Arts | Local

Oregon Arts Commission Seeks Reboot

OPB | Feb. 13, 2014 6 p.m. | Updated: Feb. 18, 2014 11:42 a.m. | Portland

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A survey pinged the inboxes of arts groups all over the state this week. The Department of Administrative Services — in the process of hiring a new arts chief for Oregon — is surveying anyone who has dealings with the Oregon Arts Commission and its funding arm, the Oregon Cultural Trust.

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The survey asks: What qualities should the next leader have? Experience in the arts? A strong granting background? A track record of conflict-management?

Those questions took on additional relevance after three volunteer arts commissioners resigned their positions in the past week.

The Oregon Arts Commission performs a few important jobs for arts groups large and small all over the state.

Cheryl Snow with the Clackamas County Arts Alliance points out the commission is one of the few sources of cash she can depend on for core operations.

“If you’re familiar with foundation funding,” Snow says, “most grants come in the form of support for specific projects. It’s not easy to find funders who are willing to support the basic operations that keep wheels running on the rails.”

She’s talking about expenses like insurance, supplies, salaries. So, for example, in Clackamas County, Snow says cash administered by the Arts Commission has been instrumental in keeping Youth Arts for Change, an educational program for at-risk kids, getting them involved in theater.

Groups around the state have been understandably curious about the seismic changes underway at the commission. Last November it was revealed that Business Oregon, the state agency that serves as an umbrella for the Arts Commission, had removed long-time Commission Director Chris D’Arcy from her position. At the time, two commissioners resigned in protest.

On Feb. 5, three more commissioners left. A public records request by OPB yielded the resignation letters of all three. Jean Boyer Cowling of Medford, who’s been on the commission for almost eight years, said in her letter she strongly disagreed with D’Arcy’s termination, and had concerns that a limited circle of people — including Commission Chair Julie Vigeland — acted without consulting the rest of the board.

Commissioner Mauricio Valerio of LaGrande wrote, in resigning, he was motivated by several issues related to board governance, accountability, and transparency. Commissioner Roger Hull wrote he was resigning for “various reasons,”but he told the Salem Statesman-Journal he, too, was troubled by D’Arcy’s departure.

Commission Chair Julie Vigeland declined repeated requests for an interview but said in a written statement she’s “extremely disappointed to lose the commissioners who have chosen to resign.” At the same time, she writes she’s not “totally surprised because with any big change at the top of an organization there are bound to [be] other changes that follow. That,” she writes, “certainly can include departures from the board.”

Despite the loss of almost half the commission’s 11 members, Rachel Wray, a spokeswoman for Gov. John Kitzhaber, wrote that “the Governor has every confidence that Arts Commission members are working productively on behalf of Oregon’s arts community.”

In her statement, Wray suggested a discussion scheduled for April might produce a way forward. It’s called, “The Big Think”, and it’s going to be organized by a group of non-profit stakeholders called the Oregon Cultural Advocacy Coalition. (Full disclosure - OPB’s President and CEO, Steve Bass, is part of that group.) The coalition’s director and board chair declined to speak on tape about either the Big Think or what’s been happening on the Arts Commission.

The coalition’s web page outlines some priorities — among them, helping Oregon’s cultural funding reach its goal of becoming a $200 million endowment. Right now, the trust’s assets are closer to $17 million.

Oregon’s state government isn’t structured to do a lot in support of the arts. An often-quoted study conducted by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies rates the state among the lower third in per-capita funding for the arts, even though the region boasts relatively high attendance at arts events.

For now, the state is seeking candidates for the Arts Commission.

And the commission continues its grant work and other initiatives, without a leader.

Stakeholders are taking what they can get.  Steven Broocks is the director like the Coos Art Museum. He says beyond operating money, the commission has a role to play in helping under-resourced groups deal with technical issues.

“We moved into current building in 1984,” Broocks says. “At that time acquired a used biz phone system… theoretically it had a seven-year life span. We were still using it in 2012. If anything broke, we couldn’t replace it at the Salvation Army.”

With a  $4,500 grant from the Arts Commission, Broocks says, the museum was able to get rid of its old system — and its accompanying answering machine.

He says there are many ways in which geographically-isolated institutions look to the commission for help and advocacy.

There’s no set timeline for the executive search to finish.

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