Seattle Opera Pagliacci

In the Legislature, another shot at spreading the money around

Shut out in the 2023 legislative session after a Senate walkout stalled action, Oregon arts advocates and legislators are pushing in '24 for some major state funding.


Soprano Judy Yannini and tenor Roland Hawkins in Portland Opera's "Enchanted Woods: Shakespeare & Song," continuing through Feb. 11. The Opera is one of several large cultural groups in Oregon that would benefit under bills being considered in the State Legislature. Photo: Christine Lyn Dong
Soprano Judy Yannini and tenor Roland Hawkins II in Portland Opera’s “Enchanted Woods: Shakespeare & Song,” continuing through Feb. 11. The Opera is one of several large cultural groups in Oregon that would benefit under bills being considered in the State Legislature. Photo: Christine Lyn Dong

“Money, pardon the expression, is like manure,” Dolly Levi explains in the musical comedy Hello, Dolly! “It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.”

The Oregon Legislature, which pretty much struck out on the spreading-around part in its 2023 session, is going to try again in the short 2024 session, bringing back several of the proposals that were lost in the chaos in ’23 after 10 Republican senators staged a six-week walkout and essentially brought the session to a halt.

The walkout affected all kinds of bills, among them arts and cultural measures to boost groups that had been financially hit by lost income during Covid restrictions. Ambitious proposals during the ’23 session came to nothing.

“There seems to be a strong sense that legislators are recognizing that that was not correct,” Subashini Ganesan, chair of the Oregon Arts Commission, said.

New bills calling for allocation of more than $27 million from the state general fund to the Oregon Business Development Department to distribute to arts and cultural groups have been introduced in both the House and the Senate.

To help boost their chances, the advocacy group Cultural Advocacy Coalition of Oregon has called for a Cultural Lobby Day on Feb. 20. Because of the short session there won’t be any official timed events in the Legislature, Ganesan, who is an ex officio board member of the Cultural Coalition, said. Instead, “the desire is for the grassroots arts community to send letters, call, and/or visit” state legislators on that day.

House Bill 4124, sponsored by Rep. Rob Nosse (D-Portland) and several others, and its companion Senate Bill 1582, sponsored by Sen. Lew Frederick (D-Portland) and several others, call for grants to cultural organizations across the state with significant funding to several large organizations, including:


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  • High Desert Musem, Bend: $379,750.
  • Orgeon Ballet Theatre, Portland: $341,775.
  • Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland: $2,555,175.
  • Oregon Symphony Orchestra, Portland: $949,375.
  • Portland Art Museum: $743,298.
  • Portland Center Stage: $474,687.
  • Portland Opera: $474, 687.

The needs of smaller arts and cultural groups, which often can be lifelines for underrepresented communities in the state, are less well spelled out in the measures.

The bills also call for spending $7.8 million on cultural capital projects around the state, in grants ranging from $150,000 to $2 million for a variety of groups including, among others, the Black United Fund, Jefferson County Library Foundation, Rainier Oregon Historical Museum, and Salem Parks Foundation.

In spite of the losses during the 2023 session, there is some evidence that support for cultural spending at the state level, which historically has lagged behind most other states, is growing. A report last July from the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies ranked Oregon’s arts spending as 41st in the nation, at 51 cents a year per person. But a year ago Rep. Nosse and others in the House and Senate established, for the first time in the state’s history, an Oregon Arts and Culture Caucus in the Legislature. The question is, how much sway does the caucus have in the Legislature at large?


In the meantime, a pair of open forums on “current challenges to the regional arts community,” as Portland State University professor Richard Clucas puts it, are coming up at PSU’s Smith Memorial Student Union.


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Clucas, executive director of the Western Political Science Association, is organizing the community forums with the Oregon Arts Commission’s Ganesan.

The first forum, titled “The Forthcoming Arts and Culture Plan for the Greater Portland Region,” will be 7-8:30 p.m. this Wednesday, Feb. 8. Ganesan will moderate a panel including Laura Becker, arts program manager of the Beaverton Arts Commission; Jaimie Lorenzini, member of the Our Creative Future steering committee; Jenny Stadler, executive director of PHAME; and Michael Cavazos, artistic director of Hand2Mouth Theatre. Admission is free, but registration for attendance is filled.

The second forum, set for 7-8:30 p.m. March 6, is on the topic of the moment: “Attaining Better State Support for Arts and Culture.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."


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