WHILE MUCH OF OREGON’S CULTURAL WORLD REMAINS FROZEN IN LOCKDOWN, the ice is beginning to thaw in the river of art. A lot of commercial galleries have been open by appointment for some time. Now Portland’s three biggest museums are also reopening their doors for visitors:
- OMSI, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, is open already, complete with its under-the-skin exhibit Body Worlds & the Cycle of Life, although many of its popular interactive attractions are under strict control.
- The Oregon Historical Society Museum reopens Saturday, July 11, with several attractions including the exhibition Nevertheless, They Persisted: Women’s Voting Rights and the 19th Amendment.
- Across the Park Block from the history center, the Portland Art Museum swings open its doors again on Thursday, July 16, with several exhibitions including its big Volcano! celebration of Mount St. Helens forty years after its explosion and its Robert Colescott retrospective Art and Race Matters. The museum will welcome visitors with free admission the first four days of its reopening.
While the Oregon Symphony announced on Wednesday that it has canceled all concerts at least through December, adding another expected $4 million loss to the $5 million it has already accumulated, museums are closer to readiness. Importantly, most museums can “swallow” a crowd much more easily than performance groups can: Their spaces are more adaptable to social distancing and timed attendance than theaters and concert halls such as the tightly packed, 2,776-seat Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall where the Symphony performs.
In Southern Oregon, Ashland’s Schneider Museum of Art is already open on a limited schedule, Tuesdays through Thursdays. The High Desert Museum in Bend is also open, and gearing up for an August 1 opening of its annual Art in the West exhibition and silent auction. Also in Central Oregon, the Museum at Warm Springs reopened on Tuesday, with a new exhibition, The Path of Resilience, of beadwork and other tribal art and objects from the museum collections.
Several other museums – including Portland’s Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Salem’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art, and the Maryhill Museum of Art overlooking the Columbia River Gorge near Goldendale, Wash. – are still making plans for reopening.
In all cases, strict procedures have been put in place. Wear your mask. Check the web sites before visiting. And be aware that if the pandemic comes roaring back, as many experts predict, all bets are off: The thaw could turn into a freeze again.
THE MOST DANGEROUS DAYS: BLACK & WHITE IN AMERICA
THE TWIN CRISES OF 2020 MAY SEEM ACCIDENTALLY OVERLAID, but they’re also intimately linked – stitched together by a long and stubborn thread of cultural and political racism that is at times casually neglectful and at times brutally aggressive. Covid-19 hits most devastatingly in poor and minority communities, including much of Black America. Prisons, in which Black and Brown people are systematically overrepresented, are breeding grounds for the coronavirus. The nation’s Native American reservations are reeling from the pandemic.
Artists, as members and chroniclers of the culture, have little choice but to respond to what’s happening. In Dangerous Days: Being Black in America, Bobby Bermea – actor, director, producer, writer, and regular ArtsWatch contributor – responds to the mass protests following the death-by-police-knee of George Floyd from a lifetime of insight, experience, and knowledge as a Black man in the United States.
“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,” Bermea writes. “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.”
Bermea’s essay is piercing and unyielding, plucking the fruit of contemporary crisis from the long vine of the past, calling up name after name of Black Americans whose lives have been cut short:
“In the dozens or hundreds or thousands of cases of the murder of Black people by the police, going back decades, rarely does anyone do time. Black people were being lynched, no one did time. Just like no one did time for the murder of Emmitt Till.
“Because, like Till, [2019 Aurora, Colorado, police victim] Elijah McClain didn’t need to commit a crime. He was a crime.
“As am I. And my father. Family. Friends. Colleagues. Who knows when one of us is going to be singled out to keep everybody else in line? Who knows who’s going to become the next grotesque video, the next hashtag?”
AS A WHITE WRITER AND EDITOR, I stand both outside and squarely inside this great moral issue: We are all, cushioned from its most merciless consequences or not, squarely inside it. On Tuesday morning I ran across the following brief passage that I wrote on July 7, 2016, the day after the police slaying of Philando Castile near St. Paul, Minnesota, and I’m compelled to ask: What has changed in these four years? What WILL change?:
“The first from New Orleans, about 1970; I was about 22 and thumbing around the country. At a busy downtown intersection a Black guy is lying in the middle of the street, passed out. Cars are veering around him; pedestrians are sidestepping him as they cross. A cop is standing at the corner, ignoring him, like everyone else. I grab the guy under the shoulders, drag him out of the street, prop him up against a wall, and turn to the cop. ‘Get some help,’ I say. ‘This guy’s in bad shape.’ The cop smirks. ‘He’s just drunk,’ he says. ‘And you’re going to leave him in the middle of the intersection to get run over?’ I reply. ‘Move along,’ the cop says, “or I’ll run you in.”
“Scene 2: About 15 years later, in Louisville. I’m at a party for critics and theater people attending the Humana Festival of New Plays, thrown by a board member of the sponsoring Actors Theatre of Louisville. It’s more white-glove than theater reviewers are used to, and the hosts are Southern charming-gracious; good people. Every guest is white. Every “servant” is Black. It’s just the way it is. No one seems to notice, or care, or at least say anything. I notice, and stay quiet. I don’t want to seem impolite.
“As for Minnesota, once upon a time one of the most progressive states in the union, I have no words.
“Our troubles are long and deep. And they are ours, collectively.”
A SONG TO THE ‘NEW NORMAL’ & THE OLD THAT STILL MAY BE
AS OREGON AND AMERICA BEGIN TO WAKE UP AND STRETCH after the long slumber of Covid-19, the temptation is strong to think of it all as just a bad dream. Museums are reopening. Restaurants and hair salons. Grocery stores and their workers have been there, taking care of us, all along. Can concerts and nights at the theater and parties on the beach and evenings of hitting the bars be far behind? But of course, everything that’s been gained is in danger of swiftly being lost again. Confirmed cases and deaths are spiking in reopened states like Texas and Arizona and Florida and parts of California. Oregon’s numbers, while much smaller, have been on the rise, too. And while we might fantasize about getting “back to normal,” normal is bound to become a very different beast from what we’ve known.
What will this mean for the cultural world? Art is a shape-shifter, constantly flowing into new streambeds, fresh combinations, finding eddies and backwaters and rediscovering where it’s already been. The economic toll on cultural organizations has been heavy, and many groups both large and small could disappear: The infrastructure might become vastly leaner and less stable. Still, we’ll always make art. It’s what humans do. And in hard times in the past, art has often been the art of making do. Things that can be done in small groups or in solitary, often both for practical reasons and the pleasure of doing them. Fabric arts: making quilts. Basket-weaving. Painting. Writing. Picking up a guitar or sitting at a piano and plucking out a tune.
And singing. Maybe not for money, but just because.
It hasn’t been so very long ago, and in a way, it’s really at the root of things. As James Weldon Johnson wrote a little over a century ago, Lift Every Voice and Sing. It’s a heritage thing, something that’s passed down to us and that we pass down in turn. My father sang, pretty much anytime at all, as the mood struck him, which it often did. (And whistled: He was a whistler of uncommon skill.)
One of his favorites was an old country tune that he’d break into on a warm day, or after he’d been working in his large vegetable garden, which went a long way toward feeding a family of nine, or just because he felt like it. He’d lean back his head and sing, in his light sweet baritone: “What makes your head so red? Tell me, what makes your head so red? I been working so long in the hot hot sun, it’s a wonder that I ain’t dead.” Years later I discovered the words came from a verse in The Boll Weevil Blues, although he sang them to a different tune.
Dad knew a lot of music, from a lot of places, though country – real country, not Nashville glitz – was his home base. I think a lot of it came to him after he graduated from high school in 1932, a few weeks shy of his 16th birthday, smack in the depths of the Depression, and began following the crops, doing whatever he could to make a few bucks and send some back home. Eventually he became a merchant seaman, continuing in the Merchant Marines through the Second World War, delivering supplies, and sometimes hauling the broken hulls of Kaiser ships to a shipyard far off in the Aleutian Islands, a lick and a whistle from Siberia, for repair and redeployment. He’d often sing the old Huddie Ledbetter tune Goodnight, Irene: “Sometimes I live in the country, sometimes I live in town. Sometimes I take a great notion to jump into the river and drown.” He wasn’t much impressed by the pop singers of my youth, but he loved Doc Watson, who sprang from similar roots. He’d listen to some classical, and the odd bagpipe tune, and often in the evening, as he and my mother were settling in, they’d put on an album (this was in the days when “album” meant a big box containing several 78s) of marimba music, which I think reminded him of his days exploring the western coasts of Central and South America when he was a merchant seaman. Every summer, when the county fair rolled around, he’d be sure to attend on the day a family group of pipe players from the Peruvian Andes performed. Mom had a lovely voice, too, and preferred old Broadway and pop tunes from the ‘30s and ‘40s and into the ‘50s, like Shrimp Boats and I Got the Sun in the Mornin’ and the Moon at Night. Between the two of them, I enjoyed a rare and natural musical education.
Irby (that was his name; no middle name at all) grew children, and vegetables – all kinds of vegetables, from corn to kale to cabbage. Until he retired he didn’t often cook, but when he did he blended his fresh vegetables expertly with the spices he remembered from the South or learned to use in Latin America; he also made fine thin buttermilk pancakes and a great Pennsylvania scrapple. He kept a compost pile and gardened organically, without making a big deal about it, long before organic became a cause. “We’ll plant enough for us and the bunnies,” he would say easily.
I’m remembering all of this because he died nine years ago on this date, July 9. Five days from now, on Bastille Day 2020, he would have been 104. Memory can be an art form of its own; artists plumb it all the time. So: He never went to college but was one of the best-read people I’ve known. His great gifts to his family went beyond instilling a sense of what was right. He was a scholar without portfolio, passing his love of language and knowledge to his children. His sense of responsibility carried over to his family, which he guarded with the tender fierceness of a sparrow over an endangered nest, sometimes whether his children actually felt endangered or not. He was deliberate, and temperate, and sometimes deeply opinionated, and not always hopeful about the direction of human culture although he maintained great hope in the possibilities of individual human beings. He was, I think, that American ideal, the good and honest citizen.
Plus, he had a sweet, sweet voice, and sang good songs. Surely, whatever the pandemic and social turmoil bring, we can do that again.
MONEY, MONEY, WHO’S GOT THE MONEY?
GREAT BRITAIN, FOR ONE. THE MULTNOMAH COUNTY LIBRARY, FOR NOT ONE. In the same week that the U.K. announced a roughly $2 billion rescue package for British cultural and heritage institutions, the library system’s Vailey Oehlke, director of what is in many ways the backbone of culture in Oregon’s most populous county, informed library staff they should expect coronavirus-related layoffs effective Aug. 31. The nature and breadth of the staff cutbacks aren’t known yet.
The British government’s investment in its nation’s cultural infrastructure is on par with ones announced earlier in Germany, France, The Netherlands, and other European countries. Full details haven’t been announced, and there is concern that, while the money will shore up organizations, the many freelance artists and others who actually create the work will be left out. But it’s a lot of money in hard times, and a recognition that culture plays a vital role in the economy.
In the United States, governmental support is, as usual, much harder to come by. In Congress, a House subcommittee has recommended appropriations of $170 million each for fiscal year 2021 for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities – in both cases, modest raises of $7.75 million. This is considered a triumph of sorts because, for the fourth straight year, the House has rejected Trump Administration pressure to eliminate both endowments.
Meanwhile, the federal Paycheck Protection Program announced its individual loans this week, and buried beneath the headlines about big loans to billionaires, political insiders, and celebrities such as Kanye West was news that nearly 63,000 Oregon companies made the national list of 4.9 million. Under relatively liberal terms, much of the money will not need to be repaid. As the Small Business Administration puts it: “SBA will forgive loans if all employee retention criteria are met, and the funds are used for eligible expenses.”
In the upper tiers of loans of $1 million or more to Oregon companies, 1,048 companies were granted loans, 14 of which could be categorized as arts and/or cultural groups. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland led the list, ranking in the top category of $5-10 million (specific loan amounts were not released). In the next tier, $2-5 million, were the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, the Oregon Symphony, Powell’s Books, and Timberline Lodge. Those in the third tier, $1-2 million, included Bullseye Glass, Portland’s Japanese Garden, Kamp Grizzly motion picture and video producers, Pacific Northwest College of Art, the Portland Art Museum, Portland Center Stage at the Armory, Portland Opera, Thomas Hacker Architects, and the University of Oregon Bookstore.
Also in Oregon, the Cultural Advocacy Coalition is pushing a $50 million proposal for funding from the Legislature’s Emergency Board to help the state’s cultural organizations and venues that have been pushed to the financial brink by pandemic closures. A decision one way or the other is expected soon.
Other, smaller, amounts of aid have been trickling in. This month the National Endowment for the Arts awarded $50,000 each to 10 Oregon groups through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act. The organizations: Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Southern Oregon Film Society (Ashland Independent Film Festival); Fishtrap, Inc., literary center; University of Oregon on behalf of Oregon Folklife Network; Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts; Imago Theatre; Portland Center Stage at The Armory; Regional Arts & Culture Council; Western Arts Alliance; Oregon Symphony Association in Salem.
In addition, four CARES grants of $20,000 were awarded through the Western States Arts Federation: to Four Rivers Cultural Center, Ontario; Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, Pendleton; and Imago Theatre and Profile Theatre Project, both in Portland.
And the Portland Art Museum and Northwest Film Center, themselves pinched hard financially by shutdowns, have set up a $100,000 fund “to provide immediate emergency assistance to visual, cinematic, and new media artists during the coronavirus pandemic and to support and sustain their creative work through the long-term recovery” – crucial support directly to individual artists.
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