national endowment for the arts

Strike up the virtual festival band

ArtsWatch Weekly: Online Fertile Ground fest marches on, film fest updates, Hal Holbrook on jackasses & politics, monthly guides

BELLS ARE NOT RINGING AND NO MARCHING BANDS OR HIGH-STEPPING HORSES are sashaying through the center of town, but it’s festival time in Portland. We’re talking, of course, about Fertile Ground, the city’s annual festival of new performance works, which in an ordinary year would see revelers scurrying high, low, and in between across the metropolitan area, into basement and attic spaces and grand theater halls, to be among the first people on the planet to see the beginnings of upwards of a hundred new creative works, in all stages of development, from first readings to workshops to full-blown world premieres. Over its dozen years Fertile Ground has become something like a localized Edinburgh Fringe Festival, with the restriction that shows aren’t imported – they have to be made here, by people who can plausibly claim to live here.
 

A whirlwind of dance, circus, and aerial action awaits in Petra Delarocha’s “Prismagic Radio Hour,” premiering at 9 p.m. Friday in Fertile Ground.

This year everything’s changed: What had been known and celebrated for its in-the-moment acts of performance has transformed because of Covid restrictions into a virtual festival. As the 2021 festival moves into its final days – it began on Jan. 28 and closes on Saturday, Feb. 7, although projects can be viewed online through Feb. 15 – ArtsWatch’s writers have racked up a lot of screen time. We haven’t seen everything, but we’ve spent hours watching, and we’ll be watching more. One thing that’s stood out has been the ability of some projects to think like hybrids, making the most under the circumstances of the possibilities of both film and live performance. 

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Museums set sail for Reopenland

ArtsWatch Weekly: The doors swing open, carefully. Plus: Black & white in America, "new normal" in the wayback machine; follow the money.

WHILE MUCH OF OREGON’S CULTURAL WORLD REMAINS FROZEN IN LOCKDOWN, the ice is beginning to thaw in the river of art. A lot of commercial galleries have been open by appointment for some time. Now Portland’s three biggest museums are also reopening their doors for visitors:

  • OMSI, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, is open already, complete with its under-the-skin exhibit Body Worlds & the Cycle of Life, although many of its popular interactive attractions are under strict control.
     
  • The Oregon Historical Society Museum reopens Saturday, July 11, with several attractions including the exhibition Nevertheless, They Persisted: Women’s Voting Rights and the 19th Amendment. 
     
  • Across the Park Block from the history center, the Portland Art Museum swings open its doors again on Thursday, July 16, with several exhibitions including its big Volcano! celebration of Mount St. Helens forty years after its explosion and its Robert Colescott retrospective Art and Race Matters. The museum will welcome visitors with free admission the first four days of its reopening.
When the Portland Art Museum reopens on July 16, so will the special exhibition “Art and Race Matters: The Career of Robert Colescott.” Pictured: “George Washington Carver Crossing the Delaware: Page from an American History Textbook,” 1975, Acrylic on Canvas, 84 x 108 inches. © Estate of Robert Colescott / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy of the Estate and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. Photo: Jean Paul Torno

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NEA: $1.2 million in Oregon grants

The National Endowment for the Arts delivers 17 grants in Oregon as part of an $80 million round of awards nationally

The National Endowment for the Arts today announced its latest round of grants, more than $80 million across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and four U.S. jurisdictions. Oregon’s share is $1,219,200 among 17 groups and agencies – more than half to the Oregon Arts Commission, which then makes further grants throughout the state. Funding ranges from hiring a folklorist at the High Desert Museum in Bend to developing a new tribal arts and culture plan in Coos Bay to creating a new work at Eugene Ballet.

The complete Oregon list:

High Desert Museum, Bend:

$45,000 to support a folklorist position at the High Desert Museum.

Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, Coos Bay:

$50,000 to support the development of an arts and culture master plan to establish guidelines for public art and architecture that will celebrate sites of historical significance in Coos Bay, Oregon.

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‘She never wanted to leave anyone out’: Bonnie Merrill, 1935-2019

Collaborators remember a Portland dance pioneer’s generous spirit

Generations of Portland dancers—with one conspicuous exception—turned out to see Minh Tran’s concert Anicca (Impermance) last weekend at Reed College. Tran’s work, inspired by the recent deaths of his parents, premiered just a week after one of his teachers, Bonnie Merrill, succumbed to leukemia on Valentine’s Day. Tran’s piece, already weighted with grief and memory, felt like a kind of elegy for Merrill, an influential Portland dancer, instructor, and choreographer, and a founding mother of the city’s contemporary dance scene.

Merrill's work We Gather was performed at the citywide Portland arts festival Artquake in 1994. Photographer unknown.

Bonnie Merrill dances a solo in Donald McKayle’s “Collage.” Photo courtesy of the Merrill family.

Merrill kept her Portland dance card full for close to 40 years. She worked with modern and ballet companies, public school students, and collegiate dancers from Portland State, Lewis and Clark, and Reed. She created more than 100 works that were performed on film, onstage, and in city streets. Along the way, she forged creative alliances with musicians and visual artists, and earned accolades including the only Oregon Governor’s Award for the Arts given to an individual dance artist.

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Ka-ching: Money for the NEA

Bucking the Trump administration's call to eliminate federal funding for the arts and humanities, Congress approves a slight raise for each

FRIDAY, MARCH 23 UPDATE: It’s a done deal. President Trump signed the spending bill into law after first threatening to veto it on Friday morning in a move that “left both political parties in Washington reeling and his own aides bewildered about Mr. Trump’s contradictory actions.”

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Money makes the world go ’round, as the song from Cabaret puts it, and that includes the cultural world, which seems perpetually a day late and a dollar short in the distribution of it. It tends to be a case of trickle-down in reverse: Because museums and performance organizations generally exist on lean budgets – especially in the United States, where government cultural support pales compared to that in most European countries – ticket prices spike and the artists themselves are often poorly paid.

The museum world has been abuzz about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decision to charge non-New Yorkers $25 for admission, scrapping a decades-old policy of charging a “suggested” donation that allowed people of limited means (plus a few freeloaders) to engage with great art. The museum responds, in a nutshell, that it has no choice: It has to cover its costs.

Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey performing “Money Makes the World Go
‘Round” in the 1972 movie version of “Cabaret.”

Ticket prices on Broadway are routinely high enough to scrape the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but in the sellers’ market for a hot property like Hamilton they soar to obscene levels, mitigated slightly in national touring productions like the one that settled into Portland’s Keller Auditorium on Tuesday. (Look for T.J. Acena’s ArtsWatch review soon, and catch Amy Wang’s interview in The Oregonian with Joseph Morales, who stars as Hamilton in this version and began his theatrical career at Southern Oregon University, playing the Emcee in Cabaret.)

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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.

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