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News & Notes: Art as an economic driver

A national study reports that the arts rang up an $829 million impact in Oregon in 2022, boosting the economy and creating many jobs. Plus: Oregon is looking for its next poet laureate.

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Packing the place: The crowd goes wild for a performance by Damn Tall Buildings at the 2023 Sisters Folk Festival, which annually draws big crowds and fills hotels in and around the Central Oregon town. Photo courtesy Oregon Arts Commission.
Packing the place: The crowd goes wild for a performance by Damn Tall Buildings at the 2023 Sisters Folk Festival, which annually draws big crowds and fills hotels in and around the Central Oregon town. Photo courtesy Oregon Arts Commission.

Art, as the 19th century cultural philosophers roundly declared, is for art’s sake. And so it might be. But in practice it has other purposes, too, some controversial, some practical. We are living, for instance, in a time that is heavily emphasizing political art (one of the main things the l’art pour l’art philosophers were reacting against).

And art and money are tightly coiled, from the high-dollar art auction houses (a coveted Picasso just sold at Sotheby’s for $139.4 million, part of a $406.4 million total auction) to the web of funding that keeps nonprofit arts organizations from theater and dance companies to museums and concert halls alive and kicking.

Much of that money comes from governmental sources, and while part of the reasoning in political circles is that a healthy arts scene is simply a good thing to have, much of it has to do with a desire for economic development, which is a big benefit of a strong and diverse arts scene: Arts events help drive tourism, and people going to shows or movies or museums spend money not just on tickets but also on restaurants, bars, shops, parking, and other things, helping to create busy downtowns and lots of jobs.

Think, as a wing of Congress that every session tries to eliminate or slash the budgets for the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities does, that the arts are frills that government shouldn’t be subsidizing? Look at the arts, as other politicians do, as civic investments. Government funding in the United States lags far behind the levels in most European countries, and yet it has become a vital part of the nation’s complex and tenuous arts-funding mechanism.

A recent study from the national arts advocacy group Americans for the Arts reports that the arts and culture industry (a word that art-for-art’s-sake advocates would have used only to refer to the industriousness of artists and craftspersons in pursuit of their art) had an $829 million economic impact in Oregon in fiscal year 2022.

Isaka Shamsud-Din's 1976 painting "Rock of Ages" is helping to draw audiences to the large exhibit "Black Artists of Oregon," running through March 17, 2024 at the Portland Art Museum. Gift of Roxie Schell and Damon Tempey, © Isaka Shamsud-Din
Isaka Shamsud-Din’s 1976 painting “Rock of Ages” is helping to draw audiences to the large exhibit “Black Artists of Oregon,” running through March 17, 2024 at the Portland Art Museum. Gift of Roxie Schell and Damon Tempey, © Isaka Shamsud-Din

Oregon’s slice is only part of a much larger national economic pie, the study reports: “In 2022, nonprofit arts and culture organizations and their audiences generated $151.7 billion in economic activity—$73.3 billion in spending by the organizations, which leveraged an additional $78.4 billion in event-related spending by their audiences. The impact of this economic activity is far reaching, supporting 2.6 million jobs, generating $29.1 billion in tax revenue, and providing $101 billion in personal income to residents. [The study] sends a strong signal that when we support the arts, we are investing in both economic and community well-being.”

In other words: Even if you don’t care a flying fig about the arts, they’re helping to create lots of jobs and a stronger overall economy that benefits you.

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The Americans for the Arts study was comprehensive, looking at data from 373 regions across all 50 states and Puerto Rico, and taking in cities and regions of pretty much all sizes, from populations of 4,000 to 4 million.

The study includes 21 regions in Oregon, from several in the greater Portland metropolitan area and several on the coast to the Willamette Valley, Southern Oregon, the Columbia Gorge, Central Oregon, and Eastern Oregon. You can see basic results from each on this interactive map. The city of Portland, for instance, generated almost $238 million in spending by arts and culture organizations, and more than $167 million in spending by arts audiences. Harney County, with a population of a little more than 7,500, generated about $346,000 in spending by organizations and more than $3.4 million by audiences.

How do government agencies decide where to put their arts money? Is it distributed to all areas of a city, for instance, or concentrated on downtowns and areas that a city is wanting to develop? The politics of economics can outweigh, or at least tip the scales on, the politics of aesthetics. Art may be for art’s sake. But that’s only part of the story.

Looking for a poet laureate

Anis Mojgani, Oregon’s current poet laureate, reciting poetry out a window. Photo: Ellie Esterowitz

Meanwhile, Oregon is looking for a new bard — or, more specifically, a new Poet Laureate, the 11th such statewide advocate for the language since the first state poet laureate, Edwin Markham, held the post between 1923 and 1931.

The poet laureate carries the wonder of the word to cities, towns, and hamlets in every corner of the state, spreading stories, encouraging a love of language, and wandering about Oregon a bit like the bard Homer wandered about Greece 2,800 years ago (although with better transportation).

“Over the course of a two-year term,” the Oregon Culural Trust recently announced, “the Oregon Poet Laureate fosters the art of poetry, encourages literacy and learning, addresses central issues relating to the humanities and heritage and reflects on public life in Oregon. Nominations for the position will be accepted through Jan. 8, 2024. Poets may nominate themselves. The next poet laureate will begin their term in May 2024.”

Anis Mojgani, who’s held the post since 2020, describes the task from his point of view: “A poet is a witness who imagines, and through these acts gives us permission to do the same. For the times we’re in, we must be powerfully imaginative, so to have for Oregon a position to foster and rally this imagining is a beautiful importance and gift for our state.”

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In a recent column, ArtsWatch Music Editor Matthew Neil Andrews had a few thoughts on the subject. “In a perfect world,” he wrote, “current poet laureate Anis Mojgani would have to be forcibly dethroned via an old-fashioned basement poetry slam, but apparently the Oregon Cultural Trust has more peaceful ideas.”

Failing that — and Mojgani will have served two full terms — Andrews had other ideas: What about the multitalented Dr. S. Renee Mitchell? Or one of a couple musicians, Alicia Jo Rabins or Laura Veirs? (And, considering that Bob Dylan is a Nobel Laureate in Literature, why not?)

You, of course, might have other ideas. You might know just the person, and nominate them. You might be just the person, and nominate yourself. You can make nominations through Jan. 8, 2024, by filling out the nomination form here.

The Cultural Trust, which has funded the position since 2006 (the program is adminstered by Oregon Humanities) does lay down a few ground rules:

“During their term, the poet laureate will participate in a minimum of 10 public readings or other events per year in settings around the state, demonstrating the value and importance of poetry and creative expression to business, community and state leaders. The poet laureate receives an annual honorarium in addition to an annual travel subsidy. 

“Nominees must be current residents of Oregon and have lived in the state for at least 10 years. They must be publicly recognized as poets and well-regarded for excellence in their work; have a significant body of published or performed work; and agree to the conditions and the term of the appointment.”

Following Markham’s originating term, Oregon had a 20-year gap before Ben Hur Lampman became the state’s second poet laureate, serving 1951-54. After another gap, Ethel Romig Fuller served from 1957 to 1965. Ten years later William Stafford became the fourth laureate, serving 15 years between 1975 and 1990. Sixteen years later, when the Oregon Cultural Trust took over funding, continuity finally set in. Lawson Fusao Inada served 2006-10, Paulann Petersen 2010-14, Peter Sears 2014-16, Elizabeth Woody 2016-18, Kim Stafford (William Stafford’s son) 2018-20, and Mojgani since 2020.

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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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