply some of the lessons we’ve learned over the last couple of months in our regular programming,” he says, “to find ways to enrich our students’ experience next season through these new vehicles.”

 That goes for more than MYS. “Since we were all forced to go into this parallel universe, this has forced all of us in the Portland performing arts community to really be creative and think outside the box in the ways we present our art and the ways we educate our young musicians,” Gómez says. “We all need to stay positive and remain optimistic about the short term and mid term future of what we’re doing. I realize that’s an extremely hard thing to do, especially for artists who’ve lost income and are experiencing very real concerns about their financial stability and livelihood. But it’s important for all of us as a community and as professional artists to think about how can we strengthen our profession and re-evaluate our business models. How can organizations plan for a future where this could happen again? How do we create structures and programs that reach our audiences and generate income for all of us going forward? 

“I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I think as we try to remain positive and optimistic, we also need to take a hard look at the future and shape how we’re going to continue to exist in this twilight zone we’re living in right now. It will have a lasting impact on what we do — and it should.”

***

Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s Virtual Concert Finale streams Saturday at 7 pm on MYS’s YouTube and Facebook pages.

***

Want to read more cultural news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch!