Regional Arts & Culture Council

Dance Weekly: Ballet and postmodern dance

Oregon Ballet Theatre's "Romeo and Juliet" continues and postmodern dance debuts

This weekend’s eclectic mix of ballet and postmodern performances helps us see where we have come from in dance and where the investigation into contemporary dance practices are going.

This is the second weekend of James Canfield’s “Romeo and Juliet” with Oregon Ballet Theatre, and for more insight into the artistic processes you can listen to an interview with Canfield about “Romeo and Juliet” and with Nicolo Fonte about his upcoming piece “Beautiful Decay” on OPB here.

Bay Area choreographer and performance artist Keith Hennessy will be giving a lecture at Portland State University and performance of “Bear/Skin” at Studio 2 through Portland Institute For Contemporary Art (PICA). Hennessy describes “Bear/Skin” as a “dance that is politically motivated by the tension between killer cops and virgin sacrifice, between indigenous culture and modernist appropriation. It has (almost) nothing to do with gay bears and everything to do with “The Rite of Spring,” teddy bear shamanism, the reconstruction of ritual bear dances, action movies, suicide economics, and the poetry of springtime.”

For more insight into Hennessy and “Bear/Skin,” check out his interview by Gia Kourlas in Time Out New York.

Performances this week

You Must Work in the Garden of Eden
by Jackie Davis
Presented by Night Lights
6:30 pm March 3
North side of RACC offices, 411 NW Park Avenue
You Must Work in the Garden of Eden by Jackie Davis is an avant-garde dance/Super-8 film performance that “displays the beauty of everyday routine and the necessity of interpersonal support as two foundations for building the lives we dream of living. A visual and auditory pattern of stylized actions, the film investigates daily habits and the profound effects these often subconscious choices have on shaping individual and community cultures. With this site-specific performance, Davis explores conversations and questions pertaining to our collective work and existence”

Night Lights is a monthly series produced by the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) in conjunction with The Hollywood Theatre, on the First Thursday of every month, in the Pearl District, that features projection artists on the North Wall of the RACC offices (411 NW Park Ave.).

Keith Hennessy in "Bear/Skin". Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

Keith Hennessy in “Bear/Skin”. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

Keith Hennessy: PSU MFA Studio Lectures Series
7 pm, March 3
Portland State University, Lincoln Hall Room 75
Bear/Skin (Performance)
Keith Hennessy
Presented by PICA
March 4-5
Studio 2, 810 SE Belmont St
Hennessy is a San Francisco-based dancer, choreographer, and performance artist regarded as a pioneer of queer and AIDS-themed expressionist dance. Hennessy is known for nonlinear performance collages that combine dance, speaking, singing, and physical and visual imagery, and for improvised performances that often undermine the performer-observer barrier.

If you are interested in furthering your Hennessy experience, he will be teaching a workshop on March 12th from 1-5pm, at University of Washington’s Dance Department’s Meany Hall. Check out the Velocity Dance’s website for more information.

Xuan Cheng as "Juliet" and Peter Franc as "Romeo" with choreographer James Canfield (in the background) in rehearsal for Oregon Ballet Theatre's production of Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Blaine Truitt.

Xuan Cheng as “Juliet” and Peter Franc as “Romeo” with choreographer James Canfield (in the background) in rehearsal for Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Blaine Truitt.

Romeo and Juliet
James Canfield/Sergei Prokofiev
Oregon Ballet Theatre
February 27-March 5
Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St
Young love, underage sex, teen suicide and Crips vs. Bloods family rivalry factor into how choreographer and former OBT Artistic Director James Canfield defines his “Romeo and Juliet” in his interview with Arts Watcher Marty Hughley for Artslandia.

What’s different about Canfield’s version is his investment in the development of the characters and their relationships with each other, giving the work dimension and depth. And of course there is always beautiful dancing, chiffon and Prokofiev, performed every night by the live OBT orchestra.

Zinzi Minott, Sharita Towne, Amento Abioto, Dead Thoroughbred: Sidony O’Neal and Keyon Gaskin
LACUNA, 5040 SE Milwaukie Ave
7 pm March 6
An evening of performance, sound, and video featuring London-based dancer/choreographer Zinzi Minott, video artists Sharita Towne, sound artist Amento Abioto, and Dead Thoroughbred made up of Sidony O’Neal (writer, dramaturg and performance artist) and well-known Portland dance artist Keyon Gaskin.

Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion. Photo courtesy of White Bird.

Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion. Photo courtesy of White Bird.

Later in March

Dance Wire Dance Passport: March 13-May 31
March 11, PDX Contemporary Ballet with Northwest Piano Trio
March 10-12, Kyle Abraham presented by WhiteBird.
March 13, Dance Film Day, an afternoon of dance films and discussion, co-presented by dance artists and writer Jamuna Chiarini and Performance Works NW.
March 14, workshop and lecture demonstration with Kyle Abraham at Reed College presented by WhiteBird.
March 17, Louder Than Words, NorthWest Dance Project
March 19-April 3, Butoh College: classes, performances and community dialogue. Presented by Water in the desert.
March 25, New Expressive Works/Studio-2. Residency artists to be represented are Catherine Egan, Lane Hunter, Linda K. Johnson and Ruth Nelson.

ArtsWatch readers can track public art dollars

Plus: Profile Theatre, Beta Collide, Marylhurst finalist, Stumptown's 'Aida'

Jordan VanSise, Marylhurst University United States, 2014 "Self-Portrait"

Jordan VanSise, Marylhurst University United States, 2014 “Self-Portrait”

I find it quite easy, not to mention delightful, to glide through the culture and its highest achievement, the arts, without a thought about the public support that helps so much of that achievement possible. (Yes, per the great John Dewey, the arts are the greatest human achievement, so eliminating them from schools is SUCH a good idea, right? I digress!) Support for the arts in Oregon has been low historically, though in recent years we’ve started to realize that ranking 50th or 47th in public funding for the arts isn’t such a good idea, and money dedicated to the care and nourishment of the arts has started to rise.

But this is a democracy, and we should keep an eye on the use of that public money. Yes, it’s appropriate that we spend money on the arts, and yes, it’s important that we figure out what the best use of that money is.

All of that is simply a prelude to our first couple of News & Notes items!

The Regional Arts & Culture Council has issued its 2013 annual report, and it’s well worth a look, if you are interested in how public money is supporting the arts. The raw revenue number itself is interesting: $7,473,927. And that doesn’t include any arts tax money, which will be coming online this fiscal year and next.

The Oregon Cultural Trust has reported that taxpayers donated 4.3%  more money to the trust in 2013 than in 2012, going from $3,960,094 in 2012 to  $4,131,520 in 2013. In the  the 2013-14 grant cycle, the trust awarded $1.6 million in grants, so that could go up a bit next year. By statute the Cultural Trust saves $.58 of each donor dollar in a permanent fund, which has reached $20 million.

And now some news from some arts organizations WE support (one way or another)…

Profile Theatre will substitute a production of True West for the previously scheduled Kicking a Dead Horse at the end of its Sam Shepard season this year. For us in the audience, that means a “classic period” Shepard (which also receives lots of productions) gets the nod over a newer, less frequently produced monologue play that premiered in 2007.

For artistic director Adriana Baer, the switch was necessary if Profile wanted to stage the five key Shepard “family” plays this year (Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, Fool for Love, and A Lie of the Mind are the others).

“Having just returned from visiting the Sam Shepard Archives in the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University, I realized that in leading a discussion of the work of Sam Shepard for our community, it was vital we provide Portland audiences an opportunity to see the quintet of family plays in its entirety,” Baer said in the press release. True West opens  November 6, 2014 on the Alder Stage at Artists Repertory Theatre. Tickets are currently on sale at

Marylhurst University sophomore Jordan VanSise is a finalist in the 2014 Sony World Photography Awards Student Focus competition, one of the ten finalists from around the world. His winning entry is above.

“This image was originally for a self-portrait assignment in one of my photography classes, VanSise was quoted in the press release. “I thought of the different “versions” of myself that I wanted to depict. I set my camera on a tripod and framed it how I wanted. Then I changed into different outfits and changed my spot on the couch, as well as making a variety of gestures. Afterwards I chose the shots I liked and put them together to make the final image.”

VanSise and the other finalists will be flown to London with their instructors to attend a gala ceremony in London where the recipient of the 2014 Student Focus Photographer of the Year title and the grand prize of €35,000 worth of Sony photographic equipment for the student’s school will be announced.

In addition, the finalists will see their “Self-portraits” series shown at Somerset House, London, May 1-18  and their work published in the 2014 edition of the annual Sony World Photography Awards book.

Stumptown Stages opens Elton John and Tim Rice’s version of Aida on February 20. The Egyptian love triangle stars Joann Coleman, James Langston Drake and Joy Martin, and will play in Brunish Theatre at Antoinette Hatfield Hall, 1111 SW Broadway, through March 9. Stumptown has given us a little taste in the preview below:

For ArtsWatch readers unable to attend the actual event: The University of Oregon continues its excellent series of live-streaming concerts at 7 pm tonight (February 19) from Beall Hall. Visiting professor and Kronos Quartet cellist Jeffrey Zeigler will work with Beta Collide, a group of UO faculty musicians, as they perform a set of brand new compositions by Oregon Composer Forum students Alex Bean, John Goforth, Noah Jenkins, and Avery Pratt.

Each composer will introduce his work by talking about the compositional method and technical aspectsas well as the aesthetic and personal influences. Each composition will have two readings, and in between, Zeigler and Beta Collide will engage the composer in a discussion of the
composition and perhaps suggest a tweak here or there that may improve the music and may then be implemented in a second performance.

The program includes:

  • Noah Jenkins, Z-Stack (2014) for flute, bassoon, trumpet, cello, and piano: This piece is based on a technique used in photography and microscopy in which several photographs of the same image are taken at different focal distances and compiled into a single image with greater depth of focus than any of the individual images.
  • John Goforth, Trio (2014) for flute, cello, and piano: Inspired by exploring the different ways these three instruments can interact with each other and how energy can be passed, stalled, or even subtracted as it passes from each player to the other, Goforth shaped the piece as one of growth and expansion.
  • Avery Pratt, Bolero (2014) for Flute, Bassoon, Trumpet, and Cello: This work transforms and explores the style of the dance in a more modern context through the use of timbre, orchestration, tonality, and rhythmic
  • The work of Matt Zavortink and Alex Bean will also be performed.

Internet through Live streaming.

RACC project grants head for the outskirts of art

RACC's $660,000 in project grants finds artists in an inventive mood

I think of the Precipice Fund, PICA’s way of rewarding alternative ideas about making and showing art, as a great supplement for the Regional Arts & Culture Council’s project grants. Precipice needs RACC to answer the question “alternative to what?”, after all.

RACC has just announced $661,543 in project grants to 60 arts groups and 88 artists, and a quick run-through the list of recipients and a capsule of their projects leads me to a re-consideration. Sure, the arts group projects are pretty straight-forward. Conduit, for example, received a grant to support its successful Dance+ program, and Disjecta found RACC support for its Portland2014 Biennial of Contemporary Art, just to name a couple of deserving events (that locate and exhibit exciting contemporary art) with good track records.

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, here in 'Song of the Dodo,'  was funded for its version of Chekhov's 'Three Sisters.'/Gary Norman

Portland Experimental Theatre Ensemble, here in ‘Song of the Dodo,’ was funded for its version of Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters.’/Gary Norman

But artists are artists, and as I scrolled down, I found projects that might have felt right at home at Precipice, too. So, Gabriel Liston’s project is a Guide to the Lafe Pence Ditch, “an exhibit of paintings, drawings, and text based on research into and along an old canal on the side of the Tualatin Ridge overlooking NW Portland,” which sounds truly fabulous. And Susan E. Peck was funded to “to produce, rehearse, and conduct a festival concert performance of the full-length choral work “Missa Gaia/Earth Mass,” written by members of the Paul Winter Consort, in partnership with a local environmental group like Friends of Columbia Gorge or Portland Audubon Society.” Amen!

Anyway, have a look through the list of projects and plan your 2014 accordingly. Art here is moving inexorably toward the creative edge of art practices, and we’re following right behind.

The arts tax that wouldn’t die

A few notes about the campaign to restore arts education in Portland schools

The WPA’s Federal Music Project in action, 1936/Wikimedia

On election day, a little after 8 pm right before I left the house to drop in on the pro-26-146 party at the art museum, I called up the Multnomah County results on my computer, just to get an inkling of what the mood was going to be.  Wow! According to those first results, the $35 addition to the income tax on Portland residents above the federal poverty line was winning and winning big, getting a little more than 58 percent of the total vote in the reported returns.

When I arrived at the party, everyone there seemed pretty surprised, too. As one of them told me, “I wasn’t sure whether I was going to be consoling people or celebrating tonight.”

As I type this, the margin of victory for 26-146 is even greater—roughly 62 percent to 38 percent (62.09 in favor, to be more exact). And that means its provisions will start to go into effect in July of 2013: some 70 art teachers to serve the cities grade school students, money for special projects aimed at arts education in the schools, a more stable financial environment for Portland’s larger arts organizations so they can enhance their efforts at outreach, both to children and to adults who don’t have access to their programs for a variety of reasons (cost, proximity, social disconnect).

Mayor Sam Adams himself wasn’t on the ballot, but this was a major victory for him, too, because of how hard he worked to get the measure formulated in the first place, on the ballot and passed. If we were going to point to one indispensable figure in the campaign, it would be Adams (though every victory has a thousand parents, and so does this one).

The reason I’m writing this now, though, is more about the disconnect between the reality of the vote and the bubble of negative expectation than giving credit where credit is due. Then I’ll get into somewhat more speculative ground and a little discussion of what comes next with this measure, and we’ll conclude on a perhaps unsurprising note: This tax measure is just an opening gesture toward becoming a culture that is both fair and alive to the dynamics of creativity, both of which are central to our success here at the confluence of the Columbia and the Willamette.


If I had simply called Jessica Jarratt Miller, the executive director of the Creative Advocacy Network, which was behind the measure, she could have told me weeks ago that 26-146 was going to pass. CAN had done three polls in the months leading up to the election, and those had shown support at over 60 percent for the measure. Miller had received confirmation of her numbers from polls conducted both by supporters of the library tax measure and the school bond measure — each had included questions about the other in their own polls. In the five polls conducted in the weeks before the election by these groups, 26-148 received between 68 and 75 percent support, according to Miller. And on election day, Miller said, she’d written the number 62 or her kitchen chalkboard—the percentage she thought 26-146 would get.

But the polls for KATU (SurveyUSA) and The Oregonian (Elway Research) were describing a completely different Portland electorate. SurveyUSA showed gigantic numbers of undecideds on the measure (more than 50 percent), and Elway found that 48 percent of Portlanders were against it, with another 24 percent undecided.

Why were those polls so mistaken? Well, I knew that neither SurveyUSA nor Elway had actually polled the ballot measure language specifically. Here’s what was on the ballot.

26-146 Restore School Arts, Music Education; Fund Arts through Limited Tax.
Question: Shall Portland restore arts, music for schools and fund arts through income tax of 35 dollars per year?

Pretty simple. And the voters guide went into detail on where the money was going.

But that’s not what either SurveyUSA or Elway asked. Here’s how SurveyUSA put the question: “On the Portland City Arts Tax ballot measure, are you certain to vote yes, certain to vote no or not certain?” That was it. No explanation. And Elway was even starker: “There is a measure on the ballot that would assess each adult above the poverty level $35, would you/did you vote for the arts tax?” Without knowing what they were going to get for their money, responders would have a hard time voting yes, right? And by this time, we know that the way a pollster poses a question has a big influence on what the response is.

Because the Elway poll ended up with the greater error (it predicted a 20 point loss and the measure triumphed by around 24 points, an astounding 44 points off), I emailed and called Stuart Elway of Elway Research, a respected polling company based in Washington, for an explanation. I also emailed my old boss at The Oregonian, Peter Bhatia, the paper’s editor, to ask him for his post-election thoughts on the poll and some other questions about the way the paper conducted its coverage of the measure.

I reached Elway, and we talked by phone. He agreed that the problem with his poll was the question itself. “I don’t think that adequately represented the measure to the respondents,” he said. “The wording we used was just not accurate.”

The paper sent him the question it wanted polled, he said, and he edited it a little before the poll was conducted, “but obviously not enough.” Generally, Elway said, his firm’s practice is to read the ballot title as it is on the ballot. This time, it did not, and the results were way off. The question appeared in the Portland part of a larger statewide survey of various races (Elway Research over-sampled the Portland part of it to get representative results of the city races), and the rest of the results were reasonably accurate. But the arts tax question “kind of dropped off the table,” Elway said, as he was making sure his samples would work on both statewide and city races.

What if he had noticed that the question The Oregonian generated was not in line with Elway Research’s usual practice of reading the measure’s ballot title? Elway says he would have suggested that they change it and discussed it with them. He maintained that The Oregonian wanted accurate results from its poll.

I asked Bhatia how the newspaper developed its question, and I asked him if the paper knew about and had access to the polling that CAN was accumulating about 26-146. Miller said that she had shown the results she’d received to a reporter at the newspaper (breaking a protocol, Miller said), but those results didn’t surface in the newspaper story about where the measure stood. The CAN numbers would have cast some doubt on the accuracy of the Elway poll, and as it turned out, the newspaper needed some inoculation from them.

As Nate Silver’s Five Thirty Eight blog at the New York Times proves, more polls are better than fewer polls, especially if you know how to analyze them. The Elway poll wasn’t necessarily wrong because it was so different, but the other polling results at least should have raised a red flag. And if a newspaper wants to give as complete a description of the data as possible, it would include them in its polling stories (even “skeptically,” because after all, it was internal, not public, polling). This is just Journalism 101: We go through this exercise for the sake of the readers, so they aren’t completely blindsided by the actual election results as the readers of The Oregonian were on this measure.

I heard back from Bhatia, but he simply said that the paper hadn’t been able to reach Elway to discuss things with him. He didn’t answer the rest of my questions about how the paper covered the issues around 26-146.


The WPA’s Federal Art Project, 1939/Wikimedia

If The Oregonian had simply published an inaccurate poll, we’d be done with this part of the story. But that inaccurate poll was part of a larger context. The newspaper’s editorial page published four full editorials against the measure (by my count), and its news department wrote at least a couple and devoted some of its Politifact space to it.

The one exception to the negative tone of this coverage was David Stabler’s interview with three Portland business leaders who supported  the measure (Dan Wieden, Jeff Harvey and Gordon Sondland) within a story about the response of the business community to the tax.

Beth Slovic in an Oct. 23 story basically attempted to point out the measure’s flaws (as she saw them), mostly by stating the obvious, that it wasn’t simply about hiring teachers, and then pointing out possible shortcomings in the measure that might prevent it from accomplishing what it set out to accomplish. The first was apparent to voters from the ballot title and explanation, of course, so it wasn’t exactly news. But apparently both The Oregonian and Willamette Week thought that the idea of including arts organizations in the education experiences of children was a “wedge” issue of some sort.

In the middle of a story ostensibly about how much supplemental funding the tax would need from school districts to meet its goals, Willamette Week wrote, “The measure creates permanent taxpayer funding for local arts groups, including the city’s wealthiest,” and proceeded to name the obvious big groups (the art museum, opera and symphony) without bothering to mention the many smaller organizations that would receive money or to give any context whatsoever for this part of the measure. But then, neither did The Oregonian.

The worst part of all of this was that both papers failed to address the current condition of arts education in the city (awful) and the extent to which this measure would address those conditions (significantly).

The raw numbers about arts education in the city that CAN and Arts and Schools Together came up with were pretty startling. (And an Oregonian Politifact column back in 2011 mostly confirmed them.) Here’s what CAN discovered:

“In 2011 only 18% of Portland elementary schools provide art instruction compared to 83% nationally. And only 58% of Portland elementary schools provide music instruction compared to 94% nationally.

Furthermore the rate of decline for arts education in Portland has been shockingly steep. In the last five years Parkrose and Centennial School Districts have cut their arts and music teaching staff by half, while Portland Public Schools has dropped all arts instruction in 22 schools in just two years.”

Neither paper ever did the basic explanatory work on the measure itself. For example, neither addressed importance of arts education itself (lots of studies exist), which seems to be a prior issue to anything else: If arts education doesn’t help keep kids in school and prepare them for the future, what’s the point? If it does, it adds urgency to the problem … and the solution. Neither asked about what sort of education and outreach programs arts organizations are expected to do now or try to figure out how important that work is. If part of the money is going to arts groups engaged in programs like these, what can we reasonably expect from our investment?

Finally, neither paper tried to make (or undermine) a connection between arts education and the larger world, specifically the future success of our creative economy and the ability of our children to participate in it.

These were great failures, even if their purpose was to derail the tax, because the real substance of the proposals remained intact. And if you are a journalist attempting simply to provide a useful account of the tax and its possible effects, these omissions are especially egregious, because they lead readers to the conclusion that the reporters (and/or their editors) went into their stories with an agenda, specifically to sink 26-146, even if that wasn’t the intent at all.

Actually, I’m sorry I burned the word “egregious” above, because I really want to save it for the editorials written by both The Oregonian and Willamette Week against 26-146. Those were truly bad, but then I’ve written about them at length right here on ArtsWatch. (Here’s the link, if you missed it: Regress This: Some thoughts about the arts tax.) They suffer from the very same lack of thoughtful analysis that rendered the news stories hopeless.

(I wrote about previous Oregonian editorials on the issue two other times: Studies in Uselessness and The Oregonian on the Arts Tax: Blinders on!. As you can tell from the headlines, I found their reasoning wanting all along.)

Miller said that during the last weeks of the campaign she received many calls from three different reporters from The Oregonian, each working on a negative story about the measure, that the paper didn’t use the poll numbers she offered and that her answers to questions weren’t reflected in the stories, and eventually, she came to the conclusion that the paper was simply attempting to sink 26-146 for its own reasons. Regarding the poll story and its failure to include different numbers from the campaign, for example, she said, “They just wanted to run a story that would say the arts tax would lose.” Elway said that such a conclusion is “not unjustifiable,” given the results of his poll, though he maintained that his mistaken numbers were produced by human error, not design. Personally, I’d feel better about that conclusion if The Oregonian itself hadn’t written the question that was posed.

So yes, I found The Oregonian and Willamette Week’s coverage of the measure substandard, as you can tell. The question is, why. Was it simply human error, or part of a plan of some sort that advanced an agenda (maybe one that involved giving a kick to the mayor and appearing tough on taxes, while utilizing the old “arts are elitist” meme) or a combination of the two? I don’t know. I talk to people and I hear things, but still, I don’t know for sure.

That’s why I was really hoping for a full-throated defense of The Oregonian’s coverage of 26-146 from Bhatia, or an acknowledgment of some shortcomings if he felt that way in retrospect. (Not that I expected it, really: Newspapers are remarkably opaque about their practices and self-evaluation at the same time they want transparency from everyone else!) Nothing is worse for a news organization than a widespread idea that it’s not an honest broker of information, an honest inquirer into the reality we share.

UPDATE: Today, Thursday, Nov. 29, we received a response from Peter Bhatia, which I’m happy to print here:

“As to your fundamental question, you know as well as I that the editorial board is distinct and separate from the newsroom and its operations. As I have said publically and many times, I rarely if ever know what the editorial board is writing before I read it in the paper. So any perceived shortcomings in our coverage have nothing to do with any overarching agenda. (I haven’t gone back and read every word; my sense is the coverage in the news columns was straightforward and professional.) We had no agenda in our reporting and anyone suggesting it is simply wrong, ill-informed or pushing their own agenda.”

I’m glad that Bhatia responded, and I’m happy to hear that the policies of the newspaper haven’t changed since the end of 2009, when I left the paper. I’ve given my reasons for concluding that the news coverage of The Oregonian was far from being “straightforward and professional.” Unfortunately, Bhatia didn’t answer specific questions about the formulation of the poll question or address my specific problems with the coverage of 26-146 by the news department. So, lots of loose ends are left dangling.


Have you had enough media talk? Let’s move along, because neither The Oregonian nor Willamette Week had much effect on the results, maybe carving a few points off the final margin, but not enough to change the outcome.

Some things bothered me about what happened with the 26-146 campaign, even though I myself voted for it and was genuinely pleased that the vote was as emphatic as it was. Ultimately, I saw the failure to provide arts education for our children as something like educational malpractice. And the price tag was so small: For $35 I can make sure our primary grade kids get regular arts instruction? Sure, sign me up. But it’s not like I didn’t have my own discontents.

For example, I was not pleased with how certain sectors of the community responded to 26-146, because it would have been so easy for them to underscore the core arguments of the measure. Their testimony would have helped develop a common sense in the city about the importance of arts education and wider access to arts experiences.

I’ll start with the arts organizations, which deserve much of the credit for rallying support for the measure. Couldn’t they have picked out 50 board members from their aggregated number, some of the most respected women and men in the city, to explain to everyone why the measure was important? I would have liked them to embrace the implication of inclusiveness in the measure — toward the poor, the young, those cut off for any number of reasons from the arts. I wish they had detailed the efforts their groups make now to reach new audiences and how more money would have enhanced those efforts. I think it was incumbent on the largest groups especially, those getting the most money from the Regional Arts & Culture Council, to make this case as frequently and as publicly as they could.

Then I wanted 50 members of the city’s creative economy (the three David Stabler found and 47 more!) to explain why education in and exposure to the arts was so important to them, personally, and to their employees. Now, other business people who get that the discipline and creativity the arts teach is critical to their companies would be welcome, too, but I thought the testimony of the creative community was especially important, and I didn’t see enough of it. (Maybe there was more than I saw?)

I also wanted to see some educators step up. Miller said the superintendents of the various school districts involved were very supportive of the measure (Portland kids are spread among six different districts), but some prominent educational reformers and arts educators might have spoken up about it more vociferously (maybe they did, but I didn’t see very much). What would they have talked about? Lots of studies have shown how good arts education correlates with both educational achievement and graduation rates, especially among poor children. Voters obviously understood this, but making it explicit was still a good idea.

But let’s end positively: Miller said that the most important endorsement the measure received came from Street Roots. The “regressiveness” argument evaporated when the newspaper representing the city’s poorest citizens supported 26-146. Here’s what Street Roots wrote:

“Art is everywhere in Portland. It’s at the core of our city’s personality. But in our core institutions, particularly for children and the poor, art is either nonexistent or out of financial and social reach. The benefits of arts training – on math skills, cognitive processing and simply our joie de vie – are well documented. For $35 per person, we can fund not only public school programs but also programs generating community involvement among people who are socially and economically marginalized.”

“That was a major moment when things turned around,” Miller said. How come Street Roots understood what was at stake and The Oregonian and Willamette Week didn’t? Maybe because they were blinded by ideology and/or politics? Or if we are going to be kinder, because they didn’t get that the perfect is the enemy of the good? Or are they simply caught up in the old meme that the arts are elitist? Maybe they should talk to the people at Street Roots.


After the election, Ross McKeen, the executive director of Oregon Children’s Theatre (he also plays in a swell cowboy band, but that’s another story) got in touch, and his email to me indicated some anxiety about the future. A company like his is obviously deeply connected to the arts education process, so he’s been thinking about this stuff a long time.

“My first question now that the “Arts Tax” (we need to dump that handle) has passed is ‘now what?’ What policies, systems, procedures, and infrastructure do we need to build to make this all work? What will that look like? How will it be run, and who will do the running? Of course I’m very interested in how the portion of the fund going to arts groups will be allocated. How much will supplement general operating grants and how much will be targeted for initiatives that increase access for kids? The ballot language emphasized the latter as a significant selling point, though all the planning discussions leading up to it assumed the former.

I trust folks are hard at work on these issues already. Now that the voters have spoken, I’m ready to dive into the implementation phase.”

I’ve encountered a fair amount of confusion about 26-146, even among arts stalwarts like McKeen. It’s fairly complicated. The $12.2 million or so the tax is expected to raise will be split several different ways.

1. The biggest chunk, $6.4 million, will go to fund art teachers for Portland students, K-5. The idea is to make regular art class available to all children. The Oregonian said several times that school districts will have to kick in some money for this, too, if every child will indeed be reached. We’ll have to see.

2. $366,000 will fund teachers on special assignment for multi-district arts education
coordination.  Coordinators will work to ensure that teachers have the support and professional development they need to provide a K-12 arts curriculum and serve as a liaison between schools and community-based arts programs to facilitate artist residencies, classroom and after school arts programs, field trips and professional development for teachers. “RACC will administer these positions beginning next school year and may organize the staffing differently,” Miller said. “We are about to begin scheduling conversations with RACC and the districts to fine-tune the staffing plan and job descriptions.”

3. $1,630,000 will fund grants that schools and non-profits can apply for to provide arts programs both to K-12 students and underserved residents in the city. This is part of the “arts access” section of the measure. The rules governing these grants and the amounts available for individual grants haven’t been determined, as I understand it, which is why McKeen was asking his questions.

4. $3,800,000 will fund grants from the Regional Arts & Culture Council to non-profit arts organizations.

This last was the controversial part of the measure for The Oregonian and Willamette Week, who saw it as a naked grab for money from the likes of the Portland Art Museum and the Oregon Symphony. Actually, though, 45 arts groups get operating support from RACC (anywhere from  0.8% up to 5% of their budgets — the larger groups have tended to be on the lower end), and the measure will make it 5 percent across the board. (This doesn’t include other money RACC gives through its Work for Art program, say.) RACC developed new guidelines and tracking mechanisms this year to make sure the groups that get operating money are developing and executing plans to reach out to more diverse communities in the city and to increase their education programming. Theoretically, an arts group could be denied operating support by RACC, if it failed to meet its obligations along these lines.

But all of them (at least the ones I know about, which is most of them) do a lot of this work already, especially the larger ones, from free days at the museum to developing theater programs for high school kids. If we expect them to do more (and even continue to do what they are doing), then they have to be stable financially. As one arts administrator said (in a different context), if the symphony is really struggling do we expect them do their 1812 Overture concert in Tom McCall Waterfront Park that summer?

The money the measure provides helps to make sure this question doesn’t come up. And by increasing the public stake in the arts non-profits, we have more leverage on issues like outreach, diversity and education, not to mention Tchaikovsky in the park.

Finally, RACC is forming a citizens advisory committee to oversee the various provisions of the measure.


A music class somewhere in America/photo by zoinno []/available under CC BY-SA license []

I asked RACC executive director Eloise Damrosch what she hopes happens because the measure passed?

“That everything we have planned falls into place. That we are able to articulate how changes will happen to the general public and our constituents. That we continue to build upon current good will with Portland school districts as we work together on this restoration of arts teachers and learning in our schools. That arts organizations use the increases for really good sustainability planning. That we can use some of our existing funds to make possible bigger and more project grants to artists and small organizations not eligible for operating support. That we continue to build on reaching currently underserved audiences and parts of town so that everyone has access to the arts.  That other cities in our region follow suit and use CAN as an example of what they might want to try.”

And then I asked her about what the next steps were for RACC:

“We will amend our contract with the City to reflect new responsibilities around the three major pots of new money [money for the schools, for special grants and for operating support for arts groups]. We will continue to focus internally on what aspects of RACC will be directly affected, especially grants, arts education, work for art, and communications. We will also need to talk about future advocacy in the region and how we can continue to and/or better serve interests in the three counties [RACC serves Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties]. And remind people that we won’t see any new money until at least July 2013 and not the anticipated full amount in the first year of collections. Reality check!”

So, I think the answer for McKeen is that yes, RACC is working on the implementation phase already. We’ll all be looking at what develops.


I asked Chris Coleman, who is the board president of the Creative Advocacy Network and the artistic director of Portland Center Stage, what effect the passage of the measure will have on his theater company.

“Well it won’t solve everything in the world, but it’s one more very solid piece of support that we’ll be able to count on each year.  What I and many of my colleagues have said for years, is that for the non-profit arts community to thrive you need a more diverse funding equation: strong individual support, strong corporate support, strong foundation support.  Government support has been the weakest link for years, and this will be a big step in changing that.

“So it will help us strengthen our financial base, and it will also allow us to amplify the programs that we do that reach communities that can’t afford to attend. We already have lots of different discounting and outreach programs, but these funds should allow us to be a bit more thoughtful and forward thinking in how we invite a broader range of the community into our doors.”

He added that it might also have some programming benefits for arts groups. “With the nonprofit arts providers I hope that greater financial stability translates into more adventurous programming over the long haul; and that we see more citizens from a more diverse collection of the city’s communities participating on a regular basis.”

Coleman also mentioned good outcomes for students: “…that kids’ interest in school increases; that their test scores improve and that there continues to be investment in arts education programs in the public schools from other buckets of the budget.  And that it helps improve graduation rates over the long term.”

Lots of studies about the effect of arts education on student performance exist, but RACC’s Jeff Hawthorne talked about  measuring the outcomes here, specifically:

“I hope we can use this opportunity to demonstrate unequivocally that arts education improves student performance and graduation rates, and that arts organizations contribute to their community in many ways that can be quantified. I hope we can be a national leader in communicating what taxpayers get for their money — the rest of the country is watching us! And I really hope that arts organizations will take advantage of this extraordinary mandate to engage new audiences with innovative programs and services that only strengthen their relevance in the community.”

I like this larger idea of arts education beyond what happens in schools, but now we are at that point where the limits of this measure need to be discussed.


The big one is that the bulk of the money goes just to grades K-5. Why stop there? If you really want to affect graduation rates significantly, arts education in the higher grades is just as important. If you want to prepare kids for participation in the creative economy, the later grades are probably even more important.

This is just a first step.  School districts need to include systematic exposure and instruction in music, visual arts, theater, dance, media and literary arts throughout  their curricula if they want the full effect. But that’s not enough, either, because yes, the connection to working artists of all sorts is equally critical and so is the connection to creative economy companies (architects, designers of all sorts, animators, etc.).

Some tension with arts groups over the extent of their outreach and education efforts is inevitable. So is some argument over their effectiveness. The money that goes to the 45 arts groups as operating support doesn’t have to go dollar-for-dollar into those efforts, either, under the measure. But they will have  to show they are working on those problems (as I wrote earlier). Those discussions will have to be honest and open.

Hawthorne’s comments along these lines are entirely germane:

“One of our great challenges is to ensure that exciting new things are happening with this money, and that the arts become even more integral to our community, without burdening schools and arts organizations with too many additional, onerous requirements. I think we can do that by helping arts organizations learn to talk more about outcomes rather than outputs. It’s not about how many performances you had – or even how many people attended, but what changed in our community as a result of that particular offering? How does art make our community stronger? I hope that arts organizations will continue to consider RACC as a partner and collaborator, not just a funder with reporting requirements – though we’ll have those requirements for sure, because we are accountable to the public.”


People — ordinary, non-artist people — consume culture, but they also make culture (sometimes by consuming it, wonderfully enough). And if we are going to live by our wits, by our creativity, by our fresh approaches to design problems of all sorts, from urban planning to video games, then we have to create a society that encourages everyone to participate, to make AND consume. Regular trips to the theater or dance concert have their place, sure, and so does a larger commitment and celebration of artmaking all over the city, formal and informal, from all of our neighborhoods and communities. “El Sistema” in Venezuela (the music education program that produced Gustavo Dudamel, the music director of the LA Philharmonic, among others) should remind us that our next great conductor or violinist or trombonist may be living in one of our Hispanic neighborhoods.

But it’s more than that: It’s a culture of creativity that we’re looking for. I may not draw well myself, but when I go to a coffee shop and see somebody drawing comics in a notebook, that has the possibility of inspiring me to be more creative in my own work. More and more, that’s what we’re going to need to succeed, because we don’t have some special natural resource that we can turn into money very easily. We’re going to make it as a culture only if we’re smarter, more adaptive, more exploratory and experimental than we are now. That’s our only competitive advantage, our willingness to venture way out there in our imaginations. “Keep Portland Weird” is just good practical advice.

The arts are central to that, just because they point the way and  do some of the important research, and at the same time provide us with shared experiences and the opportunity to generate some shared values from those experiences.

I’ll stop before this gets any more “utopian.” I believe the arts are central to the culture, not peripheral, but I don’t think they are alone at the center. The great thing about them is that they are a great way to identify, test and support the other central elements (our values, ethics, economy, relationship to the world, education practices). So, in this light 26-146 was important to us, but it wasn’t conclusive.

Coleman said something along similar lines, when I asked him about the campaign for the measure:

“I didn’t object soooo much to opponents saying, “We don’t want a new tax.” What I hated was the language that talked about the relatively low value of the arts in the scheme of things.  Which is simply not borne out by the level of citizen participation you get in this community, or by the results of the election.”

The thought I had at what turned out to be the victory party for 26-146 was simply this: Politicians, editorial writers and business groups will now have to think twice before they ignore or demean the arts in the city again. But then I tried to turn that into something a little more edifying: A substantial majority of the voting citizens in the community understood that the aims of 26-146 are important (and the price tag is small). Lots of energy was consumed trying to spin it a different way, maybe, but in the end, it was just that simple.


Willamette Week and The Oregonian weren’t the only ones to fight 26-146. So did BlueOregon and the Portland Business Alliance and organizations that are reflexively anti-tax. I dealt with the primary Blue Oregon argument in my rebuttal of The Oregonian’s final anti-26146 editorial, “Regress This” (link above). UPDATE: As noted below, BlueOregon itself did not take a stand on this measure. The link is to a guest blogger post.

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