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Portland vows an extra $1 million in direct arts funding

A series of public meetings about arts funding after the breakup with RACC provides a lens into the still-forming City Arts Program plans – including slashed overhead costs.

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Arts in Portland doesn’t just come from the big mainstream groups. Some of the city’s most invigorating work arrives via small groups in small spaces. Above, Madeleine Tran in Renegade Opera’s early fall production of “Adam’s Run” at Shaking the Tree Theatre. Later in the fall, the inner-Southeast Shaking the Tree sold out its entire run of its hit production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s‘s “Blood Wedding.” Photo by Tom Lupton.

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In July, Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan, who is in charge of the city’s arts programs, notified the Regional Arts & Culture Commission (RACC) that the City of Portland would stop providing a multiyear, multimillion dollar sole-source contract to RACC for administration of arts funding as of Summer 2024.

Instead, Ryan announced, the City would develop and administer its own Office of Arts and Culture. Jeff Hawthorne, a former long-time staff member and interim director at RACC and current Arts Program Manager for the City of Portland, has been tapped to lead the new City Arts Program.

The city doesn’t have a complete plan yet. Speaking at a public informational gathering Nov. 7 at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, Hawthorne said the lack of a comprehensive plan is by design: “I’m comfortable building as we go. I don’t think it would be fair to walk in with a complete design. Instead, I hope that this evening, we can find the sweet spot between clarity and a blank slate.”

Large, citywide, collaborative events such as this fall’s Converge 45 art biennial are part of the broad-based and highly varied Portland cultural scene. Above, Hank Willis Thomas, “At the twilight’s last gleaming?“; collection of Jordan D. Schnitzer. At We are the Revolution, Converge 45.

To fill out that blank slate, the city convened a series of four public meetings in October and November, to outline early ideas and discuss ideas that may emerge from the artistic community about the new program. Each session has grown in attendance. The first session drew in only 45 people, while the most recent sessions have over 85 people pre-registered to attend. Participation was active and focused at Nov. 7’s third public meeting. (The final meeting, at the Multnomah Arts Center, was Thursday, Nov. 16.)

Prosper Portland Manager Berk Nelson opened the evening by stating that the City is still “working with RACC to use existing funds to have a greater impact on arts and using vacant space in the city to spotlight the arts. We look forward to an exciting conversation about how the arts can grow here in our city. We understand the arts have a profound impact on community and community engagement.”

The arts were not just a subject of discussion: each session has also opened with an artistic performance. The evening on Nov. 7 featured three powerful spoken poems by a Black poet who named herself only as “Bella” and warned that the dominant culture should be wary of “turning my experience into your entertainment.”

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Tuba Christmas is a highlight of downtown Portland's holiday schedule, filling Pioneer Courthouse Square with musicians and crowds eager to get the seasonal musical lowdown. This year's free 32nd annual Tuba Christmas will be 1:30-3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 16. Photo: K.B. Dixon/2017
Tuba Christmas is a highlight of downtown Portland’s holiday schedule, filling Pioneer Courthouse Square with musicians and crowds eager to get the seasonal musical lowdown. This year’s free 32nd annual Tuba Christmas will be 1:30-3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 16. Photo: K.B. Dixon/2017

Ryan followed the poet by discussing his own early background as a tap-dancing wunderkind at 4 years old and clarified that his title is “Commissioner of Cultural Livability, which includes parks, natural areas, children’s levy and the arts – all the reasons we live somewhere, what makes our community vital. The arts keep you grounded and build our communities.”

Ryan also spoke about the arts as an engine of economic vitality: “Arts are a driver for the economy – arts can activate our economy. Cultural production accounts for $9.1 billion in our state’s economy, 3.6% of our gross state product and 65,549 jobs just in the nonprofit arts sector. We are the kindling to activate the economy. So it’s not just food for the soul, it’s food on the table.”

Ryan introduced a panel who actively fielded questions from the 80-plus people in attendance – most of them artists and arts organization leaders. The panel at each session included Soo Pak of Portland Parks, who supervises arts and culture events; Dawn Isaacs, Arts Education Coordinator; Darian Jones, Senior Policy Director of Arts and Culture for Commissioner Ryan; Stephen Herrara, City Arts Policy Advisor; and Hawthorne.

Downtown performance spaces such as Keller Auditorium and the Newmark Theatre play a big role in the city’s cultural life, not just for local artists and performing groups but also for touring attractions. Above, the dancers of the Kyiv Grand Ballet in “Giselle,” which will perform at the Newmark Nov. 24 and 25. Photo courtesy of Kyiv Grand Ballet.

A number of local arts groups were represented in the conversation, from Jamie Dunphy of Music Portland to Parks Board member Suenn-Ho to Liz Kasser, coordinator of HONK PDX. Interviews with attendees demonstrated an abiding interest in how Portland will continue to fund the arts.

Performer and artist Given Davis attended the session wanting to “learn a little more about how the city is reallocating funds, and figure out how to help queer artists fund the amazing art that people are already doing here in Portland. There are so many great artists in the queer community who are really deserving of funding, and I hope to help grow their art.”

Portland actor Bruce Burkhartsmeier received RACC funding in the past, specifically for a production of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. “I’m here because I’m curious how things are going to shift in the future for working artists and actors.”

Portland’s cultural life spreads far beyond downtown. Above, Bruce Burkhartsmeier (left) and Michael O’Connell in Roddy Doyle’s “Two Pints,” a fall hit for Third Rail Rep at Northwest Portland’s CoHo Theatre. Photo: Owen Carey

Further questions included inquiries about how millions of dollars in funding would be distributed, the capacity of the city to move quickly with a new organization, and the status of current applications to existing RACC programs. Hawthorne stated that RACC would still be involved in funding, and that the City has a deep “bench” of experienced arts personnel “who have deep relationships with local arts organizations and can move rapidly to keep funding the arts.”

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Ingrid Carlson, grants officer from RACC, was also in attendance and spoke about RACC’s plan to continue to partner with the city in arts funding. “RACC is not going away,” said Carlson. “We plan to continue to actively partner with the city.”

According to the written overview of the new funding plan that was presented that evening, more funds will be available in this new model. Hawthorne said that the City’s nascent plan is to reallocate funds from overhead and administrative costs. This means, he said, that an additional $1 million could go directly to artists and arts organizations: “We expect that the same volume of money – even more – will go to the same arts community. But more directly, with less overhead, and with more tax money going directly to the artists.”

Ryan was excited to hear from everyone. “We hope this is a lot of great dialogue,” said the commissioner. “I’m here to be a sponge. My goal is to try to get the arts lifted to its proper place in the city’s portfolio and to hear all the voices who can build the fire of the arts in our city.”

Murals in public and work places are part of Portland’s arts fabric. Above: “We’ve Been Here,” a mural in the Lizzie K. Weeks Room of the Portland Building, by Kayin Talton Davis. Photo courtesy City Arts Program.

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More on City Arts, RACC, and Cultural Planning

ArtsWatch has been following the split between the City of Portland and the Regional Arts and Culture Council, as well as the “Our Creative Future” long-range regional arts and cultural planning. Stories on what’s been happening:

Clackamas County drops RACC funding. The county follows the City of Portland’s lead in defunding the regional arts granting group – and RACC, in turn, makes plans to continue its services. Nov. 8, 2023.

RACC board ousts executive director. The embattled regional arts funding agency cuts its ties with leader Carol Tatch amid a continuing dispute with the City of Portland, The Oregonian reports. Nov. 4, 2023.

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RACC puts its top leader on leave. The arts and culture funding group, in the midst of a fierce battle over funding with the City of Portland, puts Executive Director Carol Tatch on paid leave pending investigation of unspecified issues. Oct. 5, 2023.

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. Aug. 31, 2023.

Opinion: RACC leader on why a regional arts approach is best for the community to thrive. The city’s plan to go its own way on arts funding and policy is “a huge mistake” that doesn’t have to happen, the Regional Arts & Culture Council’s Carol Tatch writes. Aug. 31, 2023.

Opinion: Renee Mitchell on the RACC/City split. The city’s decision breaks the vision laid out by the late Commissioner Nick Fish, Dr. Mitchell argues, and harms smaller and more diverse arts groups. Aug. 16,2023.

The big arts breakup: RACC and PDX. The City of Portland tells the Regional Arts & Culture Council it’s going to go it alone on arts policy and funding – and it’s taking its money with it. July 21, 2023.

Arts funding bottoms out in Legislature. As Oregon lawmakers stumble through a long Senate walkout and then rush to finish business, a cultural sector still hurting from Covid shutdowns loses on several fronts. June 28, 2023.

Portland tri-county looks to the arts future. “Our Creative Future,” a two-year, broad-based planning effort, seeks to set the tone for the growth and stability of the region’s arts culture over the next 10 years. April 9, 2023.

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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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