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The big arts breakup: RACC and PDX

The City of Portland tells the Regional Arts & Culture Council it's going to go it alone on arts policy and funding – and it's taking its money with it.

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The Japanese drumming ensemble Portland Taiko is one of many groups that have received funding from the Regional Arts & Culture Council. Photo: Craig Barnhill

The City of Portland and the Regional Arts & Culture Council are getting a divorce — and the city’s keeping control of most of the bank account. Sophie Peel of Willamette Week broke the news Friday afternoon that the city won’t renew its contracts with RACC after the end of the current fiscal year in summer 2024.

The city’s decision is a major blow to RACC, an independent organization that administers grants to arts and arts education groups not just in Portland but also throughout Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington counties. Peel reported that in recent years about 83 percent of the regional arts group’s funding has come from the City of Portland, much of it from the city’s $35 annual arts tax.

The split-up, which Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan announced at a RACC meeting Friday afternoon, suggests that the city believes it’s better off going it alone than in partnership with cities and counties in the metropolitan region.

Tensions between the two groups have been clear for some time. This spring the city slashed its financial commitment to RACC by $400,000. As Peele put it: “The writing was on the wall for months—and some members of the Arts Council might argue for years—that the city would pull its support from the Arts Council.”

For the city, the move is a circle back to the way things used to be. RACC was formed as an independent nonprofit group in 1995, succeeding the city’s longstanding Metropolitan Arts Commission and expanding its purview across the tri-county area. Over the years the city has displayed unrest over the regional approach, with complaints from the city auditor’s office and some city council members that RACC wasn’t providing them with sufficient financial information.

In the meantime, the city has been busy rebuilding its own City Arts Program, which is managed by Jeff Hawthorne. Hawthorne spent about 20 years as a key administrator at RACC, including a year and a half as interim executive director. He left RACC during a staff shakeup under then-executive director Madison Cario, and joined the city as arts program manager in late 2020.

What will the breakup mean for the city and its metropolitan neighbors? It comes at a time when the tri-county area is in the midst of developing a long-term strategy, called Our Creative Future, for regional arts: Presumably, that strategy-in-the-making will have to take a sharp turn.

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Meanwhile, several cities outside of Portland have been flexing their own, independent artistic muscles. A year after opening, Beaverton’s Patricia Reser Center for the Arts is a resounding success. Hillsboro has developed several arts and cultural hubs. What will happen outside of Portland with RACC’s budget radically slashed? Can RACC survive?

In Portland, city officials are floating the idea of either radically remodeling the city’s biggest performance hall, the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium, or abandoning it and building a new one on a different site. Either way, the cost would be high.

And at both RACC and the city, a funding tug-of-war has been going on between those advocating primacy for large “anchor” organizations such as the Portland Art Museum and Oregon Symphony and those arguing for bigger slices of the pie for smaller groups representing broader culture interests. Can the needs of both be met?

The divorce also comes at a time when many — perhaps most — arts organizations in the city and tri-county area are struggling to crawl out from under heavy financial losses during the Covid shutdowns and slowdowns. Audiences are still reluctant to return to venues in pre-pandemic numbers, and companies have been stretched as a result: Oregon Children’s Theatre has just announced that it won’t be producing any mainstage shows at least for the rest of the calendar year.

How will all of this shake out? Fasten your seatbelts. Looks like we might be going on a bumpy ride.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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2 Responses

  1. Where is Vera Katz when Portland needs her. Current City/county leadership leaves a great deal to be desired on almost all fronts. This is a crushing blow to the arts community. (Note that I do not live in Oregon but in the past 25 years my wife and I traveled to Portland for live theater more than four times per week. Now it is less than once a month.)

  2. The kids are fighting and now we’re all going to pay the price – literally and figuratively. Taking this money away from an organization solely dedicated to arts funding in the region and plopping it in a city bureau sounds a lot like hiring a plumber to rewire your house. I despair.

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