marykay west

Are the Arts Getting Squeezed Out?

City Club of Portland discussion spotlights the increasing cost of arts-making spaces, and some possible solutions

As I walked through downtown Portland on my way to the City Club of Portland’s May 20 Friday Forum (subject: Are the Arts Getting Squeezed Out?), I almost had to step over a couple of homeless Portlanders who’d set up makeshift spaces off the sidewalk. In the context of the city’s explosion of homelessness, how could a talk about the plight of local artists matter?

As it turned out, the speakers (including maker space consultant and moderator Kelley Roy, founder and owner of ADX and Portland Made; Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish; and Portland property manager and real estate broker MaryKay West, all experienced in securing space for artists) connected the city’s housing emergency to the affordability challenges confronting so many creative organizations. The rising rents sparked by Portland’s economic boom have pressured artists, many if not most of whom exist at or not far above poverty level, too. If most aren’t (we hope) in immediate danger of sleeping in the streets, many are finding it difficult to live and make art in the city.

Ganesan (l), Roy, West and Fish at City Club of Portland.

Ganesan (l), Roy, West and Fish at City Club of Portland.

Ultimately, that displacement could undermine much of what has made Portland so successful in the first place. Fish drew an explicit link between the economic growth of what he called the fastest growing urban economy in America and its desirability, which has attracted the much-vaunted “young creatives” whose talents are making money for the businesses that employ them and fueling the economic surge, new jobs, and the rest. That desirability, in turn, stems in part from wise policy choices like the land use planning that keeps Portland from turning into just another anonymous sprawl zone where cars are essential to get around (an added financial burden for artists and everyone else) and there’s no vital cultural center. But it’s also due to the artists, musicians, designers and the rest of the creative community that makes Portland what Fish called “a destination city.” And that desirability, with the demand for space outstripping supply, has pushed up the price of housing for artists and everyone else, prompting dislocation for artists and non artists alike. For some, Portland’s affordability crisis might mean moving out of the city or even the state — or even onto the streets.

Fish, whose portfolio effectively makes him the city’s de facto arts commissioner, also squarely defined the tough choice suggested by the street scene outside the downtown hotel where the lunchtime discussion occurred. “I believe we are morally bound, duty bound, to address the crisis on our streets,” he said. “But if we take our eye off the challenge that artists and nonprofits are facing, we’re at risk of losing something that makes Portland really special, and that’s the arts and culture scene. My belief is they’re not mutually exclusive.”


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