Think Out Loud

Portland lays out plan for arts funding

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Aug. 1, 2023 3:21 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Aug 1

Since 1995, Portland has funded the independent Regional Arts and Culture Council to provide arts education, advocacy, and administer grant funding to local artists. Recently Commissioner Dan Ryan told RACC the city wants to do that work itself. The city provides over $6 million of RACC’s $7.5 million budget, and will let that contract expire at the end of the year. Darion Jones, Senior Policy Advisor to Commissioner Ryan on Arts, Culture and Equity, and Jeff Hawthorne, Arts Program Manager for the City of Portland join us to talk about what arts funding will look like going forward.


This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller:  This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. For nearly 30 years, a non-profit called the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) has been the city of Portland’s main partner in administering arts funding and programming. That is going to change. Portland Commissioner Dan Ryan announced recently that the city will not be renewing its contract with RACC after the end of this fiscal year. That’s 11 months from now. Last week, we talked about this looming change with RACC’s co-executive director and its interim board chair. Today we’re gonna get the city’s perspective. Darion Jones is Dan Ryan’s senior policy advisor on arts, culture, and equity. Jeff Hawthorne is Portland’s arts program manager. It’s great to have both of you on the show.

Jeff Hawthorne:  Thanks for having us.

Darion Jones:  Thanks, Dave.

Miller:  Darion Jones, first. Why did Commissioner Ryan decide to end the city’s relationship with RACC?

JonesYeah, thank you, Dave. I think it’s important to note that the city has been reflecting on its investments in the Regional Arts and Culture Council in the contract for a number of years starting in 2018 when there was an audit released by the then city auditor. And over time, the city has actually refined to “right-size” its investments. Again, in 2021 with Commissioner Carmen Rubio, when she reduced the contract to allow for better oversight of the Arts and Education Access Fund. And earlier this year, Commissioner Ryan also made an amendment to better support advocacy and fundraising for the city. I would say this change follows suit with the reality that the city is working to better support arts and culture. And this is one of the changes that has been building up for a number of years at this point.

Miller:  What specifically wasn’t RACC doing?

JonesThere are a number of compliance issues, I’d say, that we’ve had with the Regional Arts and Culture Council. And it’s not so much that it’s focusing on RACC as much as the city’s investments in arts and culture and preparing for a new form of government as we’re also preparing to advance the cultural plan that will come through the city next year. I would say the fact that the relationship with the Regional Arts and Culture Council hasn’t really been as collaborative as the city would like would be one of the reasons for that change. But ultimately, the Regional Arts and Culture Council has not really been the biggest partner with the city, I think, in the way that we want. We want to be able to invest in the arts in a more robust way.

Miller:  I’m interested in you’re talking about collaboration and partners because, as I’m sure you heard, one of the things that we heard on the show last week was challenges that RACC leaders said they were having in simply talking with Commissioner Ryan who has arts and culture in his portfolio. For folks who didn’t hear it, I want to play an excerpt from that conversation. This is Co-Executive Director Carol Tatch talking.

Carol Tatch [recording]: There’s some surprise, however, I would say because of the lessening of the attachments and the conversations, not really being able to have deep engagement with either Commissioner Rubio or Commissioner Ryan and their teams. We have not had a meeting with Commissioner Ryan, that we have set in his portfolio, since January 1st.

Miller [recording]:  And if I could just be clear, so you did request meetings?

Tatch [recording]: Yes. Oh yeah, January 1st. As soon as we found out that he was our new Arts Commissioner, I sent an email inviting that conversation as we did with Commissioner Rubio. And again, there’s that ongoing effort to even be in a space where we can have collaboration and conversation.

Miller:  Darion Jones, why didn’t Commissioner Ryan say yes to that meeting?

JonesI would say Commissioner Ryan has met with the Regional Arts and Culture Council. Even within the last seven months, he’s met with the RACC leadership and board, at least three times. The first time was in December, before the City Council rejected the Regional Arts and Culture Council’s annual report. The second time was in April when Commissioner Ryan met with RACC leadership and their board. And the most recent time was here in July when Commissioner Ryan shared a follow up around the city’s concerns that Jeff and I have actually been bringing up to RACC for a number of months at this point.

Miller:  So when they say that there were no meetings, you’re saying that’s simply not true. They did meet, correct?

JonesA simple public records request would show that Commissioner Dan Ryan met with the Regional Arts and Culture Council.

Miller:  Jeff Hawthorne, as I mentioned, is with us as well. After 17 years at RACC, for a couple of years now, you have been administering Portland’s Arts Program. What is it? I mean, what does Portland’s Arts Program do?

HawthorneWell, the Portland Arts Program was established in part to provide stronger oversight for the Regional Arts and Culture Council. This is one of the recommendations of the city audit in 2018. And what we found was that elected officials cannot always provide the kind of oversight and it’s a very large and significant contract. So that’s part of the reason why the City Arts Program was established. It’s also important that the city articulate clear goals for arts and culture and provide clear direction about what we expect RACC or any of our other contractors to do. And so that is why the City Arts Program is leading a cultural planning process to assess the state of arts and culture, not only in Portland, but in the tri-county area, the area that RACC serves, to develop a new vision for arts and culture and to establish some new goals and strategies that City Council can adopt to better support that community.

Miller:  But practically speaking, what is the city of Portland going to be doing with respect to arts and arts funding that’s different from what’s been happening for the last, say, two years. Because a lot has changed, I think, since that 2018 audit. There’s whole new leadership at RACC there, there’s new oversight. They’ve changed their policies as a response. So we’re not talking about 2018 anymore. How is what you plan to do going forward different from what RACC has done over the last year?

HawthorneYeah, we have seen changes in leadership in RACC over the last several years, several changes in leadership. And what we find now is that Portland City Council has lost some of its confidence in RACC. We see that with the report to City Council in December that actually Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and Commissioner Mingus Mapps, two Commissioners who don’t agree on a lot of things, actually voted to not accept RACC’s report because it was not responsive to the contract. And it did not share helpful information with the City Council about how the city’s dollars were being used to support arts and culture and what the impact of…

Miller:  Did the City Council then end up approving that report without more questions in March?


HawthorneIt was not approved. It has not been approved. They don’t need to come back to us for approval, but we would like to see RACC answer the questions that were raised in the City Council and they have not yet provided that information.

Miller:  What do you see as the most serious issues from that report?

JonesSome of the issues, I think that came up Dave, were around the Regional Arts and Culture Council’s finances and the fact that the leadership could not speak to Council regarding those. And they have continued to be unclear to the city, as we’ve requested information that RACC has not been able to provide.

Miller:  Starting next summer, the city is going to be in charge of spending its own arts tax money as opposed to contracting with the Regional Arts and Culture Council, RACC, which it’s been doing through an intergovernmental agreement for nearly 30 years. Jeff Hawthorne, what’s at stake in this for arts organizations, the biggest ones in the Portland metro area and individual artists?

HawthorneWell, one of the things we wanna make sure that artists and arts organizations understand is that the City of Portland is committed to maintaining its investment in them and in the arts community throughout this transition.

It would not be accurate to say that we are completely severing the relationship with or that we are defunding the arts in any way. Rather, what the City is looking to do is to reassess this contract, this very large and complex contract, that we have with RACC. We find that it’s not working for the city. RACC tells us that it’s not working for us.

So instead, what we’d like to do is to break that contract down into smaller bite size pieces and articulate a scope of work and clear accounting measures, accountability measures for those various scopes and send them out to bid. RACC can compete for those contracts. There may be other people in the community, other organizations who could compete for those contracts. And our goal at the end of the day is for the city to spend less money on RACC management and overhead expenses and spend more money on grants for artists and arts organizations.

Miller:  Let me run another excerpt from last week’s interview by you. This is from Debby Garman, Board Treasurer and interim Board Chair for RACC. Let’s have a listen to what she had to say.

Debby Garman [recording]: Well, it seems to me that honestly the city has gotten a major bargain, from the work that RACC has done on its behalf. The team at RACC who are in charge of public arts administration and grants dispersal are experts with a lot of years behind them, in connections with the depth of the arts community in the Portland metro area. And I think they’re gonna be hard pressed to find people with that same skill set. And nobody at RACC has been paid luxurious wages. You can believe it. And the nature of the current contract that is finishing up has been a consistent sort of squeezing reduction of administrative monies available for the same work or more work being asked for, in the projects. So RACC, to my mind, has been a very thrifty investment and a realm of treasure and expertise that the city may not be fully aware of.

Miller:  Jeff, there’s a lot there but just to zero in on what strikes me in this case is the most salient part. Essentially, she’s saying we’ve been doing a good job. We’ve got expertise in this and we’re doing it on the cheap, in ways that could be hard for the city to emulate on its own. What’s your response to that basic point?

Jones:  Before you come in, Jeff, I just wanna kind of really emphasize the fact that, in 28 years, the annual report from the Regional Arts and Culture Council had never been rejected by the City Council. There have been concerns regarding the relationship for a number of years and I would say there’s great work that RACC does do in the community. And the city recognizes that RACC is a partner. But over time, the city’s had to refine that contract to better deliver on the services to Portlanders. Most recently in 2021 when the Commissioner Carmen Rubio reduced oversight of the Arts and Education Access Fund with the school districts because RACC was not delivering to the school districts. So there is a need for RACC in the community, but the city, right now, is trying to “right-size” its investments to really deliver those services to the community in Portland.

Miller:  Well, Jeff, how much do you imagine that you are going to be doing your own version of what has been doing inhouse as opposed to I guess finding some other nonprofit to administer the arts tax on behalf of Portlanders?

HawthorneCommissioner Ryan has made it very clear that it is not his intention to build that bureaucracy at the city of Portland. The City Arts Program and City Council believe that it would be better to find partners to deliver grants, to provide public art and to provide other services for artists and arts organizations. That’s why we will be developing RFPs for the community to bid on.

Miller:  RFP means requests for proposals. But so, the proposals are for a group, to then win the grant, to give out tax money to artists and institutions?

HawthorneTo win the contract.

Miller:  The contract to be an arts funder on behalf of the city of Portland?

HawthorneYes. And to be clear, we believe that the Regional Arts and Culture Council has done a good job especially of reaching individual artists and distributing money to artists in the community. I could totally imagine that RACC would be a very successful bidder if we were to put it on RFP, asking for a partner to distribute half a million dollars to individual artists every year. But we will put together that RFP, we will set administrative limits because the costs that we are currently paying for management and administration are too high. Of the $4 million that the city of Portland sent to RACC this year from the general operating fund, RACC spent more than $2 million of that on management and administrative expenses. And we just think that’s too high.

Miller:  Darion Jones, I can imagine someone listening to this conversation and, and whenever someone says RFP on the show, I shudder a little bit because it’s an important way that the government works, but it’s not the way most of us think or talk. Wow, can you boil this down for us? Why do you think this should matter to Portlanders?

JonesBecause the city really wants to increase investments in artists, our creative economy and in creating the atmosphere for Portland to really shine as a center for arts and culture.

Miller:  So you’re saying that without collecting more Arts Tax money, you can sit here today saying that more money will go to artists because of this change?

JonesI could say that with a reduction in administration costs to the Regional Arts and Culture Council, there will be more available funds to go out in the community. And the city is making this change to better support the region. The contract as is, with RACC, as a sole source provider, is not working for the city at this time. There is an opportunity to create more grant makers and people who can invest and reach artists that RACC currently hasn’t been able to reach.

Miller:  And you can guarantee that, at the end, there will be a lower overhead as a result of this?

JonesThat is the goal that we’re trying to achieve right now, which seems pretty like low hanging fruit.

Miller:  Darion Jones and Jeff Hawthorne, thanks very much. Darion Jones is senior policy advisor on arts culture and equity for Commissioner Dan Ryan. Jeff Hawthorne is the city of Portland’s arts program manager.

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