Oregon arts funding

Will Portland protect its ‘Big 5’?

The city's precarious arts funding structure and "small is better" ethos imperil the major arts groups, Portland Opera's former leader says


By CHRISTOPHER MATTALIANO


It was difficult to read a recent Willamette Week article (May 21) about Portland Opera canceling its fall season. I love the company. I’m very grateful for the 16 years I served as General Director and I wish to see it thrive. The article was also difficult to read because of significant inaccuracies. To write that the company has suffered from “years of substantial deficit” is simply not true. This can be verified by examining the financial documents on the company website.

But I’m not writing today to correct faulty characterizations of what has occurred in the past. Instead, I’ve been thinking about Portland, its arts organizations, and our future together. This time of quarantine provides an opportunity to take a “big picture” look at Portland’s arts community and what may lie ahead, post-pandemic.

First, let’s look back at the economic support conditions prior to the pandemic. The subscription model, which has been the life-blood of so many arts organizations, was already faltering and on life support. Consumers simply are not purchasing season subscriptions as they once did. There are a number of reasons why this has happened. Michael Kaiser, who has led many nonprofits and is known as the Turnaround King, has written extensively on the subject. There’s general agreement that the subscription model may improve somewhat in the years ahead, but it’s not coming back anywhere near where it was 20 years ago.

Christopher Mattaliano. Photo: Portland Opera


A number of Portland foundations that previously provided dependable, annual operating support have changed their focus and funding priorities. This often happens over time, particularly with a change of foundation leadership. Arts organizations have had to adjust quickly, as foundations have either reduced their support or no longer support the city’s arts organizations at all.

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On with the show? Hold on. Really.

ArtsWatch Weekly: In Oregon arts & culture, COVID-19 changes the game. Everything's shifting, and the future's uncertain.

. . . AND THEN THE DAM BURST. Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s announcement late Wednesday that large public gatherings will be banned in the state for the next four weeks while the health system tries to put a cap on the rapidly growing COVID-19 pandemic crisis changed everything. What had seemed a kind of wait-and-see, business-as-almost-usual unreality (well, goodness: It’s not like we’re Seattle or Italy, is it?) overnight became the new not-so-normal: It’s here. It’s real. It’s serious. Already universities had shifted their students to online classes. The aged and infirm were paying close attention, understanding they were in high-risk categories. Homeless advocates were worrying about potential disaster on the streets. Busy parents were juggling daycare as schools took time off, and if they were lucky, telecommunicating to the office from home. Stores were being wiped out of toilet paper, providing Internet wags a running joke. Then the NBA canceled the rest of its basketball season, and that shook people a bit. Tom Hanks announced he’d tested positive for the virus, and that shook things up a little more. But for a lot of people, until the governor literally called off the show, the seriousness of the situation – and the serious lack of planning or preparation on a national level – hadn’t quite sunk in.

The loneliness of the long-distance human: Laurits Andersen Ring, Mrs. Sigrid Ring Standing at a Stone Ballustrade, 1912, oil on canvas, 12.6 x 10.6 inches; private collection.

In the circumstances, whether a play or concert is canceled falls pretty far down on the list of international priorities. But for the arts and culture world, the shutdown is a true crisis. All day today, a flood of cancellations and postponements has been pouring in. (And it’s not just here. In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is shutting down all three of its campuses for rigorous basement-to-ceiling cleanings. In the nation’s capital, tours and events at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery are canceled through May 3.) The Oregon Symphony has canceled several concert series, including some high-profile ones. The Oregon Historical Society has canceled all programs through April 12, and Portland Opera has canceled its run of Vivaldi’s rarely performed Bajazet. School tours to museums and performances have stopped in their tracks. PassinArt has postponed its opening of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars for a week, and the city’s biggest theater company, Portland Center Stage, has called off or rescheduled performances of both of its current shows, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and 9 Parts of Desire, through April 8. March Music Moderne, Fear No Music, Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra have canceled concerts. Music Editor Matthew Neil Andrews gives details in his column MusicWatch Weekly: Stay home!, and fresh news of postponements or cancellations keeps pouring in.

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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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