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State of the arts: “Everyone is experiencing the worst”

We talked to Brian Rogers, who leads the state's arts services organizations, about current conditions and some help on the way.


Brian Rogers is the director of the Oregon Arts Commission and the Oregon Cultural Trust, and during the first two weeks of the coronavirus lockdown he called dozens of arts organizations of all sizes to check in.


“It’s pretty grim,” Rogers said. Rogers is not a histrionic kind of guy, so he said it matter-of-factly. He also provided some historic context for the effect the pandemic is having on the arts. During the last recession in 2008, he said, most of the larger arts organizations were able to adjust with some pain, but made it through OK. So did the smallest groups. “The mid-sized organizations experienced the worst.”

All the state’s arts organizations, even the largest arts ones (such as the Oregon Symphony), are facing difficult times.

And now?

“During this time, everyone is experiencing the worst,” he said. “I do think it’s becoming more and more likely that a couple of big organizations will be forced to shut down.”

He noted that small business loans are highly competitive and tend to go to groups that already have a relationship with a bank. When everyone needs help, it’s harder to figure out a package of loans and grants that could relieve an arts organization in real trouble.

The Oregon Cultural Trust voted last week to start a relief fund for struggling groups in the state with $10 million from the Trust’s reserve fund. That reserve now totals $29 million, Rogers said. To get it rolling, though, the Trust needs the permission of the Oregon Legislature in the next legislative session. Rogers said that he’d heard that might be in May or even sooner. And if the situation for arts groups worsens, which it will as long as neither a treatment nor a vaccine for the coronavirus is available, the Trust will ask to tap the fund again.

The money will go the core organizations among the state’s 1400 registered cultural groups, the ones that regularly receive help from the Trust. That means they will be able to apply right away, and Rogers said the process will be easy, fast as it can be, and equitable.

The other money for the arts on the horizon for the state will come from the National Endowment for the Arts, which received $75 million in the economic stimulus package. The Oregon Arts Commission has learned that its share will be $452,000, from the 40 percent of the total dedicated to states and territories. The other 60 percent will go to organizations around the country, and the competition is expected to be fierce. The Commission will re-grant its money to Oregon organizations, using the same form as the Commission usually uses for grant applications.

What if one of the state’s very biggest arts organization, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, say, the Oregon Symphony or the Portland Art Museum, found itself on the verge of closing? Does the state have a policy in place that would come to the rescue? Would it let them fail?

“I hope not,” Rogers said. “I would hope the state would figure out a way to help out anchor cultural institutions.” But, he said, that would be something the Governor and the legislature would have to work out. “We don’t want to wait for help, we want to provide what we can.”

Executive Editor

Barry Johnson has written about and edited arts and culture stories of various sorts since 1978, when he started writing about dance for the Seattle Sun. He edited the arts section of Willamette Week and wrote a general culture column in the  early 1980s and started at The Oregonian as arts editor in 1983, moving between editing and writing (visual arts, movies, theater, dance) until leaving in 2009. Since then, he's been thinking about new ideas to help make arts and culture journalism ever more useful and engaged. Oregon ArtsWatch is one of those ideas.


One Response

  1. The foresight of former OAC Chris D’Arcy and her team deserves recognition. Because of her leadership, Oregon cultural organizations have a lifeline. This is one of those “attention mist be paid” moments.

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