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.

As for government support, Oregon ranks 39th in state funding for the arts, and Portland ranks consistently low in benchmark studies of arts support in mid-sized US cities. An effort to improve this condition was the creation of the (unfortunately named) Arts Tax in 2012, which residents voted strongly to support.


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But while the Arts Tax has been successful in reinstating art and music teachers in our local school system, it has stalled – some would say failed entirely – in providing meaningful, consistent operating support to Portland’s art institutions. There have been efforts to fix the ongoing problems with collections, but it remains a very difficult fix. Unfortunately, arts organizations – some of whom were instrumental in raising the necessary funds and advocating
for the measure when it went first went to ballot in 2012 – have had to adjust (and readjust) plans and budgets on a regular basis as a result.

Of course, a significant source of revenue for performing arts organizations is from ticket sales. But ticket revenue covers only approximately 33 percent of what it actually costs to produce a play,
concert, ballet, etc – even when a performance sells out every available ticket.** This financial reality – that arts organizations actually lose money every time they produce an exhibit, performance, etc – is often bewildering to board members new to the non-profit world. It must seem like such a terrible business model!

Finally, there are individual donors – those wonderful, beloved people who, in addition to purchasing memberships, tickets, etc, also make financial contributions to the organization of their choice. Such contributions help organizations cover the remaining 66 percent of performance expenses, balance their budgets, and most importantly, keep tickets prices reasonably accessible to the general public. If ticket revenue alone had to cover production and performance expenses, the cost of a ticket would be absurdly high, and the arts would be available to only the very wealthy.


Given the size of Portland, there is a relatively small number of individual donors to arts organizations. This group of generous, civic-minded families and individuals are approached regularly by a number of organizations, often more than once within a single year. And many are exhausted. The truth is, Portland has been suffering from deep “donor fatigue” for years now.

Alasdair Kent as Don Ramiro, Kate Farrar in the title role in Portland Opera’s 2018 production of Rossini’s “La Cenerentola,” for which Christopher Mattaliano was stage director. Photo: Cory Weaver/Portland Opera

Furthermore, it’s become apparent the next generation of philanthropists will not necessarily follow in the footsteps of their parents. They often have a different focus or other priorities
when it comes to philanthropic giving. This has been a consistent observation and means there’s no guarantee that the current generous family or foundation – whom your organization
may be depending on – will be there tomorrow. The hope is that others will step up and become philanthropic leaders. But who knows if and when that will happen? And, given this reality, how does an arts company plan its future in a reasonably responsible manner?

While the above scenario may sound pessimistic, I feel it’s accurate. It’s based on my 17 years as an arts leader in the Portland community. It’s also based on 40 years of experience having worked at most of the major opera companies in the U.S. and observing the relationship between other organizations and their local communities. But my view of Portland is a snapshot – my own subjective snapshot of a city I love and its unique, intense relationship with its artists and arts institutions. And, of course, this may change in the future.


But how do we plan for the future? How do we move forward?


A question I would often ask my staff was, “What type of opera company is the community willing to support?” It’s a good time to reflect further on this question, substituting “opera company” with the arts organization of your choice.


It’s clear that what a community says it wants and what it is willing to support are sometimes not the same thing. And when you consider the local economic snapshot I’ve provided (which is
certainly debatable and some will disagree with), one might add, “What has the community actually been telling us, not through its words, but through its actions?”


One thing that’s been heard (at times loud and clear) and seen, is the “anti-big” sentiment that exists in Portland – from some foundations, government arts agencies, and even individuals. I’ve never quite understood it. When I’ve asked others why this exists, it seems to run the gamut – “the large arts groups – Oregon Symphony, Portland Art Museum, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Portland Opera, and Portland Center Stage – are elitist and undeserving of my support,” or, “they’re out of touch with the real world and real people,” or, “those large companies already have plenty of money and don’t need further support,” or, “it’s more important to support the little guys – Portland’s true, real artists,” etc, etc.

Why does this dynamic exist in Portland? Is there something in the water? Does the city have some sort of personality complex that I’m not understanding? To this day, I find it truly bewildering. It’s very different from other cities – larger and smaller – where I’ve worked in my career. In most mid-sized American cities, the sentiment is: “If we’re going to be a great city, of course we need a great museum, theater company, etc. – they’re a source of pride for the community and deserving of our support.”


Why is Portland different? I’ve tried, but have failed to understand why this anti-big prejudice exists. I hope that this dynamic will change in the future. I hope our community will come to see, as I do, that Portland’s five large-scale arts institutions are ANCHORS. They establish a strong cultural foundation for the city and provide an anchor for other important, smaller-scale arts organizations and local artists to coexist within a rich arts ecology.


For one example, consider the Oregon Symphony. By having an excellent resident symphony orchestra, Portland also has such fine organizations as Chamber Music Northwest, Fear No Music, 3rd
Angle Music, and the Portland Youth Philharmonic, to name a few. Without the Oregon Symphony, they might not exist, at least in their current state. And would our local universities like Portland State or University of Portland be able to provide the same quality arts education without those musicians teaching on faculty? Similar examples of mutually supportive relations with other smaller arts organizations are evident at Portland Center Stage, Portland Art
Museum, Portland Opera and Oregon Ballet Theatre.


Furthermore, these anchor organizations – because of their larger size – are able to have a much further reach and deeper impact in the community, through free performances, lectures, presentations, activities for students, and a consistent presence and investment in schools and community centers. All of our local arts companies, large and small, form a dynamic, diverse, interdependent arts ecology and strong economic engine for the city. Portland’s five large-scale arts companies are the cultural ANCHORS for the city – both economically and artistically. They should be embraced with pride and consistently supported.


But, with that said, how do we look forward from the current moment? How do our performing arts companies plan a post-pandemic season? The A Plan could be to simply pick up where we left off, assuming things get back to “normal” (a big assumption). In the case of Portland, if normal is – at best – returning to the challenging economic support conditions that existed prior to the pandemic, one should be concerned.


On a national level, the biggest concern right now are the mid-sized companies, which would include Portland’s big five. Large scale organizations such as the New York Philharmonic, Lyric Opera of
Chicago, and San Francisco Ballet are not going to fold – they fall into the category of “too big to fail.” At the other end, the scrappy smaller companies with tiny staffs and budgets are used to getting by on a shoe string. They’ll continue to do so.

But there is general concern that the mid-size U.S. regional companies are the most vulnerable now. With that in mind, is it time for local arts organizations to rethink the size, scale, depth, and reach of their operations? One thing is sure: we can’t go back to the “good old days.” When I first came to Portland Opera as a guest artist in 1990, the former General Director Robert Bailey was producing five grand opera productions at the Civic Auditorium (now the Keller) for five performances each. Those days are gone, and no degree of nostalgia will bring them back.


And how do we even know our local theater venues will be open and available post-pandemic? It’s a terrible thought, but I hope it will motivate all arts leaders to create a B Plan and also a C Plan for the future.


One thing we do know: the arts and humankind’s need to create have survived plagues, wars, and political/social upheavals of all kinds throughout history. I remain hopeful that the current time will be a period of deep creative thinking and possible solutions. Perhaps Portland can become a leader in reimagining how its local arts groups, large and small, can serve and lead their community – but based on what’s realistic economically and on what the community has demonstrated it is willing to support.


It may mean a major readjustment of our operating models and how we relate to and connect with the community at large. We could set the tone and become a model for the future. It’s something to think about and reflect upon. God knows, we have the time during this period of Covid-19 isolation. I hope that something good and unexpected may come out of it.

  • ** Cynthia Fuhrman, managing director of Portland Center Stage at the Armory, notes: “(T)he percentage of costs covered by tickets varies by organization and genre. So the 33% covered by tickets … may be true for some organizations, but at PCS we “earn” (tickets, concessions, classes, etc.) about 61% of our revenue, and rely on contributions for the other 39%. … the overhead the larger organizations are required to carry (whether from being the owners of buildings and the associated upkeep, or other factors) means that we are quite vulnerable when our revenue streams are shut down, especially for those of us who rely most heavily on earned revenue streams.”

  • Christopher Mattaliano was general director of Portland Opera from 2003 to 2019. As an opera stage director, his work has been seen at major companies across the United States and internationally as well in Portland.

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