Can $50 million in emergency funding make the arts equitable in Oregon?

By John Notarianni (OPB)
July 20, 2020 1 p.m.

In March, stages across the Pacific Northwest abruptly turned out the lights.


From major institutions to tiny neighborhood music venues and intimate theaters, live dance, music and theater performances vanished as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.

It’s been catastrophic for Oregon’s arts ecosystem, as venue owners and performance companies have scrambled to determine when — if ever — they could reopen.

Last week, at least some of these organizations finally found relief. The Oregon Legislature’s Emergency Board

earmarked $50 million

to aid music, culture, and community venues and organizations around the state that have been forced to close because of COVID-19.

Related: Oregon Lawmakers Greenlight Aid To Unemployed Workers, Black-owned Businesses

Funded through the state's allocation of federal CARES Act funding, roughly half the money would go to major institutions and 78 independent venues, with an aim of providing operations support for seven months.

It will support major institutions like the Oregon Symphony, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Pendleton Roundup. It also funds diverse private and nonprofit venues like the heavy-metal oriented Hawthorne Theater and the subterranean jazz club Jack London Revue.

The rest of the money will be distributed through the Oregon Business Development Department for grants to other music, culture and community venues and organizations that didn’t receive grants directly.


But while this unprecedented spending on arts and culture institutions is a lifeline for most of these organizations, experts think it doesn’t come close to meeting the need this pandemic has caused.

"The actual economic distress is probably five-fold, to be conservative," said Subashini Ganesan. She's a choreographer and the founder of the performing arts venue New Expressive Works, which will receive about $25,000 from the grant.

Ganesan is also the creative laureate of Portland, a job that puts her in a unique position to have a broad view of the state's creative economy.

“Just because these organizations have been chosen ... there is a huge group of organizations who have not been awarded the money in this round,” she said.

Ganesan said the venues and organizations that received funding tended to be those with the closest relationships to institutional power. That presents a clear equity problem: the groups facing the greatest needs tend to have weaker relationships with traditional institutions—and are much more likely to be led and patronized by marginalized groups.

She hopes this can change as the rest of the relief money is distributed.

“The question that several of us have,” Ganesan said, "is how we can really be thoughtful about using the money and providing resources for those who are not involved; especially Black, Indigenous Latinx, Asian & people of color arts organizations who don’t have venues and who don’t really have a voice at the table.”

On the other hand, Ganesan said, the pandemic has given a lot of cultural organizations a different precious resource: time. She said conversations about race, equity and gate-keeping are happening in the arts nonprofit world with a depth and seriousness that's impossible during a busy season focused on scheduling performances and selling tickets.

She points to the fundamental structure of how arts nonprofits operate, with professional arts administrators receiving executive salaries to distribute money to artists.

“There’s a power structure and security structure there that I believe is being questioned and being asked for dismantling and disruption, that artists are producing the mission, but the arts administrators have more stability," she said.

“That discussion is happening,” she added.

At her most optimistic, Ganesan envisions a future where the power structures of who makes art — and who gets paid for it — could be fundamentally disrupted, creating a new, more equitable system.

“We have artists being able to come together to build mission statements and build demands … really saying, 'Here are the things that we are concerned about that we’ve never been able to raise, so let’s work on this together so we can all be raised as an industry.'”