Three more Oregon Arts Commissioners resign

The Oregon Arts Commission still deals with repercussions from the firing of its executive director

Michele Russo, "Bathers," 1960/Portland Art Museum ©1960 Michele Russo

Michele Russo, “Bathers,” 1960/Portland Art Museum ©1960 Michele Russo

Late last week I heard that three more commissioners had resigned from the Oregon Arts Commission—Jean Boyer Cowling of Medford, Maurizio Valerio of Union and Roger Hull of Salem. This mass resignation might have pushed me into the journalistic equivalent of the Red Zone. Yet MORE trouble at the arts commission? But in interviews with OregonLive’s David Stabler and Barbara Curtin of the Statesman Journal, Hull, the only departing commissioner who was reachable, apparently, said he was leaving because of old business.

“I was uncomfortable with the circumstances surrounding the termination of Chris D’Arcy,” Hull told Curtin. “After thinking about it for a while, and watching the makeup of the arts commission evolve, I decided it was time for newer members to take the leadership of the discussions and that I would step aside.”

Stabler quoted from Cowling’s resignation letter to the governor:

“I strongly disagree that Ms. D’Arcy’s termination was warranted but I recognize that any evaluation of an executive director’s performance can be disputed. My concern is board governance. It appears that a few people, including the Oregon Arts Commission chair, were actively involved in this termination. Unfortunately, this action occurred without notice to or consultation with the commission.”

Christine D’Arcy was fired by Business Oregon’s Tim McCabe back in October after 19 years at the commission. In the state bureaucracy, the arts commission executive director reports to the head of the agency charged with economic development in the state. The board chairs of both the little arts agencies  D’Arcy supervised, Julie Vigeland of the arts commission and Bob Speltz of the Oregon Cultural Trust, signed off on the decision, but the final decision was McCabe’s: the arts commission does not hire or fire its executive director. Two arts commission commissioners resigned immediately, Henry Sayre and Royal Nebeker, and they were replaced (and another opening filled) by three new commissioners.

At the time I wrote two stories analyzing the situation. The first argued that the twisted bureaucratic circumstances of the executive director of the arts commission and cultural trust made the position essentially impossible: too many legislative and government bureaucracy masters on top of two separate citizen commissions. Only the fact that the arts were almost invisible and powerless in state government made the position survivable at all. But the commissions’ invisibility and relative powerlessness made the executive director a target for the arts community, which wanted more aggressive policy formulation and representation in Salem than was possible. A more aggressive executive director would have found herself in the cross-hairs of various administrations and legislatures over the years. (In the second, I argued for a much more visible, policy leadership position on the governor’s staff, a Secretary of the Arts, and a revised, more democratic, citizen involvement in policy development.)

That analysis, however, doesn’t explain personal friendships and loyalties on the commission. Or for that matter different policy ideas. If Vigeland and Speltz are hoping their commissions can have more impact in the future (and my conversations with Vigeland suggest they do), figuring out how that can happen and in what areas will be debatable. So, change in the commission was inevitable, I think, and inevitably painful. (I think D’Arcy’s contribution to the arts in the state is gigantic, and I always found her to be personable: My first reaction to the news last fall was surprise and sadness.)

Anyway, this would be an interesting time to be an Oregon arts commissioner, and if you feel the call, then you can apply online. The commission is also surveying the public to help figure out what qualities are most important in an executive director, and that survey is also online. I just filled it out myself.


The unrelated painting by the late Portland painter Michele Russo, above, comes from the Portland Art Museum’s digital collection.



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