Meet Portland’s New Arts Chief, Madison Cario

By April Baer (OPB)
Portland, Ore. Feb. 5, 2019 3:45 p.m.

After an 18-month search process, Madison Cario is on the job as the new executive director of the Regional Arts and Culture Council, or RACC. And not a moment too soon.

RACC is a nonprofit, which functions under different rules than a city bureau. It operates under a contract with the city, giving out arts grants and performing several other related jobs with its $11 million budget.  The agency is trying to redefine its relationships with city leaders, the public and arts institutions.

"I think the challenges facing RACC are the challenges facing Portland." Madison Cario started work as executive director of the Regional Arts and Culture Council on Jan. 14, 2019.

"I think the challenges facing RACC are the challenges facing Portland." Madison Cario started work as executive director of the Regional Arts and Culture Council on Jan. 14, 2019.

April Baer / OPB

Cario (who identifies as queer and uses they/them pronouns) started out in the arts doing technical work in theatre and dance settings,  and administrative jobs in academia, including their last job: a position as a chief arts administrator for Georgia Tech's campus in Atlanta. We stole a few minutes with Cario, to hear their thoughts on the challenges facing the arts ecosystem, and what keeps them going.

Q&A with Madison Cario

April Baer: You and your partner have maintained a dance company throughout several decades of your professional life. What kind of work has the company performed?

Cario: We dance, we do theater, we do installations. We've performed in churches, in basements, and, of course, theaters. The work reflects whatever we're concerned about. I think our last piece was about the use of drone technology — drones and selfies, and how we are both refracting our image into multiple cells, but also providing a way to communicate and connect. It was really wonderful to watch dancers interact with a pilot.

Baer:  Do you think you'll be able to maintain the work of the company and your new job?

Cario: Absolutely. It's essential. This is part of my self-care is to continue to make work. It's an important part of who I am and it's an important way that I understand my job.


Baer: I think we can say you're the first Marine Corps veteran to lead the Regional Arts and Culture Council. Is there anything [of your time on active duty] that has stayed with you?

Cario: A lot of it stayed with me! Attention to detail has become really important — to make sure that you're paying attention to the everyday epics because that's what makes life really special. I think my love of physical activity has continued. I am a Marine, I am an artist. I am functioning in multiple modalities.

And for a long time in my life, especially in the arts world, no one knew that I was a Marine. There was a kind of a separation. I hadn't intended that, but it just kind of happened. And then I got an opportunity to be a dramaturg on a play with [Pulitzer Prize-winning writer] Paula Vogel that needed my expertise as a Marine. Artists who I'd worked with for years as a lighting designer for dance, they're like, ‘You're a Marine. I had no idea.’ What I want to bring here to RACC is this idea that we have many jobs, we have many hats and to make sure that we celebrate all of those.

Baer: What is your read on the challenges facing RACC now?

Cario: I think the challenges facing RACC are the challenges facing Portland, right? So, [lack of affordable] space, and how do we bring national attention here? Funding is always an issue; there's never enough money, but I do think space has a larger impact. Getting audiences, getting new audiences, dealing with issues of churn, and then lots of conversation around equity: What does it look like? And how will we know when we're there? what is the right balance? Whose stories and for whom?

Baer: Did you have any trepidation about coming to Portland at a time when the real estate pressures have crushed some of the city's studios and galleries and institutions, when the city's attention has been somewhat divided, and when there are differing opinions around town about what arts leadership is supposed to look like and who's supposed to be doing it?

Cario: I was excited because I think this is an opportunity. This is where arts and creativity can really shine. So how can we come up with creative solutions to different problems on hand and not to solve homelessness or houselessness per se, but how do we come together? Is it nerve-wracking? Sure. But is it exciting? Yes.

Baer: What do you feel like RACC needs out of the city as a partner?

Cario: We need to understand what the city's goals are, and maybe help set some new ones in terms of arts and culture. I think it would be great to see a real arts and culture plan and one that ties into development and it ties into urban planning. So not that it's a separate thing. So I think really integrating with the city is going to be essential and I know there's lots of agendas, right? And so how can we be of service as a standalone? And then how can the arts come in and help to highlight, to reconnect.

Baer: Does anything need to change at RACC?

Cario: That's a great question. I don't know the answer to that yet. I bet we can find ways to work more efficiently and more joyfully. I think we need a clarity of vision. We have many different programs. We need to bring them together under one vision, one journey, and set goals. I want people to know that my door's open, that I welcome all kinds of opinions. And that it's really important that we remember joy and play as we go about this often heavy work that we're doing.