Reset Time: Arts, Business Interface In Metro Portland

By April Baer (OPB)
Portland, Oregon Aug. 27, 2015 10:15 p.m.

This week, nonprofit Business for Culture and the Arts closed up shop.

Third Rail's Maureen Porter and Sam Dinkowitz in the preview of "Static".

Third Rail's Maureen Porter and Sam Dinkowitz in the preview of "Static".

Courtesy of Third Rail Rep

The group’s members worked for nearly 30 years building bridges between the arts and business communities in the Portland metro area. But the board and its members are scheduled to vote Thursday to dissolve operations, handing over some of its programs to the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC).

“The business environment today is just different than it was 30 years ago,” Parker Lee said.

BCA's Breakfast of Champions event thanks corporate donors to the arts who go above and beyond.

BCA's Breakfast of Champions event thanks corporate donors to the arts who go above and beyond.

Courtesy of Business for Culture and the Arts

Lee is — perhaps we should say "was" — the chair of the BCA Board. He said BCA unraveled slowly as it became harder to convince corporate citizens to pay membership dues.

“We were spending about 40-50 percent of the organization’s energy just trying to maintain that business model,” he said.

Oregon’s business community is not an insignificant player in non-profit funding and arts patronage. But just three companies in Oregon list enough gross revenue to merit Fortune 500 ratings - Nike, Precision Castparts, and Lithia Motors.

Only a handful of companies even have fully-staffed philanthropic operations.

Max Miller is a partner at Tonkon Torp. He’s done a ton of arts volunteer work, including time chairing the BCA Board. He said there are challenges to getting corporations to step up for the arts.

“Starting with my generation, the schools have set arts as something other than core curriculum,' Miller said. "It’s been branded as an extra. I think that has flowed through to the current biz community."

Miller said he thinks some arts advocacy organizations have not done a particularly good job branding the arts as crucial. Business, he said, has a role to play.

Miller has agreed to help lead a new RACC committee in the post-BCA environment. Just to make it easy for you to remember, the new committee is called the Business Committee for the Arts. It’s the new BCA.

Miller said the first priority is to help RACC assimilate the old BCA programs, like a training course that gets young professionals ready to serve on non-profit boards, and an annual Breakfast of Champions thanking top corporate donors.

He also wants to aim at broadening the ways businesses get involved in arts. So what might that look like?

We went looking for some ways arts and business are working together, outside the structure of BCA or RACC. In May, Third Rail Repertory Theatre staged a preview performance of “Static,” an edgy love story, to mostly bank customers.

"We’ve known Third Rail for some time," Susan Kane said, a relationship manager with Commerce Bank of Oregon. "They approached us a few years ago on how we could partner."

But Commerce Bank was interested in more than just writing checks. Maureen Porter is a Third Rail company actress who also does Community Engagement for the theater.

"They said let’s get people who may not know your work into your theater. We came up with this idea to do preview night," she said. "Commerce Bank of Oregon could invite customers and clients, and we could provide them with this show."


Commerce Bank bought 150 tickets for a preview performance, offered them to clients, and hosted a cocktail hour before the show: instant revenue for the theater, instant engagement with clients for the bank.

But does it work for both partners?

Real estate broker Rudy Puente is one of the bank’s clients. He’d never been to a Third Rail show before.

“This is my first,” he said. Puente's wife has been on the board of another theater company in town. He's the kind of guy already disposed to go see a show.

“I think it’s an excellent match for what the Commerce Bank is doing," Puente said. "They’re providing those who attend an opportunity for those who attend to network each other, and meet other like-minded people.”

Third Rail doesn’t have numbers on who came back, but the company considers the partnership such a success that, with Commerce Bank’s help, another corporate partner has been lined up, Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider, for more preview shows starting this fall.

As for the bank, there’s another guy on Susan Kane’s team, David Nijawan, who found this strategy so successful, he’s been taking his clients to modern dance events.

“Some people give me this look," he said. "I’m 235 pounds and built like a rugby player, I’m not your typical prototype of someone who’d go to dance.”

But Nijawan said, in industries like banking, law, and accounting, where competitors spend thousands a month on lunches and cocktail hours to build relationships with clients, the arts pencil out.

"From a cost effectiveness standpoint it’s a no-brainer. You can pay $5,000 for a table at an event, or you can do what we do."

There are other companies experimenting with engagement beyond a traditional donation.

Intel buys blocks of tickets to the Oregon Symphony — 12,000 tickets since 2010. The tickets are handed out to employees as a perk of the job.

And the burgeoning tech industry is another area arts leaders would like to tap. Thousands of metro-area jobs have sprung up in software and related fields. But only a few tech firms give locally. An even smaller circle give specifically to the arts.

One of the new kids on the corporate scene, the push notification juggernaut Urban Airship, this year helped people get connected with Piano. Push. Play. — that's a non-profit that places pianos in public spaces. An Urban Airship designer, working for free, made an app that lets people identify Piano. Push. Play.’s nearby public keyboards as they move around town.

There may be an affinity in the tech community for creative work, but most companies don’t have any systematic community engagement.

Getting in touch with younger industries has been identified as a priority by RACC as it absorbs some of BCA’s functions.

“BCA has been very well established with very established businesses, the big ones, the banks, the law firms," Eloise Damrosch, RACC’s executive director, said. "That’s really important but we all know there’s a huge influx of younger people.  I’d like to see artists serve in a residency capacity.”

A more experiential approach, she thinks, is a better fit for younger companies.

Damrosch said RACC has always wanted to deepen its involvement with the business community, which is why they’re picking up parts of BCA’s programming.

"But," she added, "we also knew we didn’t have bandwidth or desire to take on the whole ball of wax. We picked carefully the ones we thought connected best with us and our mission, and which we’re doing well."

Like the training program for prospective board members and the annual arts and business breakfast.

RACC’s new Business Committee for the Arts is still forming, but the preliminary line-up meets next week. Damrosch said beyond the transition, the committee may approach engaging newer businesses. They're the key to harmonizing Portland's identity as a vibrant creative city with a need for more corporate support for the arts.