Art is like an iceberg: The part you see is only the tip of the thing, poking out from a mass of study, practice, trial, error, dead ends, unexpected pathways, and liberating discoveries lying silently below sea level.
The structure of an arts environment – the private/public edifice that holds the whole thing up, from arts classes in schools to community cultural centers to new plays to dances to orchestra concerts to essential funding – is much the same. What gets done quietly and behind the scenes, from legislative hearings to grant requests to municipal planning sessions to bureaucratic budgeting decisions, can have a giant effect on the health of an arts culture.
The three counties of the greater Portland metropolitan area are in the midst of a quiet but ambitious two-year overhaul of the submerged mass of the arts iceberg. Called Our Creative Future, it’s a planning effort that’s looking at the totality of the arts culture in Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties, with an eye toward “helping articulate a clear vision for arts and culture, and developing goals and strategies to support that vision over the next 10 or more years.”
What does that mean in plain words? It’ll be a few months before we know for sure. The process began in August 2022 and is expected to continue through June 2024. Right now it’s deep in its second phase, called Community Engagement and Research, which is expected to last through July, and which involves just what it says: talking with people representing a broad diversity of cultural groups large and small, listening to their impressions of what’s working and what needs to be done, conducting an online survey of the ways that people do or don’t interact with cultural opportunities, and finally making sense out of all the information gathered. Several public events to gather information and viewpoints are scheduled in April.
To Portland City Arts Program Manager Jeff Hawthorne, the governmental point person for the project, the reassessment is overdue. “It was a similar cultural planning process in the 1990s, Arts Plan 2000, which led to the creation of the Regional Arts & Culture Council almost thirty years ago,” he said. A followup plan in 2008-09, he added, underscored a need for a regional arts funding mechanism but resulted instead in the formation of Portland’s annual city arts tax. Now, he said, “it’s time to plan for the future once again.”
Subashini Ganesan-Forbes — choreographer, operator of the performance space New Expressive Works, former Portland creative laureate, member of the Oregon Arts Commission, and part of Our Creative Future’s 24-member steering committee — agrees. Greater Portland needs to catch up with the region’s changed makeup, she said: “It would’ve been nice to do this 10 years ago.”
Indeed, a great deal has changed since the 1990s. An arts scene that had focused on downtown Portland has expanded and spread out, not just to Portland’s East Side but also to its large suburbs. Covid, which hit arts organizations’ budgets hard, and the Black Lives Matter movement have left a deep imprint on the region. Downtown Portland has lost some of its economic punch to the suburbs, especially to Washington County, where the Silicon Forest and Nike have had a huge impact.
Hillsboro has become a vibrant cultural hub. Beaverton has scored big with the successful rollout of the new Patricia Reser Center for the Arts. Washington and Clackamas counties and east Portland to Gresham have become focuses of immigrant and other cultures, from Hispanic to South and Southeast Asian to Russian and more, and those communities have developed arts and cultural traditions of their own. In addition, since the rise of Covid many more people are working from home rather than in downtown Portland offices, and those homes are often in suburban and outer areas, strengthening those economies and cultural possibilities.
The growth of immigrant communities and increased attention to Black, Indigenous, Latin, Asian, and other communities that had already been here has changed the arts and cultural focus. By the ’90s attention already had begun to swing toward populations that had been largely ignored, and that has only accelerated. An arts scene that had focused largely on the “Big Five” – Portland Art Museum, Oregon Symphony, Portland Opera, Portland Center Stage, Oregon Ballet Theatre – began to look much more diverse, with much larger possibilities.
The region’s changes over three decades bring up all sorts of questions, not just for individual artists or cultural groups but for performance and gallery spaces as well. Who has access to spaces? Are there enough spaces, in a variety of sizes and configurations? Are they geographically accessible throughout the tri-county region, and are they adequate to the job? Downtown Portland’s 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium, for instance, faces serious concerns about its ability to withstand an earthquake.
The seed for the current planning effort was planted five years ago, Hawthorne said: “It was City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero, auditing RACC in 2018, who first called for a new cultural planning process, stating, ‘The Arts Commissioner and the Mayor (should) work with the Arts Council, City leaders, City agencies involved with arts and culture, and community stakeholders to (1) assess the state of arts and culture in Portland; (2) identify needs; and (3) develop clear goals, vision and strategy for arts and culture for City Council adoption.’ She noted that it’s hard to evaluate RACC’s performance without clear direction from the City, so these are our broad goals.”
All of this comes with a price: $500,000 over the project’s two years, Hawthorne said: “One of the questions we need to examine in this cultural planning process is whether the grand experiment of a regional arts service delivery model, established in 1995, is working. So we asked Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties, and Metro, if they all wanted to participate in this cultural planning process with us, and help fund it, and they all said yes. The Cities of Beaverton and Hillsboro are also chipping in, and we received a $100,000 grant from the James F. & Marion L. Miller Foundation to support the cause.”
The project is being led by the San Diego-based Cultural Planning Group, with Portland’s Metropolitan Group. “They do this with a lot of other cities, putting together their cultural plans,” Sankar Raman, founder of The Immigrant Story and a member of Our Creative Future’s steering committee, said of Cultural Planning Group. The current information-gathering phase “is a cumbersome process,” he said, that takes a long time. But he added: “I’m trusting the process. What I am really impressed by is how many people from so many backgrounds (the consultants) are getting. They are doing a good job of collecting information. What are they going to do with the information? How will they analyze it? That’s another thing. But I think it’s promising.”
What’s next, then? “Coming up with a vision.”
The vision is crucial. “A tri-county plan can eventually move things forward,” said artist and steering committee member Barbara Mason, who also runs the youth arts-education nonprofit Golden Road Arts and is founder of the new Gray Raven Gallery next to the Reser Center in Beaverton. “We all know things are not equal and cultural access is a serious roadblock for many. This plan is working to remedy things, and while there is attention to the problems, we are bringing things into the open so everyone can see the access issues. Strike while the iron is hot. I see cultural access as a big issue. ‘Free’ will not matter if you have no transportation available.”
For Ganesan-Forbes, gathering information is vital to everything that comes after. “A really important part for me is the online survey for anyone in the tri-counties to fill out. The more people who take it the better,” she said. Deadline to fill out the survey is April 30.
She stresses, among other things, the financial aspects of the plan, linking the tri-county effort to the state Legislature’s establishment this year of a Cultural Caucus to push bills for cultural funding. “It is about money,” she said. “We keep talking about money as the life or slow death of arts organizations.” And since Covid and the reallocation of support both by government and foundations to more immediate concerns, budgeting has suffered: “It’s real. Money has gone down.”
The Legislature has five bills concerning arts and cultural funding in this session. If they’re passed, Ganesan-Forbes said, Oregon could rise from its current low ranking of 38th in the nation in state funding of arts and culture to 14th.
That is, of course, a very large “if.” For the Legislature, and for county and city governments, cost/benefit calculations come into play: How much will we spend, and what will we get out of it? That’s why arts and cultural arguments often are made, not in terms of art’s intrinsic or even educational value, but on its ability to boost tourism and help provide a solid economic base for downtowns and “art districts.”
Broadening the money pot could be crucial. With more and more groups legitimately looking for their fair share, shares can only get smaller unless the total available increases. And without more funding the danger exists of pitting the large traditional companies against the smaller and more diverse ones. The plan’s steering committee includes an impressive diversity of backgrounds and viewpoints, but only one member — John Goodwin, major gifts officer at the Portland Art Museum — from the “Big Five” arts groups.
In fact, however, smaller organizations often draw from the large ones in something like a symbiotic relationship. The Oregon Symphony, for instance, employs 76 musicians, many of whom are also actively involved in smaller and often contemporary ensembles such as Third Angle New Music, 45th Parallel Universe, and Classical Up Close. Reliable symphony salaries allow musicians also to branch out into smaller independent musical projects.
Groups and artists that have been ignored or underfunded in the past need to be supported, Ganesan-Forbes stressed, and so do the bigs: “I don’t think we as a city need to lose any of these large groups that we have. Yes. Let’s get more funding. I think there are avenues for funding.”
Arts education is also on the mind of many members of the steering committee. It’s suffered in the public schools, especially since the Covid shutdowns and the attempts, now that schools are back in session, to catch students up on their studies. Arts curricula have been downplayed in the belief that math and science are more important, without considering that arts such as music, with its logical and mathematical structures, train the mind to make learning “hard” subjects easier.
Steering committee meetings, Mason said, “point out the problems and we hope the final plan will address ways we can improve. Everyone wants opportunity and access for all, and art back in the schools for all three counties. Making everyone aware of the inequity of the actual situations will go a long way toward finding solutions.”
Ganesan-Forbes concurred: “How are we building relationships with the next generation? Our arts education continues to suffer.”
At this point in the process, more questions than answers are in the air. Defining culture is a big part of the process. Who and what is included? Culture is a very big concept, and there are many cultures within the larger culture, each with its own modes of expression.
“It seems daunting to try to make progress,” Mason said. “On the other hand, I was on the board of the Right Brain Initiative when it started, and had serious arguments with a local radio host when the Cultural Trust began. I have been on so many boards; Crow’s Shadow when it began, the Cultural Coalition of Washington County and others. We can and do facilitate change. Maybe not overnight, but one bite at a time.”
Large and small, the bites matter. “What can we do to clarify the importance of art and culture?” Ganesan-Forbes asked. “How do we keep the money flowing?”
Keep an eye on the process — take part in it, if you can — and then tune in sometime in 2024. An answer might emerge.