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Portland arts funding: Open forum at PSU provides data, but not an arts plan

As greater Portland's arts and cultural system continues a slow structural evolution, a gathering at PSU hears information but not yet the shape of a completed plan.

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A crowd of more than 70 arts advocates gathered Wednesday, Feb. 7, at Portland State University to hear updates on greater Portland’s Arts and Culture Plan. Photo: Beth Blenz-Clucas

On February 7 in the Smith Memorial Student Union building at Portland State University, a diverse group of more than 70 people gathered to discuss the next stages in the process for Portland’s Arts and Culture Plan. Several steering committee members helped to organize what was billed as an “open conversation about Oregon’s future” about “fighting for the arts and our communities.” People attended to hear more about a new forthcoming plan for arts funding.

The forthcoming plan is the next stage in a new arts funding and arts engagement process that was kickstarted in July 2023 when the City announced that the Regional Arts and Culture Council would no longer be the primary administrator of funding to arts organizations in the region.

Over the intervening months, Portland’s arts community has eagerly participated in open forums that have asked for input from the community, and has tracked progress with keen anticipation. Most arts organization in the metro area have sent representatives to planning events and looked to these events for insight and clarity. 

The Feb. 7 forum was no exception.

Before the evening commenced, Stephanie Parrish, director of learning and community partnerships at Portland Art Museum, said that she was “excited to hear high-level what is happening to get a cultural plan in place, and how we might fit into it all.” Other participants had similar interests. Lauren Jost, executive director for Arts for Learning NW, pointed out prior to the event that “Oregon is 32nd in the country in terms of arts funding, and I’m excited to be in this community tonight to learn how we can collectively try to improve that.”

Others have found the process opaque and frustrating. Scott Lewis, executive director of NW Dance Project, stated that he has attended several forums to try to find answers: “I’ve continued to track this evolving plan for Portland arts … so I’m just keeping up to see if there’s something clear and real that I can grasp onto. Any opportunity to learn is helpful.”

PSU’s dean of the College of the Arts, Leroy Bynum, opened the evening by stating: “PSU stands at the forefront of the revitalization of Portland, and the arts are going to play an incredibly huge role in that. The arts and culture (are) vitally important, and this forum’s discussions are of great interest to us at the college.”

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The forum commenced with a review of the progress to date by co-organizer Richard Clucas, who teaches a class at PSU on Politics and the Arts, and a hearty welcome from Dean Bynum. Subashini Ganesan-Forbes, who is chair of the Oregon Arts Commission and serves on the Steering Committee for Public Arts, then provided an overview of the current data gathered by the steering committee. She noted that a statistically valid sample set of more than 600 community members has provided input to the committee, which is creating a plan with consultants that will provide guidance for regional arts funding.

Subashini Ganesan, chair of he Oregon Arts Commission, moderated the evening's discussion. Photo: Beth Blenz-Clucas
Subashini Ganesan-Forbes, chair of he Oregon Arts Commission, moderated the evening’s discussion. Photo: Beth Blenz-Clucas

The committee itself was created out of nominations from participating jurisdictions, including Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties; the cities of Beaverton, Hillsboro and Portland; the Metro regional government; and the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC). They represent multiple sectors of the community, including arts, culture, creative economy, education, business, social justice, “unlikely allies,” and others.

Panelists who were part of the discussion included fellow Steering Committee member Jaimie Lorenzini; Jenny Stadler, Executive Director of PHAME; Laura Becker, arts program manager for the City of Beaverton; and Michael Cavazos, artistic director of Hand2Mouth Theatre. The panel discussion was moderated by Ganesan-Forbes. However, little new information came from the panelor the organizers of the conversation.

Cover of Our Creative Future’s research summary. See the full 36-page update here.

Ganesan-Forbes stated that this was to be expected: “The goal is education and learning – we’re here to learn. And it’s always awesome to have our arts and culture community to come and think together. The point is that having space for conversation is going to create the needed advocacy that we are capable of doing.”

Questions were asked about the lack of information, most notably pointed requests for specifics from pushFOLD dance Artistic Director Samuel Hobbs and also from panelist Cavazos, who indicated that the political machinations and “government chat” was “confusing – all too often, this feels like the SAT.”

Yet specifics were not the point of the evening, explained Ganesan-Forbes. Instead, the evening provided an overview of the process to date, outlined the four phases accomplished by the steering committee to date, and helped the community to prepare for the imminent release of the first draft of a plan being crafted by outside consultants Cultural Planning Group, under contract to the city.

Per information provided at the forum, the Steering Committee will develop a vision for arts and culture and bring recommendations to the Portland City Council and other jurisdictions in the region. The steering committee will also advise the staff team throughout the planning process, and ultimately co-create the vision, goals, and strategies of the plan, which are scheduled to be completed in early 2024.

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Cavazos stated that even in the midst of this process, it was important to focus on making art: “Think of the person who is most in need – your local artist – and that’s where you can make a difference, by helping your individual artist.”

At the end of the evening, attendees were urged to find updates at the website OurCreativeFuture.org and to participate in a state lobbying day for arts and culture on February 20. Ganesan-Forbes announced that the next public panel event will be held on March 6, and will focus on state funding for arts and culture.

Mark McCrary, Executive Director of the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus said the evening left him “with a lot more questions than answers. I’m hopeful, but still curious.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Ned Hayes is a widely published journalist and novelist -- his novel The Eagle Tree was an international bestseller and was named one of the top five books about the autistic experience. He is passionate about building sustainable local arts communities and to that end, he founded the regional arts and culture magazine OLY ARTS, now the leading print and online magazine about the arts in the South Sound of Washington state (OlyArts.com).

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2 Responses

  1. As a long-time arts advocate who lives in central Oregon (not Bend) viewing this from afar, it seems they’d have a few concrete ideas that differ substantially from what the Regional Arts Council was doing, since that’s the organization they’re defunding. They apparently have lots of input to go along with an expanding bureaucracy that often hampers any sort of significant progress in Portland. That tells me the committee should strive to avoid paralysis through analysis. Having grown up in Portland decades ago and watched its evolution with more than a little sadness, I don’t think the city can afford to get this wrong. Portland needs a strong arts scene more than ever.

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