Joan Shipley

A little money for the arts

Amid a precarious political battle in Congress over the federal budget, Oregon artists and groups get both state and national grants

Government funding for the arts continues to be a political hot potato in the American cultural kitchen – and it continues to survive, if on a considerably leaner diet than is common in European nations, where the arts tend to thought of as a considerably more integral part of the larger culture. If the American fiscal water tap isn’t exactly open full blast, at least it’s still running. And this week, amid a flurry of moves and countermoves on the national budget, it’s filled a couple of pots.

On Wednesday the National Endowment for the Arts announced its latest round of project grants – $25 million nationally, including $412,500 in Oregon and $915,500 in Washington state. And on Thursday, the Oregon Arts Commission, which gets a significant amount of funding from the NEA, announced $59,000 in visual arts fellowships – small but key grants to encourage and develop new work.

That the work of the federal endowment in particular continues to be done is a small victory. Almost immediately after taking office a little more than a year ago President Trump set his sights on the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, as well as funding for public television, vowing to eliminate all federal funding for them. But he and Congress have had other fish to fry, and both endowments have had enough bipartisan support to continue, with the NEA’s at a relatively tiny but important $149.9 million.

Wednesday’s tough-fought spending agreement in the Senate, which bumps the federal government’s nonmilitary spending limit upward by $63 million and $68 million in the next two years, suggests that the endowment budgets will survive again, although a budget battle still looms in the House.

[Bulletin: Sen. Rand Paul’s stand against the increased spending in the budget bill caused the Senate to adjourn late Thursday night without an agreement, forcing at least a short-term government shutdown. The Senate is expected to re-adjourn for a series of votes beginning at 1 a.m. Friday. But this is Washington, D.C., in 2018: anything might happen.]

[Friday morning update: The Senate broke its impasse, the House approved the new spending bill, and the president signed it in the early morning hours, ensuring (among many other things) the arts and humanities endowments’ future for at least two years.]

Lynn Nottage’s play “Sweat,” with Jack Willis, Carlo Albán, and K.T. Vogt, was part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “American Revolutions” project, which has just received a $70,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

It’s unlikely but not impossible that the endowments, which have been targets of the fiscal and social right almost since they were created in 1965, could end up on the chopping block again. They are pawns in a much larger game, and increasingly, powerful political players are unafraid to sacrifice their pawns in search of bigger victories on the board.


Joan Shipley at Blue Sky Gallery

Editor’s Note: This originally appeared here last month. Today is the memorial service at PNCA dedicated to Joan Shipley, so it seemed appropriate to re-post it.

To my knowledge, Joan Shipley, who died last week, was not an artist herself, at least not a “public” artist.  But she was a creator of culture, very public culture, so in a way, that made her an artist, too, a culture artist.  And because she was such a good culture artist, the empty space left by her passing is culture wide.

Shipley was an adventurous culture artist. I saw her and her husband John mostly at “small” events, the kind that might just as easily leave you puzzled as amazed — and sometimes both. The farther shores of contemporary dance. Experimental music. Performance art. Edgier visual arts shows. I loved her sense of anticipation, her openness to what was about to happen, her sense of active attention. And if we talked, she frequently had a little story about the artist or the organization staging the performance or a memory to share from a performance past. Sometimes when I wrote about a dance or a concert, I wrote with her in mind, because I figured if I could write something that she would find useful, that would be a pretty good sign that I was on the right track.

Only gradually did I begin to understand how great her sphere of activity really was. And maybe I still don’t. I knew how important she was to the process that made sure the public art of the West Side light rail line was really engaging. She understood the dimensions of that project way before I got around to it, in time to do something about it. I saw her name in the programs of many organizations on the list of contributors, so I knew she and John were major donors, but I didn’t understand how many committees she sat on or how many fundraisers she pushed along. I have no idea how important her good advice and pertinent observations about art and culture have been, but when I look around I see that a lot of the organizations she worked with closely — PICA, Blue Sky Gallery, PNCA and the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Oregon College of Art and Craft, Chamber Music Northwest and many others — are strong and healthy, more so than I might have thought they should be.

As I have tried to understand just what it means to create a healthy, local culture, what that means exactly and how we build it together, Joan has served as a model for the actively engaged audience, how we non-artists can shape the culture around us by supporting what we find important both with money and informed discussion. When we sit passively in our seats or on our couches, we risk transforming the power of art into the anesthesia of entertainment. Unless we are attentive, unless we take responsibility ourselves for what’s in our culture-shed, we can’t make sure that we are getting what we really need, neither the consolation nor the terrifying insight. Joan showed us how to participate in the culture, take responsibility for it ourselves, create it on the fly.  “Thank you” just doesn’t quite say it.

Joan Shipley at Blue Sky gallery/photo: Wayne Bund

Sometimes, we think of individual audience members, of ourselves, as passive receivers of culture when we attend performances or view exhibitions. That’s the wrong way to think about it, though, as some audience members prove beyond doubt. Today, the Portland Art Dealers Association has given its service award to one of those people, Joan Shipley, who couldn’t be less passive. Here’s what PADA wrote:

It is our pleasure and honor to recognize Joan Shipley for her many years of support and interest in the visual arts. Our community is deeply enriched by Joan’s interest, time, work, enthusiasm, donations and collecting.

Over the years, my path has criss-crossed that of Joan and her husband John constantly at arts, theater and dance events. Her enthusiasm for the arts, her attraction to its wilder, more experimental manifestations, her insights into particular works and performances and her great, generous and gracious spirit — any one of these would qualify her for this award in my mind. Together, they have made her an absolutely crucial person in the arts scene here, and Oregon Arts Watch could not second an award any more loudly.

The photograph was taken at Blue Sky’s 35th anniversary celebration, which Shipley helped to plan. Perfect.