On Wednesday, nine lawmakers in Salem will hold their first meeting to kick off the Arts and Culture Caucus in the Oregon state Legislature. Although lawmakers have convened multiple caucuses to advocate for various causes and legislative interests, there has never before been a caucus organized specifically to assist arts and culture organizations, which continue to struggle with recovery from the pandemic. The bipartisan caucus aims to raise awareness among fellow lawmakers of issues impacting arts venues and organizations across the state, and identify legislation that could provide relief through additional state funding or other support.
Joining us are two members of the caucus, Rep. Rob Nosse, a Democrat who represents District 42 which covers inner Southeast and a sliver of Northeast Portland; and Sen. Dick Anderson, a Republican from Oregon’s 5th District which covers all of Lincoln County and parts of Benton, Lane, Douglas and Coos counties.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Nine lawmakers will hold their first meeting of the Oregon State Legislature Arts and Culture caucus tomorrow. Never before has a group of state representatives and senators come together specifically to assist arts and culture organizations in the state. It comes at a time when these organizations continue to struggle with recovery from the pandemic. I’m joined now by two members of this new bipartisan caucus. Rob Nosse is the Democratic State Representative from parts of inner Northeast and Southeast Portland. Dick Anderson is a Republican State Senator for all of Lincoln County and parts of Benton, Coos, Douglas and Lane counties. It’s good to have both of you on the show.
Rep. Rob Nosse: Hey, Dave, thanks for having us. Longtime listener, but I think this is the first time I’ve ever been interviewed.
Miller: I’m thrilled to have both of you on the show. So, Rep. Nosse first, when did you really start focusing on arts and culture as a lawmaker?
Nosse: I remember it very clearly. I got a phone call from an arts and culture advocate in my district during the height of the beginning of the pandemic, like in April 2020, making a desperate case for what was happening to this industry. And I’m a little bit of a retail politician. If you’re in my District I’m gonna’ try to help you. And I got off the Zoom and I hung up and I went, oh my God, what am I gonna do?
Miller: Then what?
Nosse: So I got to work. Turns out there was a lot of federal relief money that came into our state at that time, the Coronavirus Relief Fund. And I worked with my house speaker and other senators and we got the Emergency Board to appropriate money to this sector.
Miller: Dick Anderson, why did you want to join this caucus?
Sen. Dick Anderson: Well, thanks Dave. And thanks for, certainly, the time to answer that question. I’ve got to go back in time to my own 12 years in local government and six of those as mayor of Lincoln City and currently a Senate district that enjoys a tourist community economy. And with that comes a variety of entertainment opportunities for our guests to the region. And certainly, art and culture and venues big and small are a huge part of the Oregon coast. I know it’s hard to believe that people want to do more than just watch the ocean or take hikes. They need other things to do every once in a while when the climate may not be quite as inviting to be outdoors.
Nosse: Dave, I would say this same thing is true in Portland. We have tons of arts and culture venues that are part of the fabric of the city and why people come to visit.
Miller: Shows though are happening once again. Museums are welcoming people back with new exhibits. There are plays and concerts and movies. So what’s not working?
Nosse: Dick, do you wanna go first or you want me to try to take a stab at it?
Anderson: Let me try. Thinking of that question, it’s slow to recover. In my observation, again on the coast, it’s clearly been building and building with an audience and a following. Then the last two plus years really drop things off to almost nonexistence. And it’s just slow to recover. And a lot of these venues have debt service they’ve got to take care of, and handle their maintenance. It’s hard to recover once you’ve lost a revenue stream and try to slowly build it back up.
Miller: Rep. Nosse, I want to go back to federal pandemic relief because you mentioned this earlier. Has it been long enough for you to look back on that gigantic spigot of federal money that seems to have been turned off maybe permanently, in terms of serious pandemic relief. Can you look now and say this worked and this didn’t, in terms of arts and culture organizations, in a way that could inform what you might do at the state level going forward?
Nosse: Absolutely. This absolutely worked. There’s not any significant arts and culture venue or arts and culture organization that went out of business. They kept their lights on. They kept the bare minimum of employees. And for the most part, we still retained the ecosystem that we have enjoyed prior to the pandemic. It’s just that we’re not getting people in the seats yet. And this isn’t just an Oregon phenomenon. You’ll hear about Broadway complaining that New Yorkers have not come back to the theater to watch plays and shows as well.
Miller: And maybe my assumption, it’s worth digging into that. I mean, are you, too, assuming that the federal spigot of pandemic money is over?
Nosse: Yes, absolutely.
Anderson: Yeah, I would agree.
Miller: Okay, so let’s turn to what specifically you’ve been hearing from performing arts organizations or literary ones, or other kinds of arts and culture organizations. What are they saying they want? Dick Anderson, what have you heard?
Anderson: Well, I think one, it’s a boost in recognition of their existence and, and their product. I think the stats would show that Oregon is, if not the lowest, very low on the state list of supporting public art and culture activities. So I think part of our whole role as a caucus is to raise that awareness with our fellow legislators and make it more of a recognition that it has an economy backed engine.
Nosse: What my colleague said is spot on, Dave.
Miller: I noted in my intro that this is a bipartisan caucus and that is technically true. But only two of the nine members are Republicans. You have one fellow republican on this caucus right now. Do you see any broad differences in the way Republicans and Democrats view the question of public support for arts and culture?
Anderson: Let me tackle that since I’m of the minority and I’m used to being the minority in Salem here. I don’t think so. I would say that the reason I jumped in and strongly support the art and the culture is because it’s been such a fabric of my community, Lincoln City and Lincoln County. And I’ve recognized as Mayor what it has done as an economic engine. I’ve seen all the benefits towards making my community and others healthier community. It’s not that it’s not a Republican or Democratic platform or plank on the platform. It’s where your attention lies or is drawn to. And again, as I said, I come from a strong area where the tourist community begs for alternative activities.
Miller: Rob Nosse, the bill that you introduced calls for about $50 million in direct funding of dozens of venues and institutions over the next two years. It includes $5 million for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, almost $2 million for the Oregon Symphony, along with a lot of other significant grants. In Portland hundreds of thousands of dollars each to places like the Alberta Rose Theater, the Crystal Ballroom, the Doug Fir, Holocene. And then there are other significant grants to other venues all over the state. How was this list put together?
Nosse: That’s a great question, Dave. So I worked with these organizations and they basically did an assessment of what their financial situation is, what their revenue loss situation is, what their ticket sales situation is, and came up with a number that, frankly, they would not be embarrassed to have a government auditor or an accountant take a look at and say, ‘justify how you came up with a number that you need to be able to sort of limp along, in the best sense of that word, and financially make it for the next two years - a little bit of infusion of cash.’ So each one of those numbers has got a little different story behind it. Some of those entities, like the Shakespeare Festival, they’re quite large and significant. And then you’ve got the Aladdin Theater, also a large and significant theater in my area. And then you’ve also got the historic Rogue Theater, which only needed $60,000.
Miller: Do you see this bill as just another bit of remedial help to get these institutions through a lingering pandemic-fueled crisis or a version of new, ongoing permanent support?
Nosse: In the immediate, it’s definitely ongoing support dealing with the lingering effects of the pandemic. But the Senator pointed out, we’re 36th among the 50 states in terms of art funding. And the goal, in that listing, is to be closer to number one, not closer to the bottom. So I would hope that over time, maybe not this biennium, but in future ones we can get the arts and cultures commission budget to come up. We can do a better job in the capital construction space of supporting venues and theaters that need a remodel or a retrograde to be able to get what they need. And over time, have a little bit more state government underwriting for some of the things that these entities provide.
Miller: Dick Anderson, even in flush fiscal years, the job of being a lawmaker is about sorting through competing priorities, when it comes to budgeting. But this is not a flush fiscal year. We’re looking at about a half billion dollar shortfall between available funds and current operating levels, meaning it would cost that much just to meet the current levels. But there’s that shortfall. So, what’s that going to mean in terms of funding for the arts?
Anderson: And as you’ve already said, even in the question, it’s about priorities and what works, what has and hasn’t worked. I’ve got to just say that over my time as Mayor and now as Senator, watching state government, I’ve seen plenty of waste. We don’t seem to have a problem with wasting funds. So I’ve pushed for accountability and a better awareness of where our money is going, thus driving the priority. I think there’s enough money there. I’m confident there’s enough money there. And as I said earlier, art and culture formulates and encourages a healthier community, healthier body. It’s just something that I think is really important for the citizens of Oregon.
Miller: Dick Anderson and Rob Nosse, thanks very much. Dick Anderson is a Republican state senator from District 5. Rob Nosse is a Democratic state representative from District 42.
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