Nick Fish

Are the Arts Getting Squeezed Out?

City Club of Portland discussion spotlights the increasing cost of arts-making spaces, and some possible solutions

As I walked through downtown Portland on my way to the City Club of Portland’s May 20 Friday Forum (subject: Are the Arts Getting Squeezed Out?), I almost had to step over a couple of homeless Portlanders who’d set up makeshift spaces off the sidewalk. In the context of the city’s explosion of homelessness, how could a talk about the plight of local artists matter?

As it turned out, the speakers (including maker space consultant and moderator Kelley Roy, founder and owner of ADX and Portland Made; Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish; and Portland property manager and real estate broker MaryKay West, all experienced in securing space for artists) connected the city’s housing emergency to the affordability challenges confronting so many creative organizations. The rising rents sparked by Portland’s economic boom have pressured artists, many if not most of whom exist at or not far above poverty level, too. If most aren’t (we hope) in immediate danger of sleeping in the streets, many are finding it difficult to live and make art in the city.

Ganesan (l), Roy, West and Fish at City Club of Portland.

Ganesan (l), Roy, West and Fish at City Club of Portland.

Ultimately, that displacement could undermine much of what has made Portland so successful in the first place. Fish drew an explicit link between the economic growth of what he called the fastest growing urban economy in America and its desirability, which has attracted the much-vaunted “young creatives” whose talents are making money for the businesses that employ them and fueling the economic surge, new jobs, and the rest. That desirability, in turn, stems in part from wise policy choices like the land use planning that keeps Portland from turning into just another anonymous sprawl zone where cars are essential to get around (an added financial burden for artists and everyone else) and there’s no vital cultural center. But it’s also due to the artists, musicians, designers and the rest of the creative community that makes Portland what Fish called “a destination city.” And that desirability, with the demand for space outstripping supply, has pushed up the price of housing for artists and everyone else, prompting dislocation for artists and non artists alike. For some, Portland’s affordability crisis might mean moving out of the city or even the state — or even onto the streets.

Fish, whose portfolio effectively makes him the city’s de facto arts commissioner, also squarely defined the tough choice suggested by the street scene outside the downtown hotel where the lunchtime discussion occurred. “I believe we are morally bound, duty bound, to address the crisis on our streets,” he said. “But if we take our eye off the challenge that artists and nonprofits are facing, we’re at risk of losing something that makes Portland really special, and that’s the arts and culture scene. My belief is they’re not mutually exclusive.”

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The candidates talk about the arts, generally

Multnomah County and Portland City Council candidates meet for a Forum on the Arts

Oregon artist Frederic Littman, by Robert Miller/Portland Art Museum

Oregon artist Frederic Littman, by Robert Miller/Portland Art Museum

Last night candidates for open Portland City Council and Multnomah County Commission appeared before a very sparse “crowd” at Portland Center Stage to participate in a Forum for the Arts. In general, it went better than the one two years ago. None of the candidates suggested that government funding for the arts was crazy, for example. And none of them tried to clown his way through the evening. Both happened last time, and one of those candidates actually won his race.

But we are still in the early days of learning how to have a fruitful conversation about the role of the arts in local culture and how we can address the issues that arise around them. In truth I could substitute “transportation” or “education” or “economic development” for “the arts” in that sentence and it would still be true, but maybe my standard for “fruitful conversation” is impossibly high.

I’m going to get to what the candidates actually said in a moment, but first, a hypothetical question. Let’s say you are persuaded that the arts are important—in education, for individuals, for the economy, even for the transmission of central ideas about what it means to be human. Maybe that became apparent to you from your own experience walking through the world or maybe you read one of the many studies that have suggested the same. Here’s the question: How would you go about developing policies that would integrate them more deeply into the larger culture?

Maybe you’d talk to some artists about what they do, what they need, what they have to give. Maybe you’d talk to some kids in arts classes about the same things. And to their parents about their own access to art-making and the art achievements of others. And to “ordinary” people about what they need and want and are willing to pay for. Ordinary is in quotes, because one of the great and paradoxical lessons of the arts is that none of us is “ordinary” and still we can find deep understanding, commonality, with our fellows.

Evidence of THAT sort of fruitful conversation was missing from the Forum on the Arts Monday night. The discussion was general, and though the expressions of support for the value proposition of the arts sounded heartfelt, they weren’t backed up by the ideas that fruitful conversation, even one of them, would have generated. So, one candidate mentioned live-work space for artists—which sounds plausible—but didn’t offer details: Where should that space be, how can we surmount the massive obstacle of current zoning restrictions and the bureaucracy that enforces them, are they rent-subsidized spaces and if they are, what should we expect back from the artists in return? The list is a long one, and for many of them, the artists themselves have at least part of the best answers.

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