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Opinion: Dan Ryan on why the city is taking its own arts path

The city commissioner speaks out on charting Portland’s future: increasing investments in arts, culture, and music.

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Arts groups such as the Oregon Symphony, Commissioner Dan Ryan says, can play a key role in reviving Portland’s downtown. Above, the orchestra’s combined choir in a 2018 performance at downtown’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Photo: Joe Cantrell

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EDITOR’S NOTE: On July 21 of this year the City of Portland informed the Regional Arts & Culture Council, which had been administering city arts programs and budgets under contract for 28 years, that the city intends to end its sole-service fiscal relationship with RACC in Summer 2024, and move to a competitive bidding process.

On August 16 Oregon ArtsWatch published this opinion piece on the City/RACC breakup by Dr. S. Renee Mitchell, artist, journalist, community activist, and leader of the Soul Restoration Center. Today, we publish two more opinion pieces: The one below by Dan Ryan, Portland City Council’s Commissioner of Culture & Livability; and this piece by Carol Tatch, Executive Director of RACC.

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By DAN RYAN
Portland City Commissioner

Sponsor

Oregon Cultural Trust


Portland is celebrated for its dynamic arts and music scene; it’s the heartbeat of our community. These artistic expressions are not only a reflection of our collective identity, values, and aspirations, but also are a significant economic catalyst, especially in rejuvenating downtown Portland.

In January 2023, I took on the role of Arts Liaison for the city, overseeing the City Arts Program, arts service providers, and the arts budget. This position has granted me current insight into our arts ecosystem, its strengths, and its challenges.

The Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) has been part of this artistic landscape for decades. However, in recent years, the City has sought to address a growing need for a more transparent and accountable relationship between the city and RACC, the stewardship of taxpayer dollars, and increasing the number of organizations at the table to support arts and music.

Our city’s commitment to the arts is unwavering. For almost thirty years, we’ve consistently funded RACC, allocating about $7.8 million per year. This investment targets grant distribution, managing the city’s public arts program, and other essential arts services. Yet, a 2018 audit, initiated by the late Commissioner Nick Fish, revealed concerns, notably the city’s unclear arts and culture objectives and the need for RACC’s strategic realignment.

In response, we launched the City Arts Program in 2018 for better RACC oversight. By 2022, we initiated “Our Creative Future,” a comprehensive cultural planning process, engaging various stakeholders to evaluate and strategize Portland’s arts & culture trajectory.

Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan. Photo courtesy City of Portland.

Meanwhile, our collaboration with RACC has faced hurdles. Despite the city contributing nearly 80 percent of RACC’s annual budget, there have been issues of transparency and alignment. RACC’s hesitance to share financial data, align with the city’s arts priorities, and demonstrate clearly how funds are utilized became evident during a city council meeting last December. In a rare moment of alignment between Commissioners Mapps and Hardesty, council rejected RACC’s annual report.

Sponsor

All Classical Radio James Depreist

These challenges aren’t new. Commissioner Carmen Rubio last year removed “arts education coordination” from RACC’s responsibilities due to concerns raised by school districts. This year, to emphasize support for our artists and arts organizations, the City reduced RACC’s program management and administration expenses by $400,000 but increased our investment in grants for artists and arts organizations by 4 percent.

Our current contract with RACC, set to expire in June 2024, has clear requirements. We expect RACC to be transparent in their operations, including detailed financial breakdowns and disaggregated demographics data. The contract also stipulates that two city representatives must serve as non-voting members of the RACC board. Despite our repeated requests, we’re still waiting for RACC to provide this level of information and access to these helpful meetings.

Given RACC’s recent track record, I met with their leadership in July, discussing our decision to not renew their sole-source contract. While RACC’s mission aligns with Portland’s values, their fiscal management and administrative practices have raised concerns. We’re now looking towards a new approach, issuing tailored Requests for Proposals to find specialized partners. RACC is encouraged to participate. The RFPs for contracts will focus on transparency, clear outcomes, and efficient administrative costs.

Our vision is to direct a higher percentage of funding to our arts community. As Commissioner of Culture and Livability, I am resolute in my commitment to the arts and music. We aim to foster a supportive environment for our local artists and cultural organizations, recognizing the vitality they bring to Portland.

In essence, Portland is on the verge of an arts and culture renaissance. With the right collaborations and transparency, we can ensure our city remains a sanctuary for artists and expand access to arts. As we move forward, it’s crucial to remember that arts, culture and music are not mere entertainment; they are an economic driver, and they set the tone for the soul of our community.

Portland’s artistic legacy is evident in every mural and melody across the city, a testament to generations of artists and cultural advocates. In an era of tight budgets, the arts might be overlooked, but in Portland, we see them as essential investments.

Our primary goal is to serve our community, ensuring artists and cultural advocates have a supportive ecosystem. I urge the community to remain engaged during this pivotal time for Portland’s arts.

Sponsor

All Classical Radio James Depreist

I’m also committed to promoting diversity and inclusion in our arts partnerships, ensuring every artist has an equal platform. Portland should not only be a haven for local talent but also a global arts destination. By hosting international events and collaborations, we can solidify our global arts reputation.

Portland’s heart beats with the rhythm of the arts. Our city, renowned for its cultural vibrancy, doesn’t just celebrate the arts for their aesthetic and soulful value; we recognize their profound economic significance. A recent report by the Oregon Arts Commission paints a vivid picture of this impact in the Greater Portland Area.

The Americans for the Arts’ Arts & Economic Prosperity Study 5 showcased our nonprofit arts and culture sector is nothing short of remarkable, pumping an astounding $330.4 million per year into greater Portland’s economy prior to the pandemic. This included $214.4 million from the organizations themselves and another $116 million from eventgoers. Beyond the numbers, this translates to over 11,500 jobs, a boost in household incomes, and a significant contribution to our local and state coffers. It’s evident: when we champion the arts, we’re not just nurturing our cultural spirit but also fortifying our economic backbone. We are eagerly awaiting an update of this report in October.

Our arts organizations, with their $214.4 million spending in 2015, are more than just cultural epicenters. They’re substantial employers and consumers, supporting jobs across various sectors, from tech to event planning.

In the words of Vincent Van Gogh, “Art is to console those who are broken by life.” In challenging times, let’s harness the healing power of the arts and ensure they remain integral to Portland’s identity.

Looking ahead, we recognize the arts’ transformative power in urban development and community building. By integrating arts into our urban strategies, we can create spaces that resonate with our community. I’m committed to championing public art initiatives, fostering collaborations between the arts and tech sectors, and advocating for increased arts funding.

My commitment to the arts and the broader Portland community is unwavering. With collaboration, creativity, and a shared vision, we can build a brighter future for our city. Let’s come together, celebrate our shared heritage, and ensure the arts remain central to Portland’s identity and prosperity.

Sponsor

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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10 Responses

  1. In a city besieged by drug addiction, crime, graffiti, mental illness and homelessness, where hundreds of millions of dollars lie unspent, it’s surprising a city commissioner has so much interest in a $7 million arts budget being properly allocated and managed, and time to spend creating a city replacement.

    1. Absolutely Mike, I am in Agreement. Let the city continue to try and figure out how to utilize the hundreds of millions of unspent tax dollars sitting in their coffers for our homeless crisis, drug crisis, mental health crisis. These are the reasons people are not returning downtown. Surely they can afford to keep a program (RACC) that is working and focus on the crisis in our streets.

    2. As a fellow city resident, I appreciate your concern over deteriorating conditions but arts funding is not some side issue — the arts create employment for hundreds of people, from performers and teachers to ticket-takers and concession employees. Also, numerous studies have shown schools that promote the arts produce graduates who are less likely to fail out and more likely to succeed. One reason young people get interested in crime is they’re not interested in school — and arts, like sports and other activities, make school a fun, safe place for children to grow and thrive. And there are numerous studies now available online showing schools wit music and/or other arts programs produce graduates more likely to pursue post-high-school academic and business opportunities than schools that offer little or no arts education. All these issues are related to one another. We might have less problems in our streets if we had more arts taking place in our schools.

      1. mike & michelle agree with all that you said, rob.
        they are speaking of the likely financial inefficiency of *moving* racc’s work back into city government.

  2. Can you comment or expand on what you see as international opportunities? I fear that this prioritizes the “Big 5” and smaller institutions who are creating and supporting a broader ecosystem of art workers and change makers may become less of a priority to the city. Economic and cultural change starts with grass roots orgs. The smaller non-profits are the most in need at this time, we are the ones struggling to keep our doors open while bringing our own visionary and culturally healing programs to the city. I’m speaking of my own org, parallax art center, but am also concerned for all the little guys out there.

  3. This is the letter I sent to Dan Ryan, Mayor Wheeler and the rest of council about them pulling RACC’s contract.Posting here to increase its chances of being read by someone at city hall. No one in the arts community supports this move.

    Dear Mayor Wheeler and Commissioner Ryan and members of City Council ,

    I’m writing to express my distress at the city’s decision to end its 28 year contract with RACC. I came to Portland in 1985 when RACC was still a city agency called MAC and I was an active member of the art community when the transition was made from city agency to the non profit RACC. Since then I’ve partnered with RACC as a selection committee member, public artist, workshop leader and grant recipient. As a public artist I’ve also worked with numerous other arts commissions in Washington, California, Rhode Island, Arizona and Maryland. RACC and King County, Washington’s 4Culture, both non profits, stand out among many many others as efficient, visionary, community oriented and leaders in arts’ administration nationally. Their relative independence from government bureaucracy has made them more knowledgeable stewards of their regions’ cultures, and better advocates for art and artists. Whatever issues may or may not have arisen in the last few years since Eloise Damrosch retired as director of RACC, returning arts administration to the city’s portfolio or scattering this work among competing agencies is not the answer. I’m especially concerned since this “contract for services” model is the same one the city has turned to to address our housing/mental illness/drug crisis. It’s deeply disturbing that the millions of dollars that citizens voted for to address this growing crisis have not been efficiently disbursed. Clearly the city has not developed a system for working with contractors in a timely manner. Meanwhile people are dying on our streets and with them, our once vibrant downtown is dying. I don’t understand why the council feels now, of all times, is a good time to add to their portfolio of responsibilities. With the city in a shambles this is the wrong time to take on such a complex, multifaceted and specialized portfolio of administrative responsibilities. Add to all this that we are about to transition to a new form of government . In my life as an artist I’ve observed that people with only layman’s knowledge of arts education, art making, art history or art administration often imagine they could do a better job than those who have dedicated their lives to the arts. It may be true that there are problems at RACC that need addressing (I don’t know) but if so the answer is to bring in more expertise, not to scatter administrative duties among agencies and individuals. At the broadest level the unified vision that RACC developed over the last 28 years is what is lacking in far too many government managed arts agencies. On the practical level, the one time I had a public art commission managed by an agent under government contract was a horrible experience . There was a breakdown in communication between the stakeholders, the contractor, and the architect which made my process nearly impossible. Changes were made in the construction drawings after final design and I was not informed until the last minute which meant I had to completely redesign my project on an absurd timeline. At RACC this kind of communication breakdown would never have been allowed to happen as RACC leads artists, architects and stakeholders through the process step by step. Once my contract was awarded the city in question felt my manager’s job was done and I was left without an advocate to navigate all the complexities that a project at this scale entails, and I was the only partner with experience in public art. Following a similarly “efficient” model would inevitably lead to similar problems here in Portland. Properly vetting contractors brought on to manage individual grants administration, public art projects, and arts education programs as they are parceled out will mean each time there is a new scope of work out to bid city administrators will need to go through a hiring process every bit as complex as any other. Those bidding on these projects will also be saddled with the nightmare of multiple proposals a year just to keep their doors open. RACC’s application processes for grants and commissions are fairly standardized which means artists applying for opportunities at RACC can develop efficiencies in their own professional practices. If multiple agencies are administering city arts funding streams there will inevitably be different approaches to selecting artists and institutions for funding. Each institution also has its own mission and agenda while RACC has historically cast a very wide net. These factors add layers of complexity to the professional lives of folks who are often juggling a day job, their art making practice and the funding raising and commission submittals necessary to keep it all going. If the city is looking for a more efficient process this is not the answer. I’m an award winning artist both in my public art practice where I’ve been recognized nationally, and as a studio artist. I collaborate often with performing artists and have a good sense of Portland’s arts ecosystem given my nearly forty year history here. I’d be happy to speak with you at any time about my experiences with RACC, with 4Culture and with other arts commissions around the country. I truly hope the city council has the wisdom to seek out the opinions of the artists, arts administrators and arts institutions who will be most impacted by this decision. Currently Portland has a reputation as a city that punches above its weight in the arts a fact Commissioner Ryan acknowledges in his opinion piece. That reputation was built under RACC’s leadership. I don’t know of anyone in Portland’s art community who thinks this is a good idea. In fact our entire community is angered and dismayed.

    Sincerely

    Fernanda D’Agostino

  4. Wonderful letter, Fernanda. I support your views and hope, along with you, that the city reconsiders this ill-advised decision to abandon such an effective organization.

  5. I spent 7 years in Portland (until Covid) leading nonprofit tourist/artistic destinations, the last four as Executive Director of the Lan Su Chinese Garden. When our twenty-year operating contract expired with the city, it was excuse after excuse, “turnover, changes in staffing, on and on” as to why they couldn’t complete the operating agreement for nearly two years! I literally moved back to southern Oregon before they could give someone the authority to just get it done! But they think they can adequately absorb and proficiently manage, RFP, evaluate, disburse and monitor $7+ million in arts funding without having to build a new bureaucracy and learning curves. It’s absolutely ridiculous and appears fomented out of spite for what the city deems non-responsive. So maybe they can rethink what will surely be a fiasco and would be detrimental to the arts community – and implement new controls; for example, maybe quarterly reimbursement grants to RACC based on sufficient financial and data stratification. There has to be a better solution – if there are supposed to be two representatives on the board, what have they done? Or why aren’t they helping get it on the right track?

  6. A few years back, at the annual State of the Arts report delivered at City Hall (the most recent of which was “rejected” by the City), RACC showed a slide of its team. 35 faces on the screen. 35! While nearly every arts organization and artist operates under scarcity and funding terror, there was RACC, bloated and gloating.

    1. as noted in reply to your comment in carol tatch’s op-ed, this number included both staff and board (https://racc.org/about/staff-and-board/): racc does not in fact have a bloated staff, but like many nonprofits dedicated to their mission, they do not have enough workers to do all that needs to be done, and work very hard to make up for that fact.

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