Rehearsals are wrapping up this week at CoHo Theatre in Portland for “Pontypool," the story of a town in the grip of a virus that turns people into monsters, experienced from the radio booth of a disgraced former shock jock.
It's definitely not your mom's community theater production, but very little about CoHo is. The theater is more of a workshop for ideas, with no full-time directors or designers. Instead, CoHo produces plays proposed by artists in the community, giving production support and all-important stage time at its theater in Northwest Portland.
CoHo has experienced modest but steady growth as the regional theater scene has blossomed. And last year it became one of several dozen arts groups to receive regular annual payments from the Regional Arts and Culture Council, or RACC.
Philip Cuomo, CoHo's producing artistic director, says the RACC money was a huge relief.
"We chased that for many years," he said. "We're super excited about it."
RACC committed to provide CoHo with what was, at the time, about 5 percent of CoHo's budget. That may not sound like much, but it makes a difference when expenses run in in the low six figures.
"More importantly it was sort of stamp of approval," Cuomo said. "It said our organization was run competently, and we're producing theater with a quality of artistry that's of value to the greater arts and cultural community."
And that, Cuomo says, helps leverage other money.
RACC makes many kinds of grants, but most of its granting budget is made up of this general operating support. That's cash RACC pays out in predictable amounts every year for costs related to art-making. Unlike most grants, it can also be spent on less-sexy expenses like office rent, insurance or staff salaries.
“General operating support is essential," says Madison Cario, the regional arts council's executive director. "Project support is lovely and wonderful but it doesn’t keep the lights on.”
RACC has a rigorous vetting process to determine who qualifies, making sure its arts groups will be accountable in their spending. To this point, these grants have gone mostly to larger organizations — ones deemed to have a proportionally large community impact such as the Oregon Ballet Theatre and the Oregon Symphony. But those sorts of big institutions usually have staff and audiences that lean middle class and white.
On Thursday, RACC’s board voted to change that.
Starting in the 2019-2020 budget cycle, the new system offers predictable base payments for the current players. In the next year’s budget, 2020-2021, 35- to 50-percent reductions for any group with a budget of $5 million or more. Right now, that includes Portland Art Museum, the Oregon Symphony, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Portland Opera and Portland Center Stage. Reductions might or might not happen for those with budgets in the $2-$5 million range.
The change would mean a bigger pool of money for smaller groups. RACC will also create a new investment fund groups can apply to, with a rating system that scores applicants on factors like community impact and works with under-represented communities. The changes won't affect RACC partners in Washington and Clackamas counties.
All this was decided before Cario arrived as RACC's new director. But Cario says it's an important step forward.
“About five years ago, RACC and the board were called out by the community," Cario says. "And they asked for three things: more transparency, more equity and more sustainability."
Cario says the new structure is part of a multi-year effort to retool RACC, as arts tax revenue fluctuates, and public expectations about art evolve.
"Every year it's going to change," Cario says. "We don't know what we're going to get from the city from the collection, and so there's going to be this constant flux. But we're committed to this formula: two-thirds of this money will go toward the operating grants and one-third will go toward the Investment grants."
RACC has been slowly moving toward a broader distribution of resources for several years. It's a goal that dates back to Mayor Sam Adams' administration.
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who serves as city council's arts liaison, says a change is very much in line with what the city wants from RACC. She notes collections from the arts tax have under-performed. And she says she believes larger organizations have the stronger foothold that can carry them through the reductions.
"What we get in exchange is that three or more smaller organizations will start getting this essential operating support at a time when many small arts organizations are hanging on by a thread," she said. "I don't want to see us take money away from anyone.
"My impression is Portland is funding arts at a level less than comparable cities. But at this moment in time, with what we have, I think the right thing to do is to come up with a new formula and bring more organizations into the fold. But this is not the end of the story.”
The change unlocks a lot of potential. CoHo Productions’ Philip Cuomo says he wants the region's large institutions to stay strong, but "as the leader of a small professional theater, I feel like those organizations have other resources. We have the opportunity to make programming that is inclusive for people that are under-represented.
"What we need is resources to reach those folks. So if RACC is going to take money from the big five and spread it around, I think that’s a great thing.”
It's not a sure thing that smaller arts groups will succeed in navigating the granting system. And the new policy also means a sea change in relations with the city's biggest arts employers, none of whom appear ready to fight the plan.
Scott Showalter, the president of the Oregon Symphony, says he's received no official notice of cuts but has heard the general outlines. A 50 percent reduction, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars less per year, would have profound consequences.
"I think of Portland as a great city, and great cities should support the full ecosystem of arts and culture: education in the schools, artists of all types, organizations of all sizes," he said. "I'm disheartened."
Showalter declined to speculate exactly what effect the new structure might have on symphony operations.
In recent years, when the city cut funding for a yearly waterfront concert. The symphony was not able to make up the difference in fundraising.
Portland Art Museum Director Brian Ferriso provided a written statement:
"We have been, and will continue to be, grateful for Portland’s support of the Museum through the Arts Education and Access Fund. As a recipient of general operating support, we use those dollars to maintain and strengthen our learning and community partnership programs."
Ferriso said in his statement that RACC money allowed PAM to make deeper and more lasting partnerships with underserved community organizations and provide free school admission for kids.
"We cannot," he writes, "be certain about how reductions in general operating support will affect the Museum until we begin budgeting for 2021 fiscal year."
Over the past few years, entities as large as the Ford Foundation or as regionally focused as the Meyer Memorial Trust have made changes aimed at getting resources to communities that have traditionally been left out. This week, New York City's Museum of Modern Art in New York announced it's closing down to re-arrange its galleries and focus on women, Latinos, Asians, African-Americans and others.
An auditor's report on RACC last year pointed out several outstanding issues with RACC and its relationship with the city, calling for clearer direction and more accountability. The report's language alluded that this change was coming. But it stopped short of concluding whether RACC's equity shift stands in line with the city's goals — largely because the city's conversation about what it wants out of the arts remains unspoken.