pandemic and the arts

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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