Portland city auditors say the city needs to focus its relationship with the non-profit that handles arts funding and policy.

The Regional Arts and Culture Council or RACC is different than the city bureaus. It gets money from the city budget but functions under its own volunteer governing board. It also performs some advocacy work, in addition to administering arts grants in Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas Counties.

The Regional Arts and Culture Council provides ongoing operating money for established arts groups, like Oregon Ballet Theatre, as well as project grants and technical support for individual artists and smaller groups.

The Regional Arts and Culture Council provides ongoing operating money for established arts groups, like Oregon Ballet Theatre, as well as project grants and technical support for individual artists and smaller groups.

Aaron Scott/OPB

RACC is in-between directors at the moment. Commissioner Nick Fish and Mayor Ted Wheeler asked the Auditor’s office to figure out if the agency is meeting its contract obligations to the city.  

Jenny Scott, a senior management auditor for the city, says there’s one big impediment to answering that question. The city has no clear goals for arts and culture.

“The last plan,” Scott notes “was a regional one, Act for Art, in 2009. What we were looking for was a statement about what the city wanted to achieve. Many other cities including Denver, San Jose and Chicago have arts and culture plans which state the vision and strategy for that jurisdiction’s arts and culture work.”

Beyond that, auditors looked at how well RACC is delivering on its standing city contract. Auditors found RACC is delivering services, Scott said, but leaves much room for improvement.

Regional Arts and Culture Council: Clear City goals aligned with strong Arts Council strategy will improve arts and culture services

What began as an audit of RACC services became an inquiry about Portland’s broader goals for the arts.

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Some of the vagaries stem from the language of the city contract.

“Many elements of it”, Scott said, “are vague and hard to measure.” For example, no one’s tracking provisions about RACC’s equity work and leadership with an eye to performance. There’s some disagreement on what metrics RACC should monitor to assess impact of the Arts Education and Access fund (Portland’s arts tax) in the city’s schools. Even the RACC contract itself has remained unexamined for years, with no city staffers assigned to oversee its implementation — a rarity among non-profits charged with doing the city’s business.

In practical terms, Scott said, there’s little oversight at the city of how RACC spends its money.

Commissioner Nick Fish notes, in years past, since RACC is a semi-autonomous agency with a fiduciary board, many city leaders thought, “We give them the money, they figure out how to spend it, and then they’re audited. They’ve been getting a clean bill of health every year from their outside auditor.”

But now, with RACC in transition, Fish concludes the audit raises a more fundamental question about long-term goals. And, he hints, that question might be answered in part, by Portlanders.

“We’re going to go through a process of engaging a whole community.”

It’s not clear whether that process would happen before or after RACC’s search committee hires a new director. A slimmed-down search committee aims to review more job candidates in July.

Council will discuss the report today.