Sharon Maxwell

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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