Portland Opera Puccini

Wins and losses for the arts in the Oregon Legislature

The 2024 session improves on a dismal '23 session for the arts, with allocations for several large organizations, less for smaller ones, and an unwelcome surprise for the High Desert Museum.

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The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland was one of the few big winners among arts and cultural organizations during the 2024 Oregon Legislature session, pulling in a $2.56 million legislative allocation. Photo of the festival's open-air stage: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland was one of the few big winners among arts and cultural organizations during the 2024 Oregon Legislature session, pulling in a $2.56 million legislative allocation. Photo: Jenny Graham/Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The Oregon Legislature wrapped up its winter short session last week, and funding for arts projects and organizations emerged with mixed results. After last year’s six-week walkout by most Republican members of the state Senate brought action to a virtual standstill, the 2024 session got down to work and cleared up a remarkable amount of business under the circumstances. But there simply wasn’t time, or perhaps will, to take up everything.

Arts and cultural funding had been largely shut out in the 2023 session. Its only major victory was a dubious one: Among other requests, 78 cultural groups from across the state had asked for about $11.2 million collectively but were awarded half that amount. Several other measures were either denied or delayed. But the arts sector scored some victories — and some setbacks — in 2024. Approved funding in the 2024 session was still less than half of what arts groups had asked for.

As Lizzy Acker reported in The Oregonian/Oregon Live, the Legislature approved roughly $6 million in key operational funding to seven “anchor arts organizations”: the High Desert Museum in Bend, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, and Portland’s Oregon Ballet Theatre, Oregon Symphony, Portland Art Museum, Portland Opera, and Portland Center Stage. The Shakespeare Festival, which has been battered by the pandemic and wildfires in southern Oregon, emerged as the big winner in the Legislature, pulling in $2.56 million.

The other major victory, as Acker reported, was an appropriation of about $5.9 million to capital projects across the state. But the biggest project on the list — $2 million for the High Desert Museum’s capital improvement campaign, a $40 million project that so far has raised $22 million — was rejected. “It’s a total surprise,” Acker quoted Dana Whitelaw, the museum’s executive director. “We were assured that legislative leadership was supportive of all of the projects.”

Also left unfunded was a $13.5 million request for post-Covid grants meant largely for smaller arts organizations, many of which are struggling financially from the effects of the pandemic years. Legislators tend to think of arts and cultural funding in terms of economic stimulus, and see large groups as more effective contributors to the overall economy.

In fact, a healthy cultural scene has strong players among its large, medium, and small groups, which often feed one another and sometimes work collaboratively. Many of Portland’s small contemporary music groups, for instance, are made of up members of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra.

The question of size and budget is common throughout the arts world, and was brought up again at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony when Cord Jefferson picked up his Oscar for best adapted screenplay for American Fiction. “This is a risk-averse industry — I get it,” he said in his unusually blunt acceptance speech. “But $200 million movies are also a risk, and it doesn’t always work out, but you take the risk anyway. And instead of making one $200 million movie, try making twenty $10 million movies.”

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Meanwhile, Oregon continues its long trend of lagging behind most other states in arts and cultural funding. A report last July from the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies ranked Oregon’s arts spending as 41st in the nation, at 51 cents a year per person. That low level of governmental support in turn puts added pressure on personal and foundation donors to take up the slack, which they often can’t do because of their own limited resources or because their funding priorities are on other things.

One potential bright spot moving ahead: A year ago, for the first time ever, a group of state legislators banded together to form an Oregon Arts and Culture Caucus to push the interests of the cultural sector in the state budgeting process and elsewhere. Despite the ’23 and ’24 setbacks, it continues, and may well have made possible the limited funding successes that occurred in the ’24 session.

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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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One Response

  1. Funny how all the recipients of these directed funds are paying members of the Cultural Advocacy Coalition of Oregon…

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