The Portland candidates forum on the arts: How to achieve real diversity

Portland in 1890: Yes, things can change here quickly.

The Gerding Theatre in the Armory building wasn’t totally full Monday night for a candidates forum devoted to the arts, but it was close, and the audience was full of local arts world luminaries. My nearest neighbors in my row included photographer Chris Rauschenberg of Blue Sky Gallery, Jamey “BodyVox” Hampton and Brian “Portland Art Museum” Ferriso. I felt so under-dressed!

The stage was littered with props and the set from “Red,” Portland Center Stage’s Mark Rothko bio-drama, but enough space was cleared for the five candidates who appeared plus Randy “Portland Monthly” Gragg, who moderated.

The forum was pretty informal — for example, it included random questions about local artists and organizations. The mayoral candidates on hand (Eleen Brady and Charlie Hales handled these with relative ease, while the council candidates (Commissioner Amanda Fritz, Steve Novick and Brian Parrott) mostly whiffed on theirs. The answers to the “real” questions were confined to a minute or two, maximum, and that allowed everyone to do a little ducking, when they didn’t really know what the question was about.

An Arts Forum With Candidates for Portland Mayor and City Council from Creative Advocacy Network on Vimeo.

That means we didn’t really get a solid idea of how deeply the candidates believe the arts are integrated into the life of the city, how critical they believe the arts are to a thriving creative economy, or even how crucial that creative economy is to the city’s future. No one mentioned comic books, the music scene or architecture and any other sort of design, though movie and television production got a few shout-outs.

Still, I left thinking that the candidates, with the exception of council candidate Parrott, understood and supported the efforts of Mayor Sam Adams to preserve RACC arts funding during the recession, agreed with his assessment that the arts are important to the city and believed that an initiative to boost government contributions to the arts significantly, through additional taxes or fees, especially for arts education is a good idea. If Mayor Adams’ ideas about these things have become “common sense” for our politicians in general, that’s pretty significant, all by itself.

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This implies that there was more agreement than disagreement among the candidates, and that was absolutely correct, though the candidates had vastly different degrees of familiarity with arts issues. Mayoral candidates Hales and Brady, were up to speed on such recent events as the Creative Advocacy Network’s initiative and the recent decision by RACC to require arts organizations receiving RACC money to reach diversity benchmarks for the number of minority members on their staff, board and among their contractors and to market to and serve communities of color in the city. Neither backed away from the idea that sometimes public art should be experimental and risky, and both enthusiastically supported increasing the availability of arts education.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz has also followed those issues closely, and she participated with Adams in fashioning RACC’s diversity requirements. Novick was rather less versed in the particulars, though his wit and firm belief that the arts will benefit from a strong economic development plan for the city as a whole, the latter a position that Brady also espouses, helped get him through the evening. Parrott never made clear the connection between the arts and the big-time sports events he wants to bring to the city, though there are some to be made. And his rejection of CAN’s initiative stood out on the panel, which otherwise supported the idea.

Among the ideas that surfaced, Brady’s suggestion that the money raised by the CAN initiative be used to retire the debts of the city’s major arts organizations was the most controversial, simply because building a successful coalition of arts groups will be much harder with so many groups left out of the financial distribution. I personally liked her idea of a big Portland dance festival, but then, I would! Hales wanted to invest in old Washington High School to make it an incubator for arts and creative economy businesses.

To summarize, if you are a one-issue voter and that issue is support for the arts, then the forum didn’t do much to separate the candidates.

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The diversity discussion proved to be the most interesting to me, maybe because Fritz has such a passion for it, and that passion seemed infectious. Support for the new RACC diversity standards was the litmus test, and everyone passed it, but for Fritz it seemed more like a crusade.

The RACC standards, though, are really just a beginning.  I don’t think that they’ll work by themselves, even if the city’s big organizations embrace them wholeheartedly (and I have no reason to think that they won’t, at this point). I don’t see how you can create equal opportunity to make and enjoy the arts citywide by focusing on the arts groups and buildings downtown and in inner-ring neighborhoods, which are the least diverse areas of the city.

So, I was hoping to hear someone, maybe mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith, who was in Salem seeing the legislative session through to its close, go beyond the status quo and propose something more revolutionary. Smith has supported increasing investment of all sorts in the poorest areas of the city, so supporting a systematic expansion of arts programs should make sense, too — unless you really don’t believe in the transformative power of the arts.

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My thinking goes like this: Until the arts are a neighborhood activity, as available in the most far-flung Portland sections as in downtown, we won’t be able to involve the majority of the city in them in a regular way, enough to change lives and communities for the better. And once we have healthy, exciting neighborhood arts centers, then it will be much easier for the symphony, the opera, the ballet or the art museum to recruit new, more diverse audiences, if they pay close enough attention to what those audiences need and want.

It’s interesting how a discussion about “diversity” quickly becomes a discussion about “access.” I’m in agreement with the city’s “20-minute neighborhood” policy, the notion that we all benefit from living in places that have services of all sorts (libraries, public transportation, schools, shopping districts, etc.) within relatively easy walking distance. Most of the neighborhoods that have achieved some semblance of that ideal are not particularly diverse, and the ones that are the furthest away are the most diverse (generally speaking).

Relatively few of them have full-fledged arts centers in them, though, city-funded or otherwise. And so far as I know, there’s no policy that encourages establishing them where they don’t exist. If we really want new Hispanic residents of the city to participate fully in the cultural life of the city — both to share the arts that are here and to contribute their own creations — a large building re-purposed as an arts center and staffed by community members, with the doors open to the salsa band that needs rehearsal space as well as the poetry reading and the dance class, is the best way to get them involved.

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I also believe that’s the way you build real excellence. As the Finns have discovered in their school system, if you work really hard at fairness and equality of opportunity, you achieve at a very high level. For those of you who argue that the Finns are relatively homogenous and well-off to begin with, I’d point to the wide-ranging classical music experiment in Venezuela, El Sistema, which has used music as a way to help children from the poorest neighborhoods in the Americas succeed — at everything.

It doesn’t have to be super expensive. The Finns spend less on education than we do, let alone Venezuela. But it means we shouldn’t be spending most of our available capital on big downtown projects at the expense of everything else. So, I’d be opposed to using tax money to pay off the debts of the major arts institutions, as Brady suggests, and I’d also oppose spending a big chunk of it on Washington High School, as Hales proposed, especially with the YU arts center and Holocene only a few blocks away (though I’d try to figure out how to accomplish those worthy projects in other ways).

Until every little neighborhood in the city has something roughly equivalent to the Multnomah Arts Center or the Community Music Center, whether it’s run by the City or just helped along in some way (and Mayor Adams has been very adept at finding small ways to help the arts), then we have no business using initiative money (from an income tax surcharge, property tax increase, or some other mechanism) in more capital intensive ways.

I could go on at great length about the value of neighborhood arts centers and how they inevitably end up helping everyone, from new immigrant to Old Money, from that salsa band to the Portland Opera. Without them, I think the Portland Opera will be hard-pressed to meet the RACC goals, simply because the folks at the opera won’t have a good way to “meet” all the new people they’ll need to meet, outreach or no, to achieve them.

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On the eastern edges of the city, where services of all sorts are the sparsest and where the 20-minute walkable neighborhood seems like a fantasy, one of the biggest challenges is to create a sense of “place,” in German urbanist Thomas Sieverts’ formulation. An arts center by itself doesn’t do that, but an arts center along with a library and a few shops with an elementary school and a transit stop nearby? That’s a start, at least. And when it comes time to add some public art, which can be an excellent aid in place-making, we have a real place to site it.

And for the rest of the city? We have a new place to visit, maybe one that speaks with a Mexican accent or Russian or east African, one that starts to blend in with the rest of the city in important, even profound ways. Because neighborhoods are made up of people, and engaged, those people create great cities.

That was another point of agreement at the forum — that Portland can and should be a great city. I would argue that the arts aren’t a product of a great city, they are a critical tool in making a city great.

8 Responses.

  1. Bob Hicks says:

    Great overview, Barry. Thanks.

  2. Martha Ullman West says:

    I’m also grateful Barry. And I have one burning question–where does the independent, individual artist–painter, sculptor, choreographer, dancer, poet, regardless of race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, and age, dammit, come into this? New York, the city I read in the O is Charlie Hales favorite (other, give me a break cultural center) became that cultural center as much because of individual, independent artists, as it did arts institutions. We need to nurture them, cultivate them, fund them, if this city is to fulfill the promise it’s showing at the moment, as New York fostered the talent of Mark Rothko.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Excellent question! In general, I’d say the more “arts activated” the city is, the easier it will be for individual artists to thrive. But we know that path is almost inevitably difficult.

      And here, I agree with Steve Novick: Solving such general issues as affordable health-care, housing and public transportation would be a major step forward for artists of all sorts.

  3. angela says:

    So who should we vote for?

    • Barry Johnson says:

      ArtsWatch will attempt to interview the major candidates directly about the arts, because we had lots more questions. My hunch is that their differences won’t be great enough to be a major factor in determining who to vote for. So, we’ll have to look at “extra-art” factors to make a decision…

  4. Martha Ullman West says:

    Oh lord yes, I agree with Steve Novick on that one. What my daughter and her husband (he’s a tattooist, she’s a painter) go through with health insurance that covers just about nothing and costs the earth is not to be believed.

  5. Jeff Hawthorne says:

    I agree that there are lots of big-picture needs to be solved, but if they cannot find it in their hearts to also support the arts directly, that’s no good in my opinion.

Comments are closed.