Oregon arts year in review

100 moments in a very strange year

2016 in cultural review: a cavalcade of triumphs, challenges, and looming questions in Oregon arts

And that, saints help us, was the Year That Was.

The year we are only now escaping seemed written, like many others, by a sardonic jokester of a science fiction novelist: Really? But Annum Two Thousand Sixteen also dipped into the fertile and frightening world of Dystopia, a chilling prognostication of a future all too parallel to our own present, exaggerated only the tiniest of bits. No need to go over the details here. We’ve all been living them.

“Father Time,” Pieter Cornelis Wonder, 1810, oil on canvas, 48.8 x 42.1 inches, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The old boy’s had better years than 2016. Time to pick up his game in 2017.

How have the arts responded? In Portland and the rest of Oregon, in a dizzying variety of ways. A few were direct challenges or responses to the year’s political and cultural ruptures, from race relations to the rise of authoritarian movements here and abroad. Many looked to the past to revisit the profundities of great cultural achievements or find similarities to current events. Some struck out in new directions. Some looked at big things. Some found whole worlds in the details. Some were simply about beauty in the world, or the lack of it, or the comedy of life, both gentle and harsh. Part of the nature of art is to confront the real world of politics and current events. Part of its nature is to bypass the public and ephemeral to explore the private, the enduring, the movements beneath the surface that reveal the stubborn and sometimes gracefully evolving nature of things. Creativity strikes out in all directions, surprising only when it fails to surprise.

ArtsWatch has been tracking the creative culture obsessively, painting a real-time portrait of a notoriously shifting subject. Or making a collage. The year saw solid gains and triumphant highs, from the nurturing of Theatre Diaspora as a voice for Asian American actors and playwrights to the blossoming of the Fertile Ground new performance festival to the Oregon Symphony’s innovative collaborations with visual artists in its SoundSight series to an exhilarating rise of new and exploratory voices in the often staid world of “classical” music. And it saw heartbreaking lows, including the deaths of many leading cultural figures: Edward Albee, Harper Lee, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Umberto Eco, Elie Wiesel, architect Zaha Hadid, Alan Rickman, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, Merle Haggard, singer Sharon Jones of the Dap-Kings, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Prince, and more. Among those locally were artist Rick Bartow and musician Robert Huffman (see stories below); singer Signe Anderson, original lead vocalist of the Jefferson Airplane; Ted Mahar, longtime movie critic for The Oregonian; and the great, wonderful writer Katherine Dunn, author of the great, wonderful novel Geek Love, who was memorialized sweetly a few days ago by Caitlin Roper in the New York Times Magazine.

As 2016 ends, we offer 100 pieces from this most puzzling, perilous, and all too transformative year – not the “best,” necessarily, but a rigorous sampling of Oregon’s cultural scene over the past twelve months.

Call it a map, if you like, and remember that a map is only an outline of an actual terrain. Our cultural guide to the science-fiction landscape of 2016:

– Bob Hicks






12: Yads, Torahs, history’s pointing hand. “We live in a time when knowledge and history are not just disposable, in that casual pop-cultural who-cares way, they are also actively and intentionally destroyed.” Three small shows at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education illustrate the tentativeness of history, the importance of reclaiming even its shards, and the beauty of meaningful objects. (Bob Hicks)


Oregon ArtsWatch Archives