Oregon arts groups see needed state relief

By Eric Slade (OPB) and Steven Tonthat (OPB)
Aug. 6, 2020 1 p.m.

The pandemic has caused economic disaster for many in the arts. Some help is on the way, at least for now.

Jim Brunberg and friends nervously huddled around computer screens on July 14, watching live as the Oregon state Legislature Emergency Board debated funding that included $50 million for arts organizations and venues around the state.

Brunberg, owner of Mississippi Studios and Revolution Hall, knew that these funds could be life or death for some groups. “Quite a few venues told me quite candidly that if this doesn’t come through, we’re gonna call it quits,” Brunberg later said.


In the end the vote was nearly unanimous — Oregon arts got a major infusion of cash, with which Brunberg was elated. “This is a lifesaver. It’s life support for venues forced to go into a business coma.”

The $50 million in arts funding is part of a larger $200 million package of federal relief money allocated by the Oregon Legislature.

Of the arts money, $24 million will be awarded to a select group of organizations like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival ($4.1 million) and Portland Center Stage ($700,000), plus a long list of independent venues like Revolution Hall and Shaking the Tree Theatre. Venues will each receive seven months of funding — enough to get them through the end of the year. The remaining $26 million will be distributed to various smaller arts and cultural institutes through the Oregon Cultural Trust.

Marissa Wolf, artistic director at Portland Center Stage, said the funds will help cover much of the expense to keep the theater running for the foreseeable future.

“That goes to the bottom line of our building, our mortgage and just the minimal expenses that we need to allocate to fundraising, to marketing and to programming,” she said.

For Samantha Van der Merwe, founding artistic director of Shaking the Tree Theatre, news of the vote came just in time. “I’m breathing a huge sigh of relief,” she said. Together with additional money she’s raised, the state funding means that she’ll be able to continue operations until July 2021.

And it means, beyond just paying rent and keeping staff paid, “we can start to think about what programming creatively might look like before the year is up rather than just maintaining ourselves without offering anything to our community,” she said.

Shuttering theaters and venues since March has been a huge financial blow for Oregon arts. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival laid off nearly 400 employees in May. Portland Center Stage is projected to lose about $6.5 million in revenue this year.

Van der Merwe said the pandemic “took our income streams to zero.” Portland Center Stage went from having 60% earned revenue — money received from ticket sales and concessions — to almost none. As a result, the theater went into what Wolf called “crisis management mode.”


“What it meant is us springing into very, very quick action to both cut expenses significantly and to fund raise in a really specific way,” she said. “We had to furlough two-thirds of our staff, and many of those furloughs then had to turn into layoffs.”

The front door of the Armory theater in downtown Portland. Its doors remain closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The front door of the Armory theater in downtown Portland. Its doors remain closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Steven Tonthat / OPB

Revolution Hall’s Brunberg, and dozens of others, formed the Independent Venue Coalition back in March to advocate for the needs of performance spaces.

“Venues are distinctly different because they are the exact most dangerous place” for the virus to spread, he said. People head to venues for the community experience of standing shoulder to shoulder — to sing and cheer and dance. For that reason Revolution Hall and all other venues were the first businesses to close and will likely be the last to reopen.

“Every venue owner that I’ve talked to, and I’ve talked to literally hundreds over the last four months, we’re all just waiting for it to be safe again,” he said.

Theaters and venues cannot be opened until Phase 3 of Gov. Kate Brown’s reopening plan, which comes when there is a coronavirus vaccine or a viable treatment.

The Oregon Cultural Trust is currently working out details on how it will distribute the remaining $26 million to Oregon arts and cultural institutions.

“We have a fairly wide description of culture that includes the arts, heritage, history, humanities preservation,” said Brian Rogers, executive director of the Oregon Cultural Trust. “We have a list on our website of over 1,400 cultural nonprofits across the state.” All of these organizations will be able to apply for a share of that money.

The Cultural Trust will vote Thursday on how to best distribute the funds.

Though he's excited about this new arts funding, Brunberg is nervous.

“It feels tentative in that we don’t have the money in our pockets yet,” and “seven months might not be enough,” he said. While some businesses have found ways to do partial reopenings, most theaters and venues haven’t found a way to make that work. So, no one knows where funding will come from after December.

Still, Van der Merwe is grateful not just for the ability to keep her theater alive, but for the opportunity to give herself and all artistic directors time to step back and think about the bigger picture.

“COVID is giving us the time to really look at the systems we have in place and how we can burn a lot of that down to the ground and build it afresh with racial equity in mind,” she said. “And true racial equity, not just a nod to racial equity.

“We need to be talking about race. We need to be talking about how we’re going to make up for the four hundred years of oppression that we’ve had in this country. We need to talk about how we’ve stolen land from Indigenous citizens. And if that’s not happening in theater when we come back from COVID, then we have missed the message.”