CULTURE

How Portland’s big dance organizations responded to Black Lives Matter

Portland's very white dance companies attracted blowback from the dance community and agreed to change

For the past several weeks, conversations and arguments around race and the arts have arisen nationally and locally. In the Portland dance community, they’ve been driven by the dancers themselves, many of whom  have concluded that the city’s big companies—Oregon Ballet Theatre, BodyVox and NW Dance Project, along with its major dance presenter, White Bird—could do a lot more than they’ve done in addressing systemic racism in both the art form and their own organizations. And they’ve taken to Instagram and Facebook to express their opinions. 

“It takes someone in a position of power to advocate for someone who is disenfranchised,” said DarVejon Jones, a Black choreographer, teacher, and dancer in Portland. Jones explained what he and many Black Americans have experienced: that you can’t speak up because you fear the systems of power in place around you. “That’s what white supremacy says, it makes you feel like you have no agency to talk about your own life. When you do, you feel like a squeaky wheel,” he said recently in an interview with me. 

Nonetheless, he and many other local dancers have been speaking up. And having been prodded, the dance companies have responded, often defensively and often without the clarity that might satisfy their dancers, the dance community and even their boards of directors.

ArtsWatch asked the leadership of the Big Four some questions about how they are reacting to Black Lives Matter and its implications. Each company is different: different history, different financial arrangements, different artistic focus. But for the first time in some cases, they are hearing criticism from the dance community itself and they are all looking intensely at the same problem. Here’s what we found.

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Fraying Around the Edges

Fighting the hockogrokles: Amid the storms of pandemic and racial reckoning, Friderike Heuer's photo montages sail into the new reality

“When […] I first dabbled in this Art, the old Distemper call’d Melancholy, was exchang’d for the Vapours, and afterwards for the Hypp, and at last took up to the now current Appellation of the Spleen, which it still retains, tho’ a learned Doctor of the West, in a little Tract he hath written, divides the Spleen and Vapours, not only into the Hypp, the Hyppos, and the Hyppocons; but subdivides these Divisions into the Markambles, the Moon-palls, the Strong-Fives, and the Hockogrokles.”

–Physician Nicholas Robinson, 1732

***

FREE ME OF THE HOCKOGROKLES. … Isn’t that what we all wish when the sadness hits again, no matter how justified the emotion is in response to external events?

I came across these inventive nomenclatures for depression when reading up on a 17th and 18th century English woman poet, Anne Finch, who took the topic of melancholy, solidly in male hands at the time, and ran with it. Wrong word. She didn’t run with it. She inspected it, talked to it, turned it inside out, related it to science, and, in the end, seemingly threw up her hands in resignation and surrender.

I had dug out her poem on melancholy, among other reasons, to reaffirm the notion that artists across history resort to creative action when grappling with hard times. Clearly, I was wishing for company in my own attempts to integrate current events, and the feelings they incite, into my artistic practice, with the latest results shown in today’s photomontages.

“Ardelia to Melancholy”

At last, my old inveterate foe,
No opposition shalt thou know.
Since I by struggling, can obtain
Nothing, but encrease of pain,
I will att last, no more do soe,
Tho’ I confesse, I have apply’d
Sweet mirth, and musick, and have try’d
A thousand other arts beside,
To drive thee from my darken’d breast,
Thou, who hast banish’d all my rest. 
But, though sometimes, a short repreive they gave,
Unable they, and far too weak, to save;
All arts to quell, did but augment thy force,
As rivers check’d, break with a wilder course.

Freindship, I to my heart have laid,
Freindship, th’ applauded sov’rain aid,
And thought that charm so strong wou’d prove,
As to compell thee, to remove; 
And to myself, I boasting said,
Now I a conqu’rer sure shall be,
The end of all my conflicts, see,
And noble tryumph, wait on me;
My dusky, sullen foe, will sure
N’er this united charge endure.
But leaning on this reed, ev’n whilst I spoke
It peirc’d my hand, and into peices broke.
Still, some new object, or new int’rest came
And loos’d the bonds, and quite disolv’d the claim. 

These failing, I invok’d a Muse,
And Poetry wou’d often use,
To guard me from thy Tyrant pow’r;
And to oppose thee ev’ry hour
New troops of fancy’s, did I chuse.
Alas! in vain, for all agree
To yeild me Captive up to thee,
And heav’n, alone, can sett me free. 
Thou, through my life, wilt with me goe,
And make ye passage, sad, and slow.  
All, that cou’d ere thy ill gott rule, invade,
Their uselesse arms, before thy feet have laid;
The Fort is thine, now ruin’d, all within,
Whilst by decays without, thy Conquest too, is seen.

 – From: Anne Finch, The Poems of Anne Countess of Winchilsea. Ed. Myra Reynolds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1903. 15-16.

***

Friderike Heuer, from her current series of photo montages “Setting Sail.” Each image is 20 x15 inches, printed with archival ink jet print on German Etching Paper, and the images shade from lighter to darker as the series grows.

FINCH HAD HER SHARE OF DIFFICULTIES in her lifetime, including a predisposition for depression, perhaps even bipolar disease. She was exposed to political storms that threw her and her husband from comfortable positions in monarchic circles into an unsecured existence when they distanced themselves from the ascendance of William and Mary after the revolution of 1688 deposed King James.

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Young writers, burning bright

The Fire Writers conference helps Yamhill County teenagers tap into their potential while fighting the stigma associated with being a smart kid

A literary scene is a knotty thing to define and locate. Unlike live theater, music, or visual art, it has no brick-and-mortar base. It is everywhere and nowhere, from the “local author” shelf at a bookstore to events such as creative writing festivals to the occasional open mic night to the world that exists in the electronic ether: Instagram posts, tweets, Facebook, even text messaging.

Yamhill County has had for a while two tangible measures of the region’s literary life: the Terroir Creative Writing Festival, which was scheduled for its 11th annual renewal in April until COVID-19 shut it down, and the 27-year-old Paper Gardens literary journal. Published every spring by the Arts Alliance of Yamhill County, the journal features prose and verse by locals of all ages. Oregon authors including William Stafford, Kim Stafford, Primus St. John, Robin Cody, and many others have served as judges.

A third, writer-centric tent-pole event has sprung up. On a mild, overcast Monday morning last winter, more than 100 high school students from around Yamhill County sauntered into the ballroom at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg for the Fire Writers Conference. The brainchild of retired McMinnville educator Deborah Weiner, the 2-year-old gathering is as ambitious, polished, and well attended as the Terroir festival.  The goal of the daylong conference is to “ignite the fire” in teenagers who show an aptitude and interest in writing. Validating that interest, organizers say, makes students, who pay nothing to attend the event, feel they are part of a writers’ community and can instill confidence in kids who might feel marginalized for being academic achievers.

The opening session of Fire Writers organizer Lisa Ohlen Harris addresses the opening session of the Fire Writers Conference at the Chehalem Community Center in Newberg. “Writers are everywhere,” she told students, “doing things that on the surface may seem to have nothing to do with writing.” Photo by: David Bates
Fire Writers organizer Lisa Ohlen Harris addresses the opening session of the Fire Writers Conference in Newberg’s Chehalem Community Center in January, before masks and social distancing were the norm. “Writers are everywhere,” she told students, “doing things that on the surface may seem to have nothing to do with writing.” Photo by: David Bates

“There is still a stigma for being a smart kid, a kid who reads, who cares about grades,” said Julie Stubblefield, one of several language-arts teachers at Amity High School, which sent nearly 30 students to the January conference. Teaching writing to teens poses several additional challenges, she said.

“One thing is that this is not a reading culture right now,” she said. “The current culture in high school is dominated by smartphones, YouTube, social media, Netflix, and video games. The practice of imagination, self-reflection, and the slow work of resourcefulness is not a part of their everyday lives. So when it comes time to get quiet and listen for the inner voice, the creative voice, the imagination, it can take a lot of patient exercise and reorientation to wake it up and get in touch with it.”


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


This year’s conference drew 123 students from eight schools — five public, three private, and a couple of homeschooled students. Attendance is largely by invitation. Teachers have an eye for which kids have taken to writing, who might benefit from what ultimately amounts to an educational field trip. One other brand of stigmatization — or possibly something else — emerges in talking with organizers, who asked that two students not be photographed; their parents didn’t know they were attending.

Writer and organizer Lisa Ohlen Harris, who is also instrumental in organizing Terroir, opened the event with a casual attempt at perhaps removing some of the stigma and illusions students might connect with writing and writers.

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Montage, farewell. It’s been swell.

A Portland legend of late-night dining swagger and the occasional lunch serves its last gator bite. A sweet goodbye to a joint supreme.

It was called, officially, Le Bistro Montage, although for decades most Portlanders have called it just Montage. And I write “was” because, as several news sources have reported today, as of today it is no longer. Lizzie Acker has a few details on The Oregonian/Oregon Live.

Montage, a sort-of Cajun joint tucked in a delicately fading old brick building below the east side of the Morrison Bridge, was one of those Portland places, a legend in the perpetual making, a place for hipsters and anti-hipsters and your country cousins in to see the town; a time-bending passageway from Old Portland to New. Late at night it howled, and when you went there it was often for two seemingly contradictory reasons: because it was familiar and comfortable and you knew what to expect; and because chances were better than fair something totally unanticipated might explode.

It also, for a while, served weekday lunches, and those days happened to coincide with the time that I was doing a stretch at The Oregonian writing a column called Day Time Diner, in which I explored the highs and lows of morning and midday dining in Portland, sometimes at high-end places but with the column’s affections definitely teetering toward the wayward attractions of the homely joint. Homely Montage was not, although its decorative brilliance was hardly of the Architectural Digest sort. A joint it definitely was – one of the city’s best, and one whose loss many people, old and young, are going to mourn.

Here, then, is my Day Shift Diner ode to the vagrant pleasures of Montage, as it ran in The Oregonian on May 5, 2006. Merci, Montage. May a jazz band march you to your grave.

***

DAY SHIFT DINER: Montage’s down-and-dandy lunch

On the third visit I broke down and ordered the fried Spam sandwich.

Surprisingly, it was pretty good: sliced thin and cooked crisp, a poor-man’s BLT cushioned by blankets of lettuce, red onion and tomato between pieces of toast.

More surprising still, I was sitting at the ancient gnarled counter of Le Bistro Montage in the naked light of day, which is a little like basking in the sun with the Vampire Lestat.

Le Bistro Montage, from the outside, tucked beside the pilings of the Morrison Bridge. Photo: Visitor7, July 27, 2013, via Wikimedia Commons

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Under ‘Suspiria’s’ spell

A new online course from Movie Madness University, led by Anthony Hudson, probes a horror remake.

A new online course from Movie Madness University probes a horror remake.

In a sickening scene from director Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of the Dario Argento horror classic Suspiria, a dancer is literally torn apart. Her gruesome final moments—punctuated by contorted flesh and cracking bones—were notorious even before the film was released.

Yet after seeing Suspiria with friends on Halloween in 2018, film programmer Anthony Hudson was both shocked and entranced. “Honestly, we were all silent and in a state of rapture,” says Hudson, also known as the drag clown Carla Rossi. “I think the first thing I said after seeing it was, ‘I can’t believe that was a great horror movie and it summed up all of my politics.’”

Hudson will share the rapture this Thursday in an online Suspiria course (offered by Movie Madness University, the Hollywood Theatre’s film education program) that spotlights the movie’s progressive politics, queer love stories and moral ambiguities. “It’s not easily read as black and white,” Hudson says of Suspiria. “Even the protagonist, this goddess, is still a primordial witch deity who has to sacrifice people for her magic, and I think that just speaks to the complications of the world we live in.”

Anthony Hudson will teach an online course on the remake of Suspiria through Movie Madness University and the Hollywood Theatre

Set in 1977 (the year that the original film was released), Suspiria stars Dakota Johnson as Susie Bannion, the American star of a West Berlin dance company that is also a coven of witches. The film is filled with supernatural shenanigans, which are juxtaposed with the German Autumn, when the Red Army Faction was involved in a series of kidnappings and other violent incidents. 

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Focusing in Isolation: Part 2

Portland photographers reflect on their work during the pandemic

Desmond Tutu once said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” These words were spoken by the celebrated human rights activist in a very different place and time, but they seem very apt in the present moment.  I can think of no more fitting words to cling to at this point in time. Still, it feels like a tall order. With the ongoing unrest surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent uptick in coronavirus infections worldwide, it’s hard to see any light in these very dark times.


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


Although everyone has no doubt been affected by all that’s happening now, each of us will react in our own way. Some of us will experience a kind of paralysis and fall victim to anxiety and depression. Others may experience a newfound freedom to explore new possibilities in their lives. No matter the reaction, it is an important time for self-reflection for many. As I consider my own reactions to the current crises, I’ve been wondering how these events have affected some of my fellow photographers in the community. So I caught up with a few of these artists and asked them how the pandemic and other events have influenced their own creative work. The following is the second in a two-part series based on my interviews with ten of Portland’s finest photographers.  Today’s report features the work and voices of Zeb Andrews, Susan de Witt, Julie Moore, Motoya Nakamura and Deb Stoner.


ZEB ANDREWS


Zeb Andrews, “Multnomah Falls”

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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.

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