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Oregon cultural groups get a $51.8 million ‘love letter’

The Oregon Community Foundation and James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation invest $20 million each to boost cultural groups, adding to $11.8 million pledged by the state Legislature.

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Oregon Symphony performs Beethoven's
The Oregon Symphony performs Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony, Nov. 7, 2022. Photo: Jason Quigley

Oregon’s arts and cultural groups, battered for the past four years by the effects of the pandemic and its resulting shutdowns and lost audiences, are getting a $51.8 million boost as they emerge and seek to regain their footing.

Two of the state’s largest charitable foundations – the Oregon Community Foundation and the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation — announced Wednesday that they will give $20 million each over the next three years to boost the state’s arts infrastructure. Their pledge follows approval of $11.8 million by the Oregon Legislature in its 2024 short session to aid “anchor” arts organizations and smaller groups, including several with building or renovation projects.

Wednesday’s announcement, at The Armory, home of Portland Center Stage, came as excellent news for arts groups after being virtually shut out in 2023 Legislature funding and faring better, but still lean, in ’24. And it underscored a vital public/private approach to arts funding in Oregon, which has been ranked 41st in state governmental arts funding, at 51 cents a year per person.

Lisa Mensah, President and CEO of the Oregon Community Foundation, called the move by the two foundations “a love letter” to the state’s arts and cultural groups, a statement that “we believe in you.” She praised the Legislature for its increased attention to arts funding in the 2024 session. “Oregon legislators took a major step toward building back the vibrancy of the arts in Oregon,” she said. “They’re not settling for merely ‘keeping the lights on’ and neither are we. Arts are essential to what makes Oregon, Oregon.”

In a prepared statement, Rep. Rob Nosse (D-Portland), who helped found the Legislature’s first Arts and Culture Caucus in 2023, agreed. “At a moment when housing and homelessness and addiction are rightfully demanding more state resources, I am over the moon that money was found for capital construction projects and operational funding for the things like the [Oregon] Shakespeare Festival, and the [Portland] Opera,” he said. “… I am also grateful to the nonprofit foundations who stepped up to match the state’s efforts. I am looking forward to more of this in years to come.”

Exactly how and to whom the foundations’ money will be allocated is a work in progress. The state and foundation money together “will provide flexible funding for arts and culture nonprofits across the entire state,” a statement from OCF declares, adding: “The funding will be distributed across major venues and smaller community arts organizations around the state. Foundation program officers will advise potential grantees on details of the three-year investment.”

Representatives from large groups including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Portland Opera, the Oregon Symphony, the High Desert Museum, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Portland Center Stage, and the Portland Art Museum expressed their gratitude. Smaller groups, and groups in less populous parts of the state, are included in the funding plan, too.

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Carrie Hoops, Executive Director of the Miller Foundation, stressed both the intrinsic value of the arts and their role in boosting the health of the state’s larger culture. “The arts are an economic driver throughout our state, providing a huge boost to restaurants, shops, and businesses,” she said. “A diverse ecology of arts organizations brings us together and inspires creative expression in each vibrant and unique community across Oregon.”

And Dana Whitelaw, Executive Director of the High Desert Museum in Bend, which was turned down for an expected $2 million grant from the Legislature to help pay for a $40 million capital improvement project, stressed the importance of geographical diversity.

“Oregon Community Foundation’s leadership in providing critical support to arts and culture organizations across the state, and in our case for investing in arts on the east side of the Cascades, is truly visionary,” Whitelaw said. “It takes decades to create the vibrant arts opportunities that exist in Oregon today, yet this sector has faced continual headwinds these last few years. The Foundation’s investment is profound and inspirational for our sector’s future.” 

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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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