THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC HAS PUT HUGE STRAINS on cultural organizations and on the people who work at them. Sometimes a strain becomes a surprising break. That happened in mid-November at one of Portland’s biggest performing institutions, Oregon Children’s Theatre, when Managing Director Ross McKeen and the company parted ways. McKeen, in an email, called the sudden shift a firing. Board President Amanda Carter-Jura, citing board confidentiality, said in a phone conversation simply that McKeen no longer was associated with OCT.
The departure of McKeen, one of the city’s most prominent arts leaders, comes as something of a shock. He’d been OCT’s managing director since 2008. Before that he spent several years as a grant writer and fundraising consultant for several Portland arts organizations, served a year as the first manager of the Oregon Cultural Trust, and spent three years as general manager of Portland Center Stage. In tandem with recently retired Artistic Director Stan Foote he had helped OCT become a major national player among children’s theaters, with numerous co-productions and high-profile world premieres.
“There was no warning,” McKeen said of his release, “though my relationship with key board leaders had grown more strained as we struggled to reconcile differences in our views of the budget and OCT’s future. I felt they wanted to make budget cuts that were more draconian than I believed were either needed or healthy for the company’s survival. I thought we’d found a tenable middle ground, but they apparently thought otherwise.”
Carter-Jura praised the company’s staff. “I just want to underscore how impressed I am by the dedication of our staff, at all levels,” she said. Separately, McKeen echoed that feeling: “I wish them all well, and certainly bear no animus toward the company.” But Carter-Jura also cited financial concerns as the pandemic has worn on, including uncertainty over when and how OCT, which traditionally has counted on large daytime audiences of school classes bused in on field trips, will be able to resume live productions. “It’s not just the economic realities we face right now, but also the unknown,” she said. “What’s in the future? That’s the reality that we’re facing.”
McKeen is moving on. “It didn’t take long for me to get over the shock of it and to take stock of what lies ahead,” he said. “When I think about all the problems that are no longer mine to solve, a great weight feels lifted. I’ve already turned my attention to what an early retirement can be.” He had been two or three years away from retiring, he added.
And the OCT board is looking ahead. “We are in the final steps of hiring an interim managing director,” Carter-Jura said, adding that she expects that person to be on board before the end of December. That will make it possible for the company to begin a national search in January for a permanent managing director. Equity and inclusion will be part of the board’s decision-making process, she said.
Meanwhile, McKeen’s name is no longer to be found on OCT’s website, and no official announcement of his departure has been made. The abruptness of it all, he commented, has its own fallout: “Stan Foote had an adage from his days managing a restaurant: Never fire the dishwasher before the shift is over unless you’re prepared to wash those dishes yourself.”
THE GENTLE ART OF DOING THINGS TOGETHER
THE WAYS WE LEARN, AND THE ROLE THAT ART PLAYS IN LEARNING, have been of consistent interest to us at Oregon ArtsWatch. We’ve tried to track them for our readers even through these pandemic months, when schools have had to reinvent what they do and how they do it. How does isolation learning work for arts classes, which are ordinarily hands-on and collaborative? Here, in the two most recent stories from our continuing series The Art of Learning, is a look at creative adaptation:
- GOLDEN ROAD ARTS: READY, SET, PIVOT. Laurel Reed Pavic writes about Golden Road Arts, artist and teacher Barbara Mason’s long-envisioned free arts education resource for teachers, parents, and students in Hillsboro, which was just ready to spring into action when the pandemic shut down schools in March. Mason and Golden Road pivoted to meet the moment. It’s a brave new virtual world.
- BETTER TOGETHER: STAGE & SCHOOL. Sometimes two heads – or two teams of artists – are better than one. Valarie Smith writes about the new collaboration between Artists Repertory Theatre and The Actors Conservatory to create a united professional theater training ground. “Together,” ART’s Dámaso Rodríguez said, “we’ll actually be able to build something that’s much more ambitious than we could do by ourselves.”
PORTFOLIO: FEROCIOUS MOTHERS, CREATORS OF ART
PDX CONTEMPORARY ART’S CURRENT SHOW was brought to my attention at about the same time that the manufactured “controversy” over whether Jill Biden has a right to use the title “Dr.” with her name hit the news cycle (of course she does), and somehow the two just seemed to go together. Maybe it was the exhibition’s title, Ferocious Mothers: There seemed to be more than just a little justification for that. At least as interestingly, the show’s lineup of artists is stellar: Jessica Jackson-Hutchins, Maya Lin, Marie Watt, Natalie Ball, Ellen Lesperance, Senga Nengudi, Heather Watkins. You might say they’re just what the doctor ordered for the cultural moment.
That’s a lot of firepower, motherhood or not. Where, I asked Jane Beebe, PDX Contemporary’s owner, did the title come from, and why this particular mix of artists? “The title comes from a Marie Watt piece,” she responded via email. “I have had knowledge of and a certain amount of relationship with all the artists in the show. They have in common, I believe, a belief in their own work and its importance. It takes a tremendous amount of gut, mind and heart to pursue their work at the same time as being mothers. … Each of these women has managed to create wonderful artwork and build important careers at the same time as being attentive mothers.”
Beebe continued: “As to speaking specifically to Ferocious Mothers, Natalie Ball’s When Harry Met Sally… certainly has a ferociousness to it. Heather Watkins’ waiting and wishing waiting and wishing is a very mother thing … from pregnancy and on. Jessica Jackson Hutchins’ sculpture is one I saw in our studio in 2006. I was thrilled she still had it because I kept it in my mind all these years. It has a massive feel, reminding me of Columbia basalt, Rodin’s bronze sculpture (of) Balzac. The black mass is held up tenuously by a broomstick. Such is motherhood. Marie Watt’s Maker/Destroyer fits beautifully. Ellen Lesperance’s Amazons – both the drawing and the ceramics – may not specifically speak to motherhood but certainly her ability to produce such work does. Senga Negundi was very generous in letting me print out the text from her mountain moving project she started in 2002 for the month of women. It’s a meditation thinking about something you want to move and building a very simple ritual to do so … for instance, moving small stones.” Lin is famous for her 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and has been working for several years on the Confluence Project, a string of six art landscape sites along a 438-mile stretch of the Columbia River. Part of any sale of her work from Ferocious Mothers will go to the Confluence Project, Beebe says.
Ferocious Mothers is open by appointment though January 2 at PDX Contemporary Art in Portland’s Pearl District. You can see a virtual gallery walk-through of the exhibition here.
THE CONCERT’S ENDED, BUT THE MEMORY LINGERS ON
ONCE THINGS CLEAR OUT, WHAT DO YOU HEAR? “I just have to tell you about this song I’ve had stuck in my head for the last nine months, rattling around my quarantined brain ever since my personal Last Concert from the Before Times,” ArtsWatch’s Matthew Neil Andrews begins. He then begins to describe the evanescent evening of violinist and composer Caroline Shaw’s performance with Third Angle New Music, two days before the Covid shutdowns began. What Andrews tells is something of a ghost story, in a good way: the revisitation of memories of moments that somehow transcend time. The concert persisted, and so Andrews got in touch with Shaw, and they began a conversation about the meanings and mysteries of music.
ROUNDING UP THE UNUSUAL SUSPECTS
JENNIFER ROBIN ON POLITICS, MOTHERS, AND MORTALITY. Amy Leona Havin profiles Portland author Robin, whose “long and eccentric history includes reading alongside electronic musicians Spirit Duplicator and The Dead Air Fresheners, and a 10-year career as the booker and host of a live experimental music and text radio show on Portland’s KBOO radio.” Havin continues: “The first time I heard her read—or rather, saw her perform—her work, I nearly fell off my bar stool. ‘This is what he did!’ she sang into the microphone, her ultra-thick eyeliner, pointedly swaying body language, and commanding tone sending the room into a trance. Within seconds, I was hooked.”
THE WONDERS OF WONDERLAND. When the stages shut down, the theater people started filming. And, no, it’s not the same thing as a live show, but it stretches already creative people’s creativity into sometimes surprising shapes. Bennett Campbell Ferguson interviews the four playwrights of Portland Playhouse’s new virtual theater festival, Wonderland.
A LOG CABIN FOR WRITERS. “Oregon’s largest college has received its biggest donation ever,” Mirah Powell writes for Oregon Public Broadcasting – and it comes from a poet. Oregon poet Carolyn Moore, who died in 2019, left Portland Community College a 2,500-square-foot log cabin on nine acres in Tigard to be used as a writers’ residency. The gift is worth more than $5.5 million, and potentially much more in its creative returns. Write on.
PASSINART’S “JOYFUL SOUNDS.” One of our favorite holiday traditions for the past few years has been to catch PassinArt: A Theatre Company’s annual production of Black Nativity, Langston Hughes’s musical retelling of the Christmas story. Because of Covid restrictions, that show isn’t happening this year. In its place is Joyful Sounds: A Virtual Holiday Concert, featuring some of Portland’s finest gospel voices. It’ll stream at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19, and it’s free: Go to the link to sign up.
IN MULIERIBUS’S “VISIONS OF MYSTERY.” Once again in heavy rotation on the ArtsWatch seasonal sound system is A December Feast, the superb Portland women’s choir’s exultant 2010 recording of holiday music ranging from the 12th century to the 21st. The choir’s newest holiday concert, Visions of Mystery, will stream at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19. Like PassinArt’s Joyful Sounds it’s free; just go to the link to sign up.
3 LEG TORSO’S “THE ELVES OF NORTHERN FROSTLÄND.” What’s this? Portland’s merry band of whiz-bang acoustic musical provocateurs showing up in an Arctic toy workshop to save the day for a large bearded man on a mission? Torso’s calling this “a musical play inspired by American TV holiday specials.” Expect good music and a few twists. It, too, is at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 19, streaming through Alberta Rose Theatre. Tickets at the link.
FAITH, WAR, AND NATURE: A LIFE IN ART AND POLITICS
SANDRA ROUMAGOUX: “I’VE STAYED IN ART MY ENTIRE LIFE.” Lori Tobias interviews the veteran Oregon artist and former three-term mayor of Newport, who’s bridged the worlds of art and public life for decades. They come together in often fascinating ways. She’s described her art as an “interpretation of the ever-relevant paradoxes of faith, war, and nature. Much of what I do is predicated upon a personal, fundamental acceptance of the ‘divine absurdities’ of existence, and the dualities in our existence of love/hate, violence/peace, silent/sound, night/day.” The Newport Visual Arts Center has opened a retrospective exhibition of Roumagoux’ paintings.
END NOTE: THE SWEET SECRET OF MISTAKES
“LENNIE GOODINGS, the chair of the trailblazing feminist press Virago, was 5 years old when she spotted her first typo. ‘I pointed it out to my mother and that was when it first dawned on me that there were humans behind books,’ she said in a 2013 interview. ‘It felt like a secret discovery.’
“Note: She did not regard the typo as an error. She recalls only a feeling of luck, of pleasure, of spotting the evidence of something beautifully, recognizably human.”
– Parul Sehgal, reviewing Goodings’ new book A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago in The New York Times